Top 5 tips for successfully teaching extensive reading to Secondary to college students

Extensive reading is becoming more popular in Japanese ELT industry – thanks to the growing evidence that shows benefits and necessity of extensive reading, reported in numerous publications and academic conferences. Nowadays extensive reading program (ERP) as part of the curriculum is not only offered in private schools, but also it’s being implemented in more public schools.

It’s been widely observed that extensive reading has an affective effect on English learning. In particular, it motivates learners by alleviating aversion to English and inspiring self-confidence. Needless to say, that helps them develop overall language skills. Studies have proven that extensive reading improves reading speed, reading comprehension, listening, speaking skills as well as vocabulary and grammar.

Some of you may feel skeptical if your experience with extensive reading in classroom hasn’t always been positive. It’s not surprising to see an ERP works less effectively with reluctant readers, and there are always some students who don’t improve their English from it as much as we expect. To help you maximize the effect of extensive reading on more students, I’m going to share top 5 tips for teaching extensive reading based on my 25 years of teaching extensive reading to learners of various age groups in schools and 40 years altogether with private lessons in Japan.

1. Provide greater choice of readers

Choice of readers is by far the most important element of successful extensive reading. In order to see its effect, reading a few graded readers is not enough. We’re talking about 50-100 readers to complete per student, and for this to happen, you need to target their interests and reading levels so they actually read on. Students need to be able to understand 80-90 percent of the book without using dictionaries or translating into Japanese. You also need to provide a broad selection to choose from.

I usually present a collection of readers that I think are highly engaging to the student group and lower than their reading levels. I invite them to pick any book they like on a first-come-first-served basis. When I tell them that they can only take one at a time, they hunker down and try to get through their book to move on to the next one.

At the first 2-3 months into the ERP, I have the students read a large quantity of very easy readers (*YL 0.3-0.6), between 50-100 titles, so that they stop translating the text into Japanese, because translation not only prevents students from improving their reading speed, but also their listening skills, which is one of the biggest benefits of extensive reading. 
 *YL: Yomiyasusa Level, readability scale called optimized for Japanese EFL learners by Akio Furukawa

2. Set aside quality reading time in class for sustained silent reading

The next step is to create 10-15 minutes of reading time in your lesson timetable for students to read quietly on their own in every single lesson until they become comfortable reading in English. Slot in the reading time either at the beginning or end of every lesson for them to complete a very short reader or readers – between 100 to 1,500 word count, depending on the learners’ level – short enough to get through within the designated time period. Make it competitive by challenging them to finish their book before the time is up. Try using a stopwatch and it works like a charm to help improve their concentration.

If you are a class teacher and can afford to create a 10-15 minutes’ slot for reading every morning and make it a daily exercise, that will accelerate the learning so you’ll see its effect faster. If you have a bigger library of readers, lend them for students and have them take another 10-15 minutes to read at home, giving as many students the chance to read more books as possible.

3. Read at the same level within the same reader series

As students continues to read and get closer to completing 50-100 readers, they’ll eventually stop translating text into Japanese and improve in reading speed. You can first aim at 100 wpm (word per minute) then 150-200 wpm, gradually increasing the level of readers. When adding books, I recommend sticking to the same range of readers from the same publisher for 5 to 10 titles because within the same series students tend to come across the same words in different books.

The more they read on, the easier it becomes to read, having a positive impact on their reading speed, leading to a smooth transition to the next levels as further acquisition of vocabulary happens along the way. By reading within the same reader series, some students get hooked on specific authors who have written many books in the series since those stories often have similar ways the plot develops.

Whilst exploring different books in order to discover their favorite series or types of story at the get-go, I don’t recommend picking books from different series of different levels haphazardly as based on my observation it’s not as effective or efficient as reading and moving up levels within the same reader series.

4. Encourage self-assessment through reading diary

In my ERPs, I make sure my students keep record of the books they’ve read in a reading diary. This record gives them great motivation from a sense of accomplishment as they see the growing count of books and vocabulary they’ve read. The reading diary also helps them look back in a year’s time to analyze their own reading performance.

Furthermore, they can review their reading history and revisit books they previously found difficult. They will almost always notice that they’ve improved because the same books now feel easier to read. With this self-assessment process, students start reading spontaneously for themselves, not as part of the curriculum where they are forced to read. At this point, they will be reading for pleasure to improve their English, not dragging their feet to read because they have to in order to pass the grade.

5. Practice extensive reading yourself

Successful ERP doesn’t only hinge on methodologies. The practitioner should also experience extensive reading themselves to build expert know-how of ER. Otherwise, it will be difficult to know which books to recommend to what types of learners, when to move them up to the next level, what advice to give to struggling ones, and so on.

This is similar to studying textbooks and teaching materials in any subjects you teach, but the biggest difference is that you can and should do it for your own pleasure. This exercise might come with a byproduct of improved language skills of your own, which helps teach other general English classes.

ERP may ostensibly look like cushy, effortless method of teaching to outsider, where the teacher doesn’t need to do anything while students are reading. In reality, it takes a lot more preparation and planning and is a considerably more energy-intensive way of teaching English compared to traditional, grammar-translation-based instruction. With ERP, the teacher needs to always keep observing and exploring how to individualize their approach in order to help everyone in the class. It’s more learner-focused instruction requiring more learner autonomy as opposed to teacher-led lesson that the teacher needs to “teach.”

The key to make it successful is learner motivation, which is the hardest part. Just like any other teaching methods, successful extensive reading program is not without its challenges specific to every classroom and every student, but if you keep at it, you’ll reap the rewards that match the efforts you’ve put in. When used right, extensive reading does contribute to development of English proficiency as it provides learners with a lot of good quality input that paves the way to natural output to happen. Wherever possible, enjoy extensive reading yourself to set example, and share the enjoyment with your students.

About the Author

Atsuko studied in the U.S. as an AFS (American Field Service) exchange student during her high school years, where she came to see the flaws in the English education system in Japan. After returning home she started teaching extensive reading privately. Atsuko holds Ed.D. in TESOL from Temple University, publishing “Teaching Manual for Extensive Reading and Listening in English” from Taishukan Shoten. She introduced extensive reading at Baika Junior and Senior High School, Osaka International University, Kansai University, Kinki University and Konan University and currently teaches part-time at Kwansei Gakuin University and Iwano English School. She serves as board member of ERF (Extensive Reading Foundation) and JERA (Japan Extensive Reading Association).

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