Extensive Reading in the EFL Class
(Extensive Reading in Practice Colloquium)

JALT International Conference, Shizuoka. Japan.
Room 1001-2; Time: 3:15-5:00pm, 3rd November 2000
Ronan Brown, Seinan Gakuin University, Fukuoka.

1. Extensive Reading

To read extensively means to read widely and in quantity. In the context of teaching modern languages, Harold Palmer and Michael West established the theory and practice of extensive reading (ER) as an approach to foreign language teaching in general, and to the teaching of foreign language reading in particular (Bamford & Day, 1997).

The ability to read fluently in a foreign language is one of the main criteria of competence in that langauge. If students can develop the habit of reading widely for enjoyment and interest, they benefit not only by increased confidence and fluency, but may also take with them the life-long habit of reading in a foreign language.

ER in a foreign language involves the following:

  • reading widely;
  • reading long texts;
  • reading for global understanding, not detail.


These conditions stand in stark contrast to those of intensive reading, which generally involves the careful reading and/or translation of shorter more difficult texts with the goal of complete and detailed understanding. Two major problems with an over-emphasis of traditional, intensive approaches are that: students become more concerned with the meanings of individual words and sentences rather than the meaning of the text; and they read very little because the process is so painstaking. An unfortunate consequence is that many students go on to associate reading in a foreign language as a pointless struggle, or perpetuated is the myth that: no reading pain, no reading gain.

In practical terms, ER means reading a lot of books, eg. one/two graded readers a week. The more books read, the more skillful and fluent students become. Automacity of decoding, that is, the bottom-up process of instantaneous word recognition upon which fluency and true comprehension depends, is the result of practice. Immersion in meaningful texts such as those in the fiction genres of adventure, detection and mystery, romance, and human interest is possibly the best means by which students can develop confidence and fluency in reading long texts. However, these texts must be easy enough for students to read with 95% understanding without a dictionary (Hill, 1998). For beginners, one unknown word per page might be an appropriate limit; other students could limit themselves to five unknown words per page (Day & Bamford, 1998).

Furthermore, the books must be well written and interesting, which seems to be the tendency recently, as publishers of language learner literature have come in for considerable criticism for poorly written titles in their ranges (see, eg. Hill & Thomas, ELT Journal 42/1, 42/2, 43/3, 47/3; Hill, 51/1, 1997). A good story, well told will encourage students to read, and they will be led through the text by that basic human desire to discover what happens next. For instance, the students in a British Culture Studies class which I taught last semester had an unprecedented interest in the murder-mystery/whodunnit genre, particulary Sherlock Holmes stories. So much so that I plundered my graded-reading library, built a mini-library of bloodhound fiction and attached an add-on ER program to the main course. Required reading for enjoyment, though it was, the students were absorbed in trying to sort out clues, discount red herrings, work out motives for the crimes, follow the private eye’s modus operandi, and then try to solve the mystery before all was revealed at the end. Many students chose to write lengthy reviews when all that was required was a brief reaction report: they simply loved their outside reading assignments.

Thus, in fiction the interest and clarity of the plot, and the liveliness of the characterisation are paramount if students are to become absorbed. The best simplification-type graded readers are carefully composed re-creations, which are faithful to the essence of the original, reflecting its themes and atmosphere, but which have their own structure and vitality. Example titles include: Heinemann’s The Grapes of Wrath; Oxford’s The Songs of Distant Earth; and Penguin’s The Diary of a Young Girl. The worst are summaries that simply report the events of the original, and confuse students as each new page is crammed with countless characters, often appearing in swishpan-paced action sequences. Examples include, Penguin’s Get Shorty; The Pelican Brief; and Farewell, My Lovely .

Therefore, avoided should be books which are overloaded with information, and in which the relationships of time, cause and effect are not clear. At higher levels, the interest and relevance of the theme and writer’s purpose are issues students may also want to consider.

2. The Benefits of Extensive Reading

Extensive reading can play an effective role in developing the components upon which fluent reading and true comprehension depends: a large sight vocabulary; a large general vocabulary; knowledge of how the target language is used; knowledge of various text-types; and increased knowledge of the world in which we live.

The development of a large sight vocabulary is usefully interpreted as the overlearning of words to the point that they are automatically recognized in print (Day & Bamford, 1998). One way to do this is to read widely. It is important that L2 readers repeatedly meet words with which they already have some familiarity. This is because vocabulary learning is not an all-or-nothing type of learning; rather it is a gradual process of one encounter with a word adding to and strengthening the small amounts of information gained from previous encounters. If the small amount of learning of a word is not soon after reinforced by another encounter, then that learning will be lost (Nation, 1997). ER provides students with opportunities to meet words they have met before. As a result of multiple encounters, all the information about the printed word, eg. its semantic, syntactic, phonological, and orthographic properties are consolidated into a highly cohesive whole. This word then enters the reader’s sight vocabulary. Familiarity leads to automacity. Automacity to speed and fluency.

Encouraging learners to read extensively texts that match, or are slightly below, their reading abilities will enhance fluency, recover lost confidence and begin to provide enjoyment in reading. This is quite a welcome departure for most; moreover, many students may find that they need to drop the habit of “yakudoku” (literally, translation-reading) a routine learned in traditional high-school English classes. As Hino (1988) points out: “The yakudoku habit is clearly a severe handicap for the Japanese student. It limits the speed at which the student reads, induces fatigue, and reduces the efficiency with which s/he is able to comprehend. The meaning of a text is obtained via Japanese translation, and is only an approximation of the original”.

This tradition of using the grammar-translation method to teach EFL is still quite prevalent in Japan today, and as such it continues to be at odds with the process of acquiring English or reading it fluently. For students who want to be able to really read in English, ER is one good approach.

ER in turn discourages over-dependency on dictionaries, as students begin to develop a tolerance for a few unknown words. Once they realize that all new words at each level are carefully contexualized, repeated, and sometimes glossed, they can be weaned off excessive dictionary use. At this stage, students can deploy the valuable skill of guessing the meaning of an unknown word, and later have that guess verified on the word’s next occurance. Related to this is the raising of students’ tolerance for a degree of ambiguity in the text: they must accept that the meaning will become clear as they read on. Treating the text as a puzzling crime to be gradually unravelled by a clever and patient sleuth is an image that may get the point across.

ER exploits a major teaching resource: the 1,400 graded-reader titles that are currently in print (EPER, 1998). This genre, also known aslanguage learner literature, (analagous to young adult literature) is, as Hill, 1997 puts it, “…the most versatile resource ever developed for teaching a language.”

This coupled with the fact that the majority of titles available are fiction is, moreover, advantageous for the following reasons:

  1. Non-fiction, with the exceptions of travel writing and biography, is not suitable for extensive reading as it employs expository prose, which is much harder to read than narrative intermixed with dialogue.
  2. Knowledge of the world presented in fiction is shared across cultures. Everyone knows about romance, crime and adventure because they are part of the human condition.
  3. There is infinite variety in the settings, characters, plots and themes, so no two stories are the same.
  4. Reading fiction at the right level of difficulty does not require a high level of concentration; books can be read on the bus or train, in the park or in bed.
  5. Romances, comedies, thrillers, or ghost stories often provide a welcome change, and possibly a means of escape, from a curriculum that is over-burdened with non-fiction subjects.Thus the affective side of human nature is catered for.
  6. Fiction discusses important contemporary issues, eg. the environment, racial prejudice, moral integrity, childhood, etc.
  7. Finally, the desire to discover what happens next is the perfect stimulus to read for meaning without concentrating on the text, and thus allows students to absorb the language unconsciously (Hill, 1998).

Finally, one of the main desirable outcomes that designers of ER Programs often incorporate in their mission statements is the following, eloquently expressed by Bamford (1993):

The end is the time when students are silently at one with the written word while seated at a desk at school, standing on a crowded train, or streched out on the floor at home over an open book, unaware that the written words are in English.


Bamford, J. 1993. Beyond grammar translation: Teaching students to really read.

In P. Wadden (Ed.) A handbook for teaching English at Japanese colleges and universities. New York: Oxford University Press

Bamford, J. & Day, R. 1997. Extensive reading: What is it? Why bother? The Language Teacher, 21/5

Day, R. & Bamford, J. 1998. Extensive reading in the second language classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

EPER, 1998. List of graded readers, Current titles IALS: University of Edinburgh (See the Edinburgh Project on Extensive Reading. Web:http://www.ials.ed.ac.uk/epermenu.html)

Hill, D. 1997. Survey review: Graded readers. ELT Journal, 51/1

Hill, D. 1998. Teaching guide for Jane Eyre. IALS: University of Edinburgh

Hino, N. 1988. Yakudoku: Japan’s dominant tradition in foreign language learning. JALT Journal, 10/1-2

Nation, P. 1997. The language learning benefits of extensive reading. The Language Teacher, 21/5