Handout from the Extensive Reading Forum
JALT ’98, Omiya, Japan
Sunday, November 22, 1998

Definition, Theory, Benefits And Evidence

What is extensive reading?

  • Extensive Reading usually means reading a lot of self-selected easy, interesting texts, and doing few or no exercises afterwards.
  • Extensive Reading is a way to teach a foreign language (in general) and a way to teach reading (in particular).

The theory behind extensive reading

  • Reading begins with automatic recognition of words. Students become able to do this only through massive amounts of practice (see Koda 1996; Paran 1996). (Beniko Mason: 500 pages a semester can make a significant difference in reading and writing fluency.)
  • By experiencing language in context, students deepen their knowledge of vocabulary and grammar in use. (See Coady 1997; Nation 1997)
  • Successful individual reading experiences promote learner autonomy which leads to “learning success and enhanced motivation” (Dickinson 1995: 174).

The evidence for the benefits of extensive reading

Studies (e.g. Mason & Krashen 1997) show that by reading a lot of interesting texts, foreign language students

  • learn new vocabulary and review old vocabulary (see Coady 1997)
  • improve their attitude toward reading and language learning
  • improve their writing ability
  • learn to read more fluently

(See also Hafiz & Tudor 1989, Robb & Susser 1989, Tudor & Hafiz 1989, Elley 1991, Krashen 1993)

Language teachers say “any ESL, EFL, or L1 classroom will be poorer for the lack of an extensive reading programme of some kind. . . . This is true at every level” (Colin Davis, 1995: 335).

Reading experts say “One major way to round out a reading program is to introduce extensive reading material into the curriculum” (William Grabe, 1986: 43).


Coady, J. 1997. L2 vocabulary acquisition through extensive reading. In J. Coady & T. Huckin. (eds.), Second language vocabulary acquisition: A rationale for pedagogy (pp. 225-237). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. .

Davis, C. 1995. Extensive reading: An expensive extravagance? ELT Journal, 49, 4, 329-336.

Dickinson, L. 1995. Autonomy and motivation: A literature review. System, 23, 2, 165-174.

Elley, W. B. 1991. Acquiring literacy in a second language: The effect of book-based programs. Language Learning, 41, 3, 375-411.

Grabe, W. 1986. The transition from theory to practice in teaching reading. In F. Dubin, D. E. Eskey & W. Grabe (eds.), Teaching second language reading for academic purposes (pp. 25-48). Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.

Hafiz, F. M. & Tudor, I. 1989. Extensive reading and the development of language skills. ELT Journal, 43, 1, 4-11.

Koda, K. 1996. L2 word recognition research: A critical review. Modern Language Journal, 80, 4, 450-460.

Krashen, S. 1993. The power of reading. Insights from the research. Englewood, CO.: Libraries Unlimited.

Mason, B. & Krashen, S. 1997. Extensive reading in English as a foreign language. System, 25, 1, 91-102.

Nation, P. 1997. The language learning benefits of extensive reading. The Language Teacher, 21, 5, 13-16.

Paran, A. 1996. Reading in EFL: Facts and fictions. ELT Journal, 50, 1, 25-34.

Robb, T. N. & Susser, B. 1989. Extensive reading vs skills building in an EFL Context. Reading in a Foreign Language, 5, 2, 239-51.

Tudor, I. & Hafiz, F. 1989. Extensive reading as a means of input to L2 learning. Journal of Research in Reading, 12, 2, 164-178.

Integrating Extensive Reading Into The Curriculum

A class in itself

An extensive reading class can be added to the curriculum. Students read both in class and for homework.

An addition to another class

Students can read self-selected easy and interesting books for homework in any foreign language course or reading course. It can be part of the course requirement, or for extra credit, or just because students want to. (Marc: This also works as an addition to content classes related to American or British culture. Build a library of related graded readers and require a certain number of pages to be read each term. Students contrast what they read to Japanese culture.)

  • In universities, high schools, etc., students check out books from the class or school library
  • In language schools, part-time teachers can carry a small library of books to their classes and spread them out on a desk, inviting students to take them home to read.

An extracurricular activity

Extensive reading can be an after-school activity in a junior high school/high school English Club or university ESS. Club activities can include reading marathons, as well as story telling and other ways of sharing the books.

An environment

Fill your school or office or lounge with enticing, colorful magazines, newspapers and books. Create a relaxed, casual, stimulating environment. Read yourself. Clip articles, pictures, cartoons to post or hand to appropriate students. Make it impossible for your students not to want to read.

Introducing extensive reading to your students:

  • Orientation. Explain the benefits of reading a lot of easy books without using a dictionary (see Welch 1997)
  • Role-model. If students see the teacher reading, they will believe that reading is useful and enjoyable. Teachers can read material in a foreign language they are studying, or the books the students read.


Welch, R. 1997. Introducing extensive reading. The Language Teacher, 21, 5, 51-53.


Making a library

The core of any extensive reading program is a library of varied, attractive books at an appropriate language level for your students.

Difficulty level / Dictionaries

An average of three or four unknown words per page, or less, means a book can be read fluently. When students encounter unknown words, suggest they guess or ignore them as they do when reading in their own language. Dictionaries should normally NOT be consulted as this disturbs fluent reading.

Keeping track of books

You need to some way to keep track of the books:

  • A class library (i.e., you and the students keep track of them)
  • The school library does it (usually easier for you).

Follow-up to reading

  • Written reports. Either a brief summary of the story or the student’s opinion of the story or both. (Marc: I encourage students to write quickly. I don’t want them to spend a lot of time on grammar, spelling, etc. If they have more time, I’d rather have them read another book. I quickly read the reports each week and use a rubber stamp to mark them “OK.” At times I’ll add a question or note to let the students know that I really do read them.)

The following form can be used for written reports (from Day & Bamford, 1998, p. 147, permission to copy):

Report Form

Sample Completed Report Form

  • Oral reports. Marc often does “instant oral reports” in pairs or small groups with various activities to encourage students to talk to each other about the books. For ideas, see Helgesen 1997.
  • Native-language reports or no reports. Students are reading in the foreign language but can report in their native language. Or, Beniko now wonders, “Are reports necessary at all?”

Giving grades

If you are giving grades, figure out how you are going to count the reading. It will usually be by numbers of books or pages read. (If pages, it can either be “real pages” or “weighted pages.” See “Reading for Pleasure” in Handout #2 of this presentation for information on page weighting.) Set up a scale to give you the point ranges (e.g. 12 books = 60 points; 13 books = 65 points. . . or 500 – 524 pages = 60 points, 524-549 = 61 points, and so on.)


Helgesen, M. 1997. Bring those books back to the classroom: Tasks for extensive reading. The Language Teacher, 21, 5, 53-54.

How to pay for the books

Obviously, it depends on your situation.

  • Research funds. Most college teachers get research money.
  • School library. College teachers are sometimes asked to suggest books that the library should buy for student use. Or each department is given a certain amount of money for library books. Sometimes, oral English teachers don’t use their share. When Marc was setting up his program, the first year two other teachers who mostly teach oral let him use their share of the library money. The library money option has the added advantage of meaning the library will take care of checking books in and out, shelving, etc.
  • Supportive colleagues. If you’re teaching part-time (and don’t have access to research or library money), check with the full-timers. Maybe someone will help you out from their share of library money or research funds.
  • Student donation. Ask each student (or, in middle and high school, their parents) to contribute a small amount (say, «500 or «1000) to pay for the books.
  • Text book fee. If the students don’t have to buy a regular text book, you could ask for a bit more («1500). At the end of the year, put bookplates in the books that say, “Contributed by the class of 19XX”).
  • Creative accounting. When Marc was teaching high school, each teacher got only «10,000 a year for extra materials. He went together with another teacher and spent one year’s money in March and the next year’s in April (the next month) which gave them «40,000 to start with.

Decisions to make when setting up or reviewing an extensive reading program.

  1. What are the goals of the program? Improvement in reading? writing? general FL ability? attitude toward FL reading? Building vocabulary? knowledge? Nurturing FL reading habit?
  2. How much do we want students to read?
  3. What kind of material do we want students to read? Simplified? Authentic? In addition to books, do we allow magazine and newspaper articles, WWW pages and even closed captions of English movies? Should books whose content students are familiar with (movie stories, famous folktales, literature) be excluded (to prevent cheating)? Or should they be included because reading familiar content in a foreign language is a good way to improve both knowledge of that foreign language and reading ability in it?
  4. What are we going to do during class time?
  5. To what extent should we, and how can we, check that students have read the books and understood them? What constitutes having “read” a book? What level of comprehension is the minimal level in terms of reading skills improvement? How can comprehension be measured without turning extensive reading into intensive?
  6. Book reports: Should they be minimal, used as a basis for grades, or should students be required to demonstrate knowledge of the book? Should students give an opinion about what they read? Should book reports be in English (for English writing practice) or L1 (to emphasize that reading is a receptive skill, and because students can express themselves better in L1)? If there are several thousand book reports to read per term, what kind of feedback is possible or desirable? Our answers to these questions determine the shape of our programs and the research questions that we identify.

–Nancy Mutoh, Julian Bamford and Marc Helgesen


Richard R. Day & Julian Bamford. 1997. Extensive reading in the second language classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rob Waring (Ed.) May, 1997. Special issue on extensive reading. The Language Teacher, 21, 5. (This special issue introduces extensive reading, its raison d’etre, and linguistic benefits. Plus how to set up a program,which materials to use, teaching tips, and descriptions of two extensive reading programmes in Japan.)

Richard R. Day (Ed.). 1993. New ways in teaching reading. Alexandria, VA: TESOL.

Jean Greenwood. 1988. Class readers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

George M. Jacobs, Colin Davis & Willy A. Renandya (Eds.). 1997. Successful strategies for extensive reading. Singapore: SEAMEO Regional Language Centre. (Lots of good ideas from persons doing extensive reading throughout SE Asia. Its strength is that the contributions, as in the New Ways volume above, are from chalkfaces–teachers right in the extensive reading trenches.)

The Edinburgh Project on Extensive Reading (EPER) offers information and materials for extensive reading program. Ask for a catalog: EPER, Institute for Applied Language Studies, University of Edinburgh, 21 Hill Place, Edinburgh, EH8 9DP, UK. Fax: (44) 131-667-5927

Reading material: Keep it simple!

“We are committed to believing that simplified texts can be authentic” (p. 198). Charles Alderson & Alexander Urquhart

“For purposes of the foreign language classroom, an authentic text. . . is one whose primary intent is to communicate meaning. In other words, such a text can be one which is written for native speakers of the language to be read by other native speakers (with the intent to inform, persuade, thank, etc.) or it may be a text intended for a language learner group. The relevant consideration here is not for whom it is written but that there has been an authentic communicative objective in mind” (p. 17). Janet Swaffar

Reading is developmental

Children learn to read harder and harder material as they progress through the school years. . . . (p. 6).

Materials are developmental.

Beginning readers do better with easier materials. By “doing better” we mean that comprehension of materials will be better, reading lessons will be more successful, and pleasure will be greater if there is at least a rough match between the reader’s ability and the difficulty of the reading material. . . . Plenty of evidence is available to show that unless motivation is extremely high, the too-difficult material will cause a loss of comprehension. . . and an inclination to stop reading” (p. 8). Edward Fry


Alderson, J. C. & Urquhart, A. H. (Eds.). 1984. Reading in a foreign language. Harlow, Essex: Longman.

Fry, E. 1991. Ten best ideas for reading teachers. In E. Fry (Ed.), Ten best ideas for reading teachers (pp. 6-16). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Swaffar, J. K. 1985. Reading authentic texts in a foreign language: A cognitive model. The Modern Language Journal. 69, 1, 15-34.