WondERing about Extensive Reading

I’ve been doing a lot of reading and thinking about extensive reading (ER) lately, and whether or not I should incorporate it into my reading classes. I’ve read a number of posts by Rose Bard, which initially inspired me, followed by this great post by Kevin Stein, and this post by Geoff Gordan on vocabulary learning which ties into ER. These all came up around the same time on Twitter, so I naturally gravitated towards the ideas.

After reading and thinking about ER, I have some questions, and I thought I’d pose them to the wider community to get a clearer picture of what ER could look like in my situation.

What I Usually Do/My Context

Typically, I will teach one or two different reading classes 5 days a week for 50 minutes each day. In these classes, all students are roughly of the same level, and the levels range from beginner to advanced (pre-university). We focus a lot of short academic readings and different reading strategies, but higher levels (about high-intermediate and up) typically also read a novel or short text throughout the term (8 weeks). Supplementing that and the textbook readings, students at the high-beginner and up level also independently read articles from Breaking News English (though I think I will switch to Newsela or News in Levels next time). Students choose whatever article they want, read it, extract interesting vocabulary, and complete activities offered on the site.

What I Am Thinking of Doing

I am thinking of setting 1 day a week (50 minutes) aside for extensive reading. We have a set of graded readers, but I also have some funds to get some more (I am currently looking into the Zombies in Tokyo books). Depending on the level, I might also take students to the university library, which has a large children’s books section, but these may be both too childish and too difficult for them. One other idea, if the level is high next term, is to assign a novel (which is against the spirit of ER) and leave the extensive reading time for them to reread parts of it (to build reading fluency) or buy some novels (we have a wonderful used book store in town) and let them choose one to read throughout the term (with dictionaries in hand?).

My Questions

  1. Which of the above ideas sounds practical/effective?
  2. Can extensive reading and silent reading be the same thing?
  3. Can a textbook with many readings be used to replace graded readers?
  4. Can dictionaries be used before reading to look up unknown words so that they can read mostly uninterrupted?
  5. How can short novels be used in the extensive reading classroom?
  6. What are suitable texts for ESL university students at beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels?
  7. What are some ways to measure the effect of extensive reading? In other words, how can I measure whether the skills picked up during extensive reading are transferring over to other areas of reading?
  8. Can/should vocabulary be learned during extensive reading, or is the focus solely on reading fluency?
  9. With that in mind, what is the goal of extensive reading? In extensive reading, students are typically reading things that pose little challenge to their skills. With lack of challenge, how does it actually affect language learning?

5 thoughts on “WondERing about Extensive Reading

  1. Too many questions for one response, but I would say: YES to extensive reading 1 hour a week. The reading experience is essentially a private one, but these days, it is difficult to put aside time for quiet reading. Class time seems like a legitimate moment to use for extensive reading.

  2. Hi Anthony,

    ER is a fascinating topic. I’ve never done it with my students systematically, like Rose Bard, for example, but we do encourage our students to borrow graded readers from the library. Some come regularly, some don’t come at all. Now, I’d like to react to some of the interesting questions you asked in your post.

    2) I’d say that ER can’t be equalled with silent reading, even though ER is usually done silently. ER is also called free reading, book flood or reading for pleasure, so it’s primarily about quantity. The time factor is important too.
    3) I’m quite pessimistic about textbooks being the source for ER for the reasons I mentioned in 2. I’m not sure whether textbooks can be read for pleasure or whether it’s good to be flooded with them. 🙂 I’d rather use the texts in them for intensive reading and language study.
    3) I’m also sceptical about the use of dictionaries before reading. ER should replicate authentic reading and using a dictionary beforehand seems pretty unnatural to me. Also, knowing the vocabulary in advance might be an unwanted spoiler.
    8) I believe some vocabulary is definitely picked up incidentally during ER. Being a non-native speaker of English, I can boldly confirm this assertion. However, not all vocabulary items are remembered automatically – only the ones which are repeated several times. This is also why I think textbooks can’t replace GRs, which the authors design keeping the benefits of repetition and high-frequency words in mind.
    Overall, I’m pretty sceptical about setting aside a lesson designed for ER (a lesson where Ss would sit silently and read). Learners should be allowed to read when they like, not at a certain time determined by the teacher. However, I think it’s a great idea to have an extra lesson where learners share their feelings and experience with ER.


    • Anthony Schmidt says:

      Hana, thanks for the comments. I really appreciate them!

      Regarding 2/your overall comment, if ER is part of the classroom, doesn’t that necessitate silent reading and having a time set aside for it. Of course, students could do ER on their own time, but if it is really a “book flood”, then it must be in the classroom or some place where there are many books, right?

      Regarding 3, after considering it some more, I definitely agree that the textbooks would probably be better off for intensive activities. One reason I thought of using textbooks though is because there are many many graded academic readings contained within them – readings we will never actually get to cover in class.

      Thanks again!

  3. Hey Anthony! Great questions, but I won’t attempt to answer them at this point as I have questions myself, but looking at the ERFoundation a minute ago, I saw articles you might be interested in reading: http://nflrc.hawaii.edu/rfl/April2014/

    🙂 But here is couple of things that calls my attention in your post:

    I) I have used one book or one story for the whole class in the past, but them when I do that I use storytelling approach to keep them interested. In my case, classes are once a week so I ended each storytelling/reading in group time with a question which leads to natural prediction to what is it going to happen next. The stories usually lead itself to it if we stop at a crucial point. Some teens enjoy the suspense while others get a bit annoyed, but they all are curious to know the story afterwards. I’ve used Onestop English serialization in the past and introduced Zombies in tokyo in that way too. But as Zombies in Tokyo is a multipath story, you can work with it in a number of ways in my opionion, but here is what I would do. I hope if it is useful.

    a) you can do a storytelling session with the material available at Attama-ii or record the story in audio yourself to play in class or use pictures, etc. The point is to make this introduction interesting enough to make everyone interested in reading.
    b) once everyone has their readers, you can ask them to read until the next couple of questions where they have to choose a path. They read silently. When they come to the questions, they make up their minds about what path to take. Then, they can get in groups, if there are many students in the class, I guess they could get in threes or fours for that. Then, they would discuss the story orally, their impressions, etc. Then they could make predictions of what will happen next. Then, once this quick and dynamic discussion end, they can go back to reading it again. Again, they will stop or maybe not (these are just ideas, I’m not sure they can work or not if we keep going) they can read, chose the path and get in groups again. At this point, there will be at least four groups discussing different paths. Etc.

    2) A problem that might rise in any given context is that people are different. Some are more into it, some are more competent reader and this will affect time. So if you have learners roughly in the same level, they will still not need the same amount of time to read it. And this would be my concern with the suggestion I’d made above. So, what would the learner be doing meanwhile?

    I think it is a good idea to get copies of Attama-ii to your school library. They are surelly enjoyable and my teens and young adults really liked them. I recommended to my learners and some bought digital copies for them. They said they liked it. Easy and interesting way to read and also because they can read many times and it always feels different.

    For higher levels you can check Your Own Adventures stories. I bought it myself and liked it.

    • Anthony Schmidt says:


      Thanks for the link. I’ll check it out. I already saw several articles that piqued my interest!

      I think the activity you suggested is a great idea for introducing the flow of a Choose Your Own Adventure story, but its not something I would do every time. As you said, students read at different rates and if there is going to be reading time in class, it should probably be on the students’ own terms.

      As for storytelling, I think I will look into this a little. I’m not a storyteller. I don’t like telling stories. It’s not really in my personality, so I don’t know how much it would work for me. Also, my students are adults, so I’m not sure if it would go down well with them. I do like the idea of it though.

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