Extensive Reading, but what if…


Rob Waring is putting together an amazing new resource called ER-Central dedicated to all things Extensive Reading.  About 3 years ago I caught the ER bug.  Since then I’ve noticed some bloggers and friends have offhandedly remarked that ER has a kind of culty feel about it.  I’m not sure exactly what makes ER culty, but I would agree that a lot of teachers who have implemented an ER program seem a bit over the top.  I know because I am one of them.  I find myself saying things like, “ER has changed my students’ lives.”  But in a short conversation in a pub during a conference, I rarely have time to talk at length about why I’m so hep on extensive reading.  Actually, sometimes I do talk for quite a long time about ER, but the person I am talking to usually gets glassy-eyed and so I stop.  And I figure if I just write the same kind of things that I talk about at the pub, your eyes will go all fishy-eyed as well.  So if your interested in a nice introduction to ER, I recommend you check out Rob Waring’s article “Graded and Extensive reading—questions and answers”.

If I’m not going to talk about what makes ER great, what am I going to talk about?  I thought I would write up a list of the biggest worries I had about extensive reading before I started the program at my school and how things played out in the actual classroom.

Worry: My Students are super low-level learners and the only appropriate material for them to self-select and read has big colorful pictures of a dog named Floppy.  Won’t my students get angry and throw big colorful books at me for trying to get them to read kiddy stuff?

Reality: After a bit of training to help students chose books that they could read without much stress, it turned out that Mr. Fluffy was a very popular guy in my class.  Students read the children’s books.  They enjoyed reading the children’s books.  And according to surveys, the feeling of being able to read and understand a book (big colorful pictures or not) was much more important to them than the book being age appropriate.

Worry: My students have short attention spans.  I usually change up activities every 10 to 15 minutes in class.  Can I really expect them to read silently for 50 minutes?

Reality: Extensive reading is not a magic attention span expander.  I shouldn’t have expected my students to read silently for 50 minutes.  50 minutes is a long long time.  I rarely read for 50 minutes at a stretch.  But 25 minutes ended up being no problem at all for my students.  Which means that I now have an extra 25 minutes of class time 3 times a week to do other languagy things in class.  And my students have 25 minutes 3 times a week to really enjoy their reading.

Worry: I have no way to measure if the students are actually learning anything.  If I set up a bunch of tests which the students see as connected to their ER time, that’s going to really dampen their enthusiasm for reading.  I’m going to spend hours and hours of each week fretting over my students not learning.

Reality: Just setting the last minute of class time aside for students to measure their average words per minute ends up being a pretty amazing evaluative tool.  Students know that their reading speed isn’t connected to their grade.  But they get to watch the number climb from week to week.  And it really does climb.  My 3rd year high school students who have been reading 25 minutes a lesson, 3 days a week in class have seen their average word per minute reading rate jump from 50 words per minute to 120 words per minute.  Many students are reading at 150 words per minute now and some have crossed over the 200 words per minute threshold.  That means that when they take a standardized reading test, many of them don’t have to (or even try) to use test taking strategies, but actually read and try to understand the entire passage.  And reading in this way does not negatively impact their scores (whoops, think I crossed over into culty territory there…sorry).

Worry: Just because I make students read in class, doesn’t mean they are enjoying reading.  What if dedicating time to reading leads to students feeling some serious resentment and getting even more anti-reading?

Reality: Yes, reading time is reading time.  Students are not allowed to sleep or chat each other up.  I found that when a student starts acting out in class, a few well-timed questions about the book they were reading was enough to bring them back to the text.  I general, I think it’s really important to be nonjudgmental and just find out how they are reacting to the text in front of them.  Do you like the main character?  Do you understand the story?  Are there any phrases you’ve read you want to use yourself?  If the student isn’t digging the book, I remind them they are free to go get a different book any time they want.  Sometimes they do.  Sometimes they don’t.  All in all, keeping students on task isn’t very difficult and opens up all kinds of opportunities to interact with students about a text.  And the more students read, the less I find I needed to try and draw their attention back to the book.

Worry: My higher-level students will read books which are too hard for them and get turned off to the whole ER experience.

Reality: My few higher-level students sometimes read books which are too hard and which they don’t really enjoy reading.  They do this for a while and then go get an easier book.  They enjoy the easier book even more.  Students, when given the chance, are pretty good at regulating their own learning.

Worry: Students don’t actually read books in Japanese.  Shouldn’t I use class time and have students explore language in a way that is more in line with what they do in “real life”

Reality: Many of my students did not read books for pleasure before joining my course.  Many of them do not read books for pleasure outside of class now either.  But after three years of running an ER program, none of my students has ever said to me, “Kevin, can we cancel reading time?  I just don’t want to read any more books.”  As an added bonus, reading is still a pretty useful skill to have and probably crucial to functioning in the “real world” for the foreseeable future.  And as an added added bonus, if students improve their reading, they will certainly have a better time interacting with friends on FB in English in the “real real world.”

Three years in with a 25 minutes a class, 3 classes a week extensive reading program has helped rid me of most of my worries:

  • Floppy…not an issue.
  • Don’t like to read in first language…so what.
  • Reading super difficult books…yep, and sometimes super easy books and sometimes just right books.
  • Resentment…nope, only when I have to cancel ER time because of scheduling conflicts
  • Better use of time for real life English…reading for pleasure is “real life”
  • Concentration issues…just adjust the length of reading time so it’s not an issue
  • I want to evaluate something…one minute speed reading.  (Actually, I still wrestle with the whole evaluation thing.  I actually have figured out two things that kind of work for assessing student development, but I think that’s really something for another post.)

Anyway, those are the worries I had before I started my extensive reading program.  I just wanted to share them with you.  If you are thinking about implementing an extensive reading program and feeling anxious about the whole thing, I hope this will help you feel a little less nervous.

If anyone reading this had some worries about an ER program, implemented it, and found things to be different than they imagined, please leave a comment and help spread the calm.  Because—sorry, gonna get just a little culty here—an extensive reading program really can change a student’s life.

21 thoughts on “Extensive Reading, but what if…

  1. Hi Alex,The ERP is totally compulsory. Out of 16 hours a week of English language class (12 of which are communicative based…whatever that means), we dedicate 2 hours a week total to extensive reading. We also have a book circle in the morning before class starts for students who want a bit more time to actually talk about the books they are reading. But as this class starts at 8 AM, it's optional. And sparsely attended. Thanks for the question and the chance to clarify.Kevin


  2. Do you have students buy the books or do you have a library of books available for the students to choose from. The reason I ask is that the main reason I haven't tried an ERP is that I don't have access to a library of materials.


  3. I have some students interested in readings and others don't seem to. They often feel they can't because they are lower levels and I don't know how to implement that. I'll get back to your post soon and I hope you can help me out with that. 🙂 Be back later. Thanks in advance for the post.


  4. Dear Kevin,I am a big fan of ER, and used to have twice a week programs in class where learners were given reading materials, and had discussions about these materials 30 minutes before classes ended. Just like you, I did (and still do) get over the top about the works of ER. Although I'm teaching Business English now, I think my heart is still with General English, especially teaching low level students. It's satisfaction at a different level, really, seeing students who don't understand English actually start to unfold right in front of my eyes!Anyway, getting back to topic, just wondering, have you tried literature circles as a form of extension to ER? If you haven't, I'd be more than glad to give you the materials and you could try them out (but I'm sure someone as well-read and experienced as you are must've tried that).Ratna


  5. It's really interesting to read about your experience with ER. I too am a huge fan and strongly encourage learners to read. Unfortunately, we don't have time in class for it at the moment, but if ever I'm in a situation where I spend more time with the same learners, I will certainly set aside reading time as you do here. In my current situation, learners read in their own time and we come together to talk about what they've been reading. I have been building up a set of graded readers, buying a few more whenever there's a bit of funding available. (I wrote about it soon after I started blogging: http://bit.ly/Kg5hc9 )Evidence of learning has come through learners selecting and requesting higher levels of readers. Jez Uden recently did a study that followed learners as they progressed through the graded readers and moved on to non-graded novels: http://jezuden.edublogs.org/cafe-culture-in-elt-the-three-year-anniversary/ . My biggest worry when introducing extensive reading to learners is that they don't enjoy reading and will see it as a chore. I've found that by emphasizing the benefits as I see them, encouraging them to give it a go, and letting them choose what to read is often enough to get them to have the experience of reading a whole book – often for the first time in any language – and to becoming readers. (I'll stop there before I get 'culty'…)


  6. Hi and thanks for the question and sorry this response took so long. The short answer is, my school bought a set of graded readers, about 300 in all. Thats how I started the program. I realize getting a school to spend $600 dollars on a set of books isn't really an option for many programs. I'm going to expanding on this post with a bit more information about how I got ahold of more books for my library with out spending much money. I'll include some information on alternative materials to put in a ER library.


  7. Hi Rose,When I started having students do ER in class, many of them were not readers. They had very little interest in picking up a book. But like in your classes, some of my students were very interested in reading. I run a pretty communicative based class. There's a lot of talking, a decent amount of moving about, and at times a whole lot of noise. No matter how smooth a lesson goes, or how engaged everyone becomes, these kinds of classes are still pretty stressful for some of my quieter students. But they love extensive reading time. I think ER helps acknowledge that there are many facets to language learning, helps keep things in balance, and gives space for a self-paced, more mellow type of learning that can sometimes be missing from a language class. For students who are not interested in reading, or are put of by their beliefs about their own language abilities, I will be writing a bit more about how my lower-level students reacted to the ER program, hopefully by the end of the weekend.


  8. Hi Ratna,Thanks for the comment and for bringing up Literature Circles. I actually learned about EFL Literature Circles in a very roundabout way. Tyson Seaburn had adapted them for the English for Academic Purposes classroom (four.ca/arc/) and when I expressed some interest, he helpfully pointed me to Some articles by Mark Furr. If anyone is interested in Literature Circles, I recommend checking out Mark's EFL Literature Circles site (www.eflliteraturecircles.com) which has a succinct explanation of what Literature Circles for EFL are all about and how they work as well as links to most of the worksheets and other things you would need to implement them in class. I have used variations on Literature Circles in class, but usually I try and keep my reading classes separate from the extensive reading time. I'm going to go into a bit of detail about this decision in the next post. But I do dig Literature Circles, and especially appreciate how, in a focused or intensive reading situation, Literature Circles can help build a sense of reading community and help students move from reading to writing and speaking.Thanks again for the comment. Hope you'll come back for the next post. Have a feeling it might lead to a lively debate.


  9. Hi Carol,I'm pretty lucky to have enough classes with the same students to be able to set aside a slice of time for reading in class. Although I still have moments of am-I-really-teaching-here panic and end up messing with the class a bit, not always for the better. Thanks for the links, it's great to hear about teachers who are meeting with success and documenting the progress their students are making. I've had a pretty similar experience to you. Once students get to a level 1 reader, something that only a few months earlier looked impossible to them, just reading the whole book is enough to keep them reading. I think it says a lot about your relationship with your students that even without setting aside class time you've found a way to encourage your students so that they do read and keep reading.


  10. Hi Ann,I'm thrilled you stopped in. I'm a big fan of the Teaching English Facebook page. Can't tell you how many great lesson ideas I've snagged (just did the winding string activity last week). And thanks for the nudge to write the second half of this post. Once I get the next post up I would be very happy to write about it on the Teaching English Facebook page. Thanks for the invitation (and helping to keep the ELT community connected),Kevin


  11. I can’t believe someone had the nerve to call ER a bit culty.
    I can’t even imagine the sort of person that would do this.
    Actually wait, I remember Mark Hegelson saying something about this at the World ER Congress (which I did indeed attend) about there being some sort of “Lay your hand on the graded reader” sort of vibe with ER.)

    Your post here and general conversations with you and your enthusiasm for ER have me playing around with ways to incorporate it in my program(s). In fact I took a small but potentially big step in December by handing out my books to students for extended loans.
    (high level future translators/interpreters were given the books I thought might pique their attention)

    I don’t really have much to say about the particulars of your post…except to say I think it was great and well written and potentially very valuable.

    What I’d like to talk about here for a minute is how to spread the word on something and how to make a movement. I feel like I have read a lot about this and though a lot about it and tried some things for various movements I believe in.

    (All my questions are real and not intended to create any sort of moral or lesson)

    So let’s say you really believe in ER and really want to help teachers help the students of the world.
    (Sounds ok so far, right) What can you do? How can you spread the word?
    Is it a concern that some people might call it culty?
    How can those who might be likely to find things culty be engaged and have their Kool-Aid (Flavor Aide) senses not tingle?

    I really don’t know about any of the above but I do know that your post is potentially a great start in this direction. I loved how you calmed some of the potential fears teachers might have.

    Nice work, Kevin. Thanks.

    (I know it has been ages since you first wrote this. I am doing one of those “Comments I wish I made in 2013 things.” You know, one of those. Please do not feel under any obligation to respond.


    • Hi Mike,

      I am very glad to get this comment. It is incredibly timely as in about a month I have to do a presentation on extensive reading for a group of teachers in Nara and you’ve given me a bit more confidence that I might actually have something worth saying.

      One of the reasons I think ER can sometimes have a cult feel about it is because it is so successful. When teachers implement it in their classes in a thoughtful manner, students respond. They read. Their reading speeds increase. They gain vocabulary. And when we talk about ER, we usually talk about these numbers and these great things we see. But I think to be convincing, we have to kind of zoom in on the finer details and tell the actual stories of our students who are engaging with ER. There is no such thing as an unqualified success. Each student meets their own bumps along the ER road. So to “spread the good word” about ER, we need to fill that word with the living breathing experiences of our students.

      If you want to see me attempt to do that, please fly to Japan and make happy, supportive faces as I give my presentation for Nara JALT (http://jalt.org/events/nara-chapter/14-02-21). As an added bonus, you can hang around for the Cherry Blossom viewing party to be held directly after.

      (are you tempted?)



      • Sir,

        Thanks very much for the thoughtful response and tempting offer. I am glad my comments helped your thinking as related to your upcoming presentation.You wrote that I gave you a bit more confidence that you might actually have something worth saying. I am sure that your confidence not misplaced and that you have a lot of worthwhile things to say (on this and many topics).

        I am still thinking about the ER culty feel and the way forward for publicizing and promoting worthwhile things in our field and will continue to do so. It is a very exciting line of thought, especially for me as a once (self described) missionary of reflective practice.

        Thanks as always for the thoughts and brilliant writing.

        ps- See you in April then.
        (I am not kidding)
        (we can discuss this further on another channel)

        pps- Some of what you wrote reminded me of a great presentation I saw from Eunsol Shin at the World ER Congress


        I am sharing the prezi just out of interest and with no other intention or suggestion or anything attached.


  12. Pingback: Out with the old… | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections

  13. Pingback: #onething that happened after class a few weeks ago | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections

    • Hi Chewie,

      Thanks for the comment and happy to hear that Mike’s blog led you here. ELT RR&R is one of my favourite stops in the blogging world. I’m also happy to have found your blog. What a great mix of the personal and professional. Hope you come back to visit TOTM again.



  14. Pingback: My Extensive Reading Blueprint ;) | ROSE BARD – Teaching Journal

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