Extensive reading – reading for pleasure, reading widely, reading what one wants to read, reading at one’s current level of attainment. Does it actually work? You’ll be waiting a long time if you want conclusive proof of anything to do with learning languages, but the general consensus seems to be that it is a pretty good thing (another good article here).
The publishers are certainly getting behind it. If I were wearing my cynical hat I would suggest that they might make more money shifting millions of little books that take less effort to develop. But I don’t really have a head that suits hats, and a lot of the graded readers being produced these days are, in fairness, very nice indeed and thoughtfully put together.
The trouble is how to use them. True extensive reading is autonomous; the very second a teacher puts a hand to it it loses that quality. However, some choices are better than others when choosing how to proceed.
- Keeping track of student reading.
Some would question whether this is necessary at all. Realistically, for most of us it is a requirement in an academic programme. A paper reading record (pdf here) can be sufficient, but this semester I am using librarything.com (a very handy guide to which can be found here). On balance, it is probably better not to give a reading requirement. If you do, although some students might choose to exercise their right to read nothing, even the most keen will probably just stop at the minimum asked of them. With no clear guidance, though, I find that most students tend to read as much as they can to be safe.
- Choosing what the students read.
Basically, you shouldn’t, although this may depend on what is available. I am currently fortunate enough to work in a school with an extensive library, so the only limit I put on students is that they try and read at their level. I’m not especially dogmatic about this, either – I also ask the learners to find news articles of interest to them to bring in for discussion. Strictly speaking, news articles (being short and complex) constitute intensive reading, but the freedom to choose from the entire internet is very “extensive”.
Some teachers like to use class sets, and have everyone read together. Although this removes freedom of choice, it can be less intimidating in the early stages of a project as students can discuss shared readings from a position of mutual understanding.
- Reacting to reading.
Almost all graded readers have comprehension questions at the back, and (as is the trend these days), a raft of supporting test books, activity worksheets and teachers guides. I understand that the market probably demands it, that it is a great selling point for the busy / lazy teacher, but it is somewhat contrary to what extensive reading ought to be. A graded reader can very easily become a very long intensive reading. One notable exception is the Oxford Bookworms Club, which introduces learners to reading circles for discussion. Largely, though, most published materials appear to place greater emphasis on checking comprehension than interperating or responding to reading in a personal way.
I ask students to summarise what they are reading for one another, and to create their own discussion questions based on the themes or ideas in their books. Plundered partly from Maley and Duff’s “Literature”, partly from Bamford and Day’s “Extensive Reading Activities for Language Teaching” , I’ve set my students a choice of two assignments from a possible eleven (pdf here) this semester. It’s not huge, but it does give them a variety of ways to respond to what they have read.
There is a great deal of joy in finishing a whole book in a foreign language, more so if it’s one you chose yourself, and you understood it. If you are lucky enough to have access to graded readers, make the most of them. ( All books mentioned available in the bookstore, folks!)