On this page there are some frequently asked questions about Extensive Reading (and a few answers). They are in no particular order.
What is Extensive Reading?
Extensive Reading (ER) is one of many things a learner needs to do when learning to reading a second language. Typically ER involves reading massive amounts of very simple material so that the learner can read smoothly, confidently and pleasurably. The focus is on general comprehension, and not directly on language practice. Most of the reading is well-within the learner’s current competence, is out-of-class and done with simplified books called readers or Graded readers (sometimes Basal readers). ER is the corollary to learning to speak. You learn to speak by speaking, so you learn to read by reading. This is sometimes known as Graded reading. Note that all the students are reading different material, something they want to read because the learners select what to read.
Another aspect of ER is that the learner should be reading a wide variety of texts such as novels, mystery, poems etc.
However, only doing ER may not benefit the learner as much as if she were also doing Intensive Reading and practising the reading skills and learning vocabulary independently.
What is Intensive Reading?
Intensive Reading (IR) occurs when the learner is focused on the language rather than the text. For example, the learner may be answering comprehension questions, learning new vocabulary, studying the grammar and expressions in the text, translating the passage (sometimes called ‘careful reading’), or other tasks that involve the student in looking intensively (inside) the text. Most often all the students read the same short text that the teacher decided.
The advantage of IR is that it focuses the learner on certain aspects of the language. However, IR is usually done with difficult texts with many unknown words that require the learner to use a dictionary. This means the reading is slow and that there are few opportunities for the learner to learn to read smoothly, because she has to stop every few seconds to work on something she can’t understand. This slows or prevents the development of fluent eye movements that are so necessary to improve one’s reading skill.
IR is the most typically taught method of teaching reading. Unfortunately some teachers only know this method and believe that by teaching the vocabulary and grammar that is all the learner needs. This is not so, she also needs practice in reading and to be trained in developing reading skills.
How many readers do I need for my Extensive Reading library?
The more, the better. As students are at different levels of reading ability, it is important that teachers have a wide variety of readers for them to read. Don’t be surprised if certain readers are more popular with boys than girls, and vice versa. Some themes are always popular, such as romance and mystery. You will need multiple copies of some readers to meet strong demand. At first, students can share some readers, but this is troublesome and can make it difficult for them to find time to do the reading.
If you plan to use the certain readers as class readers (where all the students read the same reader at the same time) you will need one copy for each student, or one copy for every two students to share)
What else do the learners need when learning to read?
Learners also need to learn 2 more things.
A) Vocabulary, phrases and expressions. The learners cannot read anything until they have mastered a basic vocabulary.
B) The many skills of reading. Here are a few essential skills learners need to master.
Dictionary use (the most under taught vital skill)
Recognizing word families (e.g. noticing that helplessness and unhelpful are part of the help word family)
Learning to guess new words from context / co-text
Understanding word part-knowledge (e.g. the affixes and main roots. It’s best not to delve too deeply into this as only the most advanced learners can really take advantage of this knowledge)
Understanding of text types/ structure. There are many discourse patterns, such as narrative, persuasive texts, comparison and contrast texts, academic report texts etc. etc. Learners need to know these because then once the structure of a text is understood it is easier for the learner to anticipate what is coming next. This facilitates understanding.
The learners need to understand the importance of background knowledge and how it can aid comprehension. Studies have shown that when the topic is familiar before reading, then comprehension of texts is easier than if little background knowledge is know. This is why so many teachers ask their students pre-reading questions about the topic before reading commences.
Learners need practice in the development of speed reading / timed reading. One way to do this is to time the learner reading part of the text, then ask her to read it again in 75% of the time taken. Another way is to ask the learner to read as much as possible in a given time, then to re-read the same text and try to get beyond the previous mark. A third way is for a helper to move her finger along the margin at a given speed and the learner must try to keep up or beat the finger.
Learners need practice in the development of inferencing skills. There are two types. a) They need to be able to infer what was said but not stated. b) they need to learn to notice what pronouns refer to (e.g. what does “it” refer to?).
Learners need practice in the developing sight/sound relationships especially for beginners (see below under phonics).
At what ability level should ER be done, and why?
At or below the learner’s current level of reading competence. If the reading is too difficult then the learner will not be able to read smoothly, fluent eye movements will stop and there will be few chances for the learner to progress to the “reading by ideas” level of understanding.
If the reading is too easy, this is not so much of a problem. In fact it is very beneficial because faster reading means learners comprehend more (see below) and they are lowering the time it takes to find words in their mental lexicon.
What is the “reading by word/reading by ideas” barrier?
This refers to a time in the development of the reading skill that a learner is able to process ideas rather than mere words. When learners begin to read they are trying to process each letter and each word separately which makes reading slow. In the sentence
“The old man took his dog to the park”
the learner is processing 9 items, by reading each word. If this is done slowly then the learner may finish the sentence and have forgotten the beginning few words and may have to re-read it.
By re-reading the sentence the “lexical access speed’ (the speed a which a word can be recognized will increase. If the learner continues to meet the word regularly then the processing of words become automatic.
However, there is a time in reading development process that a reader can access words so quickly that the reader starts to read groups of words together. For example, in the same sentence the learner is reading
“the old man took his dog to the park”
In other words three ideas rather than 9 words. This is an essential stage to reach because if the learner is reading at the idea level, then comprehension is better. Why? Because the reader is processing ideas not words.
A central goal of ER is for the learner to be able to read at the idea level and progress to more and more difficult text with the same ability.
What is an optimum reading speed for learners to break the “reading by word/reading by ideas” barrier?
To my knowledge this has not been well researched in second languages. A rule of thumb would be
for the learner to be reading about 10-12 lines per minute or more, or over 100-150 word per minute.
for the learner to have about 98% coverage of the text (i.e. 2 or less unknown words per page)
At this pace, the learner is starting to process many words at the same time (as chunks). These chunks or strings of words that contain a single main idea.
How do I know if the learner is reading at the optimum pace?
You can’t, only the learner knows this. However, there are some observations you can make to determine if she is reading at an optimum rate.
Is she reading at or above 100 words per minute?
Is she using her dictionary a lot?
Is she bored by the reading?
However, if she is really enjoying a difficult book, it may be best to leave her with it as it meets to aim of developing learners to get the reading habit.
Is it a problem if the reading is too difficult?
Yes, and No. It depends on the purpose of the reading. If the purpose is to learn new language, then slow careful reading while looking at new language is OK.
However, if the purpose of the reading is to improve the learner’s reading speed, fluency or confidence, then this can only be done by the student reading at, or below her reading ability.
Where can I find some material for the learners to read?
There are many publishers who publish check out this page.
Is it Ok for the learners to read magazines, newspapers and native speaker level books?
Yes, of course, with 2 vital provisions. First, that the student can read them sufficiently fast that she has over 100 words per minute and that there are not many unknown words. Secondly, that she is enjoying it.
How do I get beginning learners started in ER?
First the learners need a lot of practice in sight / sound correspondence (they need to match sounds with spellings in meaningful ways). They also need a basic vocabulary.
Is phonics instruction useful for beginners?
Yes, because it helps the student match sequences of spellings to sounds. As a lot of initial language learning from reading is done through the phonological aspects of out working memory, the initial pronunciation of a word in the learners inner speech may fix that pronunciation in her head. This is fine if the word was pronounced correctly in inner speech, but if it wasn’t then the learner will not recognize the word is she hears it. therefore correct sight/sound mappings are important, and phonics training can encourage this.
What comes first, ER or IR?
Neither. A basic vocabulary does. One cannot read at all until some vocabulary is learned and the learner has some idea about word order in the target language.
But shouldn’t they be reading real ‘authentic’ texts?
This question shows misunderstanding of the reason why material at different difficulty levels is needed. It is vital to note that the type of reading material that is used depends on the purpose of the reading. If the purpose is to improve fluency, confidence and so on, this will not be achieved with texts that are too difficult. Therefore ‘authentic’ texts will not be useful for fluency practice until the learner can read them fluently.
If the text is beyond their current reading competence level then the reading will be slow, laboured and often will dent the learner’s confidence. Native speaker text can be helpful but it is very important to realize why the learners must read simplified or easy material. However, native speaker text can be used for intensive language practice. Neither type of text is bad because both fulfill different purposes.
But they need to learn new vocabulary, what’s wrong with graded readers as a source of learning new vocabulary?
It is fine to introduce new words from these texts but it is important to note that it is useless to introduce vocabulary from these texts unless the learner will meet them again in their extensive reading very soon. Most teachers and reading text books introduce new words and do not revisit them in subsequent lessons. Often rarer words are introduced (say at the 5000 most frequent word level) when the learner is still struggling with the first 1000 most common words. These rarer words will be much more difficult to fit into the lexicon.
Remember that it takes between 10-20 meetings (or more) of a word for receptive understanding to take place. To introduce a word and then not revisit it is a waste of everyone’s time as the word will soon leave the learner’s memory.
The cardinal rule for vocabulary learning.
“The most important vocabulary is that which they have just learned”
This is why ER can help not only solidify meanings in the head, but also allow the learner to see word relationships (collocations and colligations) in extended text.
How can I find out how to set up an ER program?
What support material are there?
If the students just read, what does the teacher do?
Just because the teacher is not teaching does not mean learning has stopped. When the students are reading, the teacher can speak quietly with each student to check they are reading at the right level, are enjoying their books and have done their reading. Some teachers also read in a foreign language in the Quiet Reading Time to show that the teacher also values reading and it’s not something that only students do.
Why are they not doing their reading?
There are many possible reasons.
The book is too difficult, or not interesting.
The students are busy and have too much homework from other classes.
They don’t like reading. Some students may prefer to listen to the CD instead.
The reading is optional and the students have decided to opt out. If the reading is required, most students will do it.
The teacher is not constantly checking that the reading is being done and so the students don’t do it.
The students need to be motivated to read more.
If they all read different books, how do I know they understand?
This question was answered here.
I’d love to ask my students to do Extensive Reading, but there’s no time in my curriculum. So what do I do?
Teachers and schools can opt out of doing Extensive Reading, but opting out means the students:-
won’t get enough practice in reading
won’t meet enough language to deeply acquire the grammar and vocabulary from their textbooks
won’t get the satisfaction of being able to read fluently in a foreign language
Therefore it’s best to change the curriculum to make Extensive Reading an essential and core part of the curriculum.
I’d love to ask my students to do Extensive Reading, but I have to teach them to pass tests. What do I do?
Even students who have to pass tests need to read fluently. In fact, fluent reading is very highly correlated with success on formal tests. This means that if teachers want their students to do well on tests, the key skill is reading ability. If they can read fluently, then they can read the test passages faster and will have better comprehension. Moreover, reading only short passages intensively from test preparation books, doesn’t provide enough practice to learn to read fluently. Thus students should be reading extensively, too.
They won’t stop reading things that are too difficult, what do I do?
This is not a problem if they have enough background knowledge and are enjoying the book. It becomes a problem when it becomes tiresome and demotivating. Remind them of the chart on page 5 and encourage the student to stop reading even if they are in the middle of a book, and then ask them to find something more appropriate.
Should I require the students to read, or ask them to read voluntarily?
Students are often resistant to any new idea which is going to take more time. Therefore, it is best to start using Graded readers early in a course, and introduce it as part of the course, not as an option. If reading is optional, many students will want to opt out often due to time pressure, even if it is good for their English. It is essential that the teacher explain why, and how, this reading will help them.
When, and where, should they read?
It depends. If they are reading the readers for individualized reading, you can require them to read at home. If you have spare class time, a Quiet Reading Time is a very good idea as it gives you time to speak to each student and monitor their reading and progress.
When can they find time to read?
Most people have a little ‘down’ time each day for reading. If the reading is not done in class time, they should try to find a regular ‘reading time’ each day, for example before going to sleep, or on the bus to school.
What do I do if all my students are different ability levels?
The beauty of individualized Extensive Reading is that students select their own books at their own ability and read at their own comfort level. The higher ability students will be reading more challenging books, whereas less proficient students will be reading something easier.
When can my students start using Graded readers?
This depends on the readings series you wish to use. Beginning level students can use the Foundations Reading Library. Before students start to use the materials, they need to be familiar with the alphabet, know about 50 to 70 common words, and be aware of, if not in control of, some of the grammar at Level 1 of the series. This stage is often only a few months after they start to learn English. Students wanting to read the Footprint Reading Library need to know about 500-1000 words before they can start at the lowest level.
Can students use a dictionary when they read?
The main point of Extensive Reading is that the students should be reading easy enjoyable books. If the students are looking in the dictionary often, then the reader is probably too difficult for them, and they should read something easier.
Should students read the readers aloud?
Generally no. It is a good idea for the teacher to read aloud to the students from time to time. Teachers who are not comfortable reading aloud can use the Audio CD. However, it is not a good idea to ask students to read aloud unless they feel like doing so. It’s likely they will be so anxious about their pronunciation and do not want to be embarrassed in front of their peers. Moreover, the reading is likely to be slow and flat and not very interesting to listen to, so ample practice is necessary to get good results. Research suggests it has little long-term effect on pronunciation, however listening to how words are pronounced can help them notice how words they know are pronounced so it can help them hear them next time.
However reading aloud should ALWAYS be done after knowing the students UNDERSTAND. meaning first. Always.
Is it okay if I ask the students to translate the reading into their own language?
There are good and bad points about doing this. Asking the students to translate the reading helps the teacher know if the student understands the reading but it takes a lot of time, and can get very dull if done too often. When a class translates, actually only one student is actually translating a given sentence, and the others are not necessarily paying attention, or are looking ahead to the section they have to translate. Another problem is that translation reading re-enforces the idea that there is a ‘correct’ translation when, in fact, there are probably several ways to translate a given phrase, and students may believe they have to translate everything before they can understand. Thus, occasional translation can be a good thing for difficult parts of a text, but it is not recommended that every line be translated.
Do they only have to read Graded Readers?
No. Students should be encouraged to read anything that they can cope with. This includes magazines, web articles, newspapers, comics and so on. However, the key is that it should be readable and comfortable for them and at a comfortable reading level.
Books have gone ‘missing’. What do I do?
This is normal. Because books are missing does not always mean the students are stealing them, but that maybe they lost them or forgot to return them and they are too embarrassed to say. Put a notice around the school saying that books can be returned to a ‘drop box’ outside the teacher’s room at any time.
Should the parents be involved in the reading?
Yes, click here