What is Extensive Reading?
Extensive Reading is an approach to reading that helps students to learn to read by reading. Broadly speaking, there are two main complementary approaches to reading. The ‘study’ mode of reading prepares students for reading by examining, and abstractly learning, the various elements of the reading process. This may include phonic instruction, vocabulary and grammar work, and work on the various individual reading skills like finding the topic of a paragraph, or learning how to guess new words from context. This approach is most often practiced with short, rather difficult texts, from which the students study and learn the vocabulary and grammar (sometimes through translation) and have their comprehension of the passage tested. To many teachers this is the only form of reading and many students only learn to read using this method.
The second approach to reading development is the Extensive Reading. Extensive Reading complements the ‘study’ approach by letting students practice reading by actually reading (like one practices conversation by speaking, or writing by writing). In Extensive Reading, typically students read story books that have been graded at various levels of difficulty called graded readers. These are special story books written for second language learners are written at different difficulty levels which control the vocabulary and grammar so that students can deepen the knowledge of the language they are meeting in their textbooks. Students start with books with easy grammar and very few words that contain a lot of illustration. As their reading ability improves, students move up to books with more difficult vocabulary and grammar and fewer illustrations. This is very similar to how most people learn to read as a child in their first language. The main idea is for students to enjoy their reading and to get practice in seeing the words and grammar they are learning in their text books in actual use through reading i.e. in story books.
It is important to remember that the function of Extensive Reading is to build reading speed, fluency and give the student chances to actually see how English works by reading. However, in order for Extensive Reading to allow students to read fluently and quickly, there are several crucial criteria that the reading material must meet. Firstly, the reading must be easy (easy here means very few unknown words – less than 5%). If the reading is too difficult the student will go back to the ‘study mode’ of reading. Secondly, the student must have very high levels of comprehension and, thirdly above all the reading must be fun and enjoyable.
To meet these conditions, typically students will choose their own storybooks, which give them control over what they read. As not all students in the class will have equal reading ability, it is very important for students to be able to choose what they read because it allows them to read at their own ability level and thus get the best reading experience for where they are in their reading career.
There are several benefits of Extensive reading. Research shows that one of the most striking benefits is the increase in general motivation for learning English. This is probably because as students read for meaning (and enjoy the story), they get a sense that English comes alive and is actually a communication tool, not just an object to study. Secondly, research shows that students pick up new language and consolidate language knowledge as well as get a sense of how the language fits together. This greater awareness of how English works, allows learners to become more comfortable with English which in turn allows then to experiment more with their own speaking and writing. In other words Extensive reading provides a platform for building speaking and writing skills, too.
If you want to know more about Extensive Reading, please visit some of these sites.
The Extensive Reading Website
Rob Waring’s Extensive Reading pages