Are Your ELLs Getting Enough of This Crucial Source of Language Input?

Pardon the clickbait phrasing of the title, but it seems to have gotten you reading, and this post is all about just that: getting students to read. Below, I’ll be talking about extensive reading (ER), a practice that researchers and theorists unanimously endorse, but which too seldom makes its way into the classroom. First, I’ll talk about what ER is and why it’s so important, then we’ll proceed through the remaining wh-s and wrap up with a how.

What is Extensive Reading? So, extensive reading is a technical term, but it’s actually rather descriptive as well: It means reading at great length. We can get a little more specific than that, though. It’s reading a lot of easy texts of one’s own selection, primarily for pleasure. If we want to put some numbers on it, an “easy” text is one in which 98–100% of the vocabulary is known, and “at great length” means at least 20 minutes at a stretch, but really as much as possible.

In understanding what ER is, it’s important to contrast it with intensive reading (IR). IR is reading dense, challenging texts, often with an objective, such as paraphrasing or scanning for a particular piece of information. The distinction from IR is so important because English learners generally get plenty of IR. Virtually all the reading sections in a student’s coursebook are IR activities. And IR is great; it has plenty of benefits, but those benefits are emphatically not the same as the benefits of ER, which we’ll discuss in the next section.

Why is ER Important? One of the key factors in language acquisition that we see again and again is comprehensible input. In order to develop their language, students need to be taking in and understanding that language, the more of it the better. Pretty much everyone agrees that comprehensible input is a necessary condition for language acquisition. Some—such as Stephen Krashen, originator of the input hypothesis—go so far as to argue that comprehensible input like ER is both a necessary and sufficient condition for language acquisition. In other words, forget teachers and textbooks and all that—the comprehensible input alone is enough for language acquisition to occur.

Personally, I’m also convinced that ER is a key to addressing the issue of plateauing. Learners often plateau around the 3,000-word level, and it’s around 2,000 words that we use in day-to-day speech. Though I’m speculating here, this makes a lot of sense to me. All English learners are getting that 2,000 words of comprehensible input from spoken language. They aren’t all getting the thousands of others that we find primarily in written English. How can we expect acquisition to continue if the stream of comprehensible input is suddenly cut off?

Who? Everyone. Native speakers and ELLs; young learners and adults; those whose L1 uses a Roman alphabet and those whose don’t. There’s a whole lot of research into the benefits of ER, and it benefits pretty much every one of us.

When? All the time, as often as possible, now. What are you doing here! Stop reading this and go read something!

Where? On the subway, on the couch, in bed, in a rocking chair, on the porch, at a cafe, Everywh—alright, not everywhere; it is inadvisable to read extensively while driving or operating heavy machinery, but self-driving cars are just a few years away…

How to make ER happen? As I said, despite all its benefits and all the research, ER simply isn’t happening enough in the language classroom. The reasons for this can vary from context to context, and as a teacher it’s worth investigating and considering the particular obstacles that your learners face, but there are some general observations and recommendations we can make.

One of the first things you need to provide your students with is access to a wide range of appropriate reading material. The best option for this is graded readers, which you can read more about in this previous post.

It is also important to incorporate classroom activities that encourage extensive reading. To reiterate, these will not be reading for the main idea or reading to paraphrase or any of the reading activities that we most often see. ER activities should be designed to help students to understand the importance of ER, to find material that is level-appropriate and of interest to them, to set reading goals for themselves, to find more opportunities to read, and to apply what they have read after the fact. Here are a few quick examples of effective ER activities:

  1. After reading their books, students circulate in class, speed-dating style, telling each new partner about the book they have read. Partners record title, brief notes, and whether they would like to read this book.
  2. Groups are given five to seven copies of book cover illustrations and the five to seven corresponding back cover synopses. In small groups they are to discuss and match each front and back cover.
  3. Students learn about and apply the five-finger reading test to three to four books from the library, determining and recording which books are best matched to their fluent reading level.

These examples come from Bamford and Day’s excellent Extensive Reading Activities for Teaching Language, a fantastic resource for anyone hoping to put together an extensive reading program. Another great resource is the Extensive Reading Foundation, which even organizes an Extensive Reading World Congress (how many pedagogical practices have entire international conventions dedicated to them!?). Finally the publishers of graded readers have actually put together some really solid teacher resources for ER. Oxford has a great set of placement tests free for download (login required), Macmillan has this great guide for using readers in class, and Cambridge has a whole mess of stuff from reading certificates to lesson plans if you create a login.

I’m currently putting together an extensive reading curriculum at our community English program, and I’ll be sure to share more on that in the future. Until then, happy reading!

About Robert Sheppard

Robert Sheppard
Over the past 10 years, Rob has explored a variety of roles and contexts in the field. These include the cram-school culture of Taiwan and Korea; IEPs in Boston focused on academic English; advanced conversation and TOEFL prep taught via Skype to students in Japan; and nonprofit, community English programs for immigrants to Greater Boston. He currently serves as sr. director of adult programs at Quincy Asian Resources, a member of the community advisory council at First Literacy, and a curriculum consultant at Boston Global Institute. He has a master’s degree in TESOL from The New School, and his areas of interest include adult ed, pronunciation and grammar instruction, curriculum development, and assessment.
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6 Responses to Are Your ELLs Getting Enough of This Crucial Source of Language Input?

  1. Chris James says:

    Dear Robert,

    I really enjoyed your post. Last year I was invited to facilitate a workshop at Feng Chia University in Taichung, Taiwan during their first annual Extensive Reading conference. Everyone was very enthusiastic about ER and it was a pleasure to prepare for my session and it ended up featuring some of the student-centered activities you mentioned.

    Along with putting together professional development sessions while being a graduate student I also teach young learners in a private language institute here in Taiwan. I see from your bio that you had an interest in Taiwanese and Korean cram school culture, which I am a part of. How can I effectively encourage ER in general and ER feedback activities with a group of students with very different reading proficiency levels?

    If you have any time at all, I would love you hear your thoughts.


    • Robert Sheppard Robert Sheppard says:

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Chris!

      That is a tough question you pose. A lot of aspects of the cram school culture, as you know, are going to be somewhat at odds with the spirit of extensive reading, at least as it’s discussed here. The first thing that comes to mind is that any true ER project in a buxiban would need buy-in from the top to be successful (to get funding for a library, to get L1 teachers involved, to dedicate class time to it). This is especially true when you’ve got students of different reading levels, who need to be able to choose level-appropriate texts.

      Still, I think there are some options. For one thing, it’s worth noting that a ‘story time’ in which the teacher reads to students, confers the vast majority of the benefits of ER. So this should definitely be continued past kindergarten age.

      One of the biggest things I would try to focus on with younger learners is establishing a culture in which reading is cool and fun, which is probably a lot easier under, say, age 11. The biggest part of this, in my opinion, is finding materials that truly engage students. Stephen Krashen actually recently wrote a great article about how manga achieved this for one student, and it seems relevant. However, in a culture where many students will read manga and little else, I would put some effort into helping students to enjoy text-based stories. This might mean encouraging them to draw their own illustrations for stories, or dramatizing and performing them as a class.

      These are just some scattered ideas, but the biggest thing for me would be trying to get the students into a positive mindset about reading and developing a culture of reading. I hope this helps some!

  2. Yvonne says:

    Excellent post.

    1.) ER reading encourages “reading for pleasure.” Even native English speakers need to work on this! Forcing oneself to read at longer lengths, text which is at your level can be extremely beneficial.

    2.) ER reading would also create an intrinsic desire and motivation for participants to do this activity on their own. This is because they would be choosing text which is “of interest” to them and not overly challenging.

    I completely agree with this post and I often incorporate this idea with my own family at home. 20-30 minutes, of silent reading on whatever we want. This actually reminds me of a cardio workout. You can’t do cardio for 5 minutes and expect a change. It is better to do your cardio for a longer period of time and not let your heart rate go over a certain amount (not push yourself too hard).

  3. Nurwahida says:

    Dear Prof. Sheppard,

    I am Nurwahida. Thank you very much for sharing this article. It is really interesting and inspiring.
    I have been interested in using ER in my reading calls that I have just started two weeks ago.
    However, I was wondering whether we should or not assess the ER as the main purpose of ER is reading for pleasure.
    If Yes, then how to conduct the assessment?

    Thank you.

    • Robert Sheppard Robert Sheppard says:

      Hi Nurwahida!

      It’s great that you’re looking into implementing ER in your class. By its nature, ER doesn’t involve any assessment. With very few exceptions, including any sort of assessment would make it no longer ER. Day and Bamford (two key writers on ER) list as one of their 10 features of the ER approach that reading should be “a reward in itself,” and I agree.

      I hope this helps! Thanks for reading!


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