Extensive Reading, bring in team qualitative

I promise that this seemingly random image of a tank has something to do with this post.

I promise that this seemingly random image of a tank has something to do with this post.

I’m getting ready for a presentation on Extensive Reading for Nara JALT and don’t have much time to blog (or do anything really, except write and put together PP slides).  But I thought I might share a bit of what I’ve been thinking about as I put together my presentation.  If you’re going to be joining me in Nara on April 6th, I highly recommend that you stop reading now, or things might be a little dull as you wait for me to finish talking so we can all head over to the park, enjoy the cherry blossoms and get our drink on.

In my experience, Extensive Reading works.  I have numbers to back it up.  Over this school year my students average reading speed went from 128 words per minute to 185 words per minute.  The average number of words they could hold in working memory based on a read/think/write exercise (see my T-Dad post for more info) jumped from 4.21 to 6.63 words.  And total words produced in a…

Is that enough yet?  Are your eyes totally glazing over?

I had a friend who was a pretty normal guy.  He worked with me at the local deli.  He could fry a perfect Reuben sandwich, could fix a broken meat steamer, and was, in general a great guy to hang out with.  But if you got him talking about tanks, you were in trouble.  He knew the tread width of all the German Panzers; could compare artillery casing thicknesses; and got extremely excited about power to weight ratios. As he would talk on and on about tanks, he became less and less aware of whether anyone was listening to him.  More often than not, no one was.  But I was.  I was mesmerised by his ability to amuse himself with the minutia of tanks.  I sometimes wonder if when I talk about ER, whether I’m engaged in the same kind of self-amusement that Tom was wrapped up in.

You see, there’s an ever growing body of research showing that ER really works, but as popular as ER is becoming, it’s not an integral part of every, or even most language programs.  Probably in part because the best way to convince teachers that something is worthwhile is not by throwing a bunch of numbers around.  If you are talking to other researchers (or other tank enthusiasts), that might work.  But teachers know that there are individual stories behind that data.  And that in a real teaching situation, it’s probably those stories, the individual encounters of teachers and students, the actual engagement with a learner, a text, and a teacher, which is most important.  So pull out as many numbers from your magic bag of I’m-gonna-convine-you as you want.  It’s not going to work.

And let’s say a teacher is slightly moved by all those stats, and they go and look at some of the articles.  What do they find out, aside from the numbers?

From Mason and Krashen’s (1997) treatment section of an ER experiment: “The experimental classes in each institution read from graded readers.”

From Bell’s (2001) method section of a ER paper: The experimental group (n= 14) received an extensive reading program consisting of class readers, a class library of books for students to borrow, and regular visits to the library providing access to a much larger collection of graded readers (up to 2000 titles).

Even Richard Day and Julian Bamford’s Extensive Reading in the Second Language Classroom, which I think is a brilliant book and pretty much lays out everything you need to know to start an ER program, can only go so far in preparing a teacher for what’s going to actually happen in an ER classroom.  Basically, all of the advice out there for ER, is like the instructions for building IKEA furniture.  It looks simple enough on paper, but it leaves you (or at least it leaves me) with the sneaky suspicion that the most important part of putting it all together has somehow been left off the page.  And of course it has!  As good as designers are at making universal symbols, a set of directions for putting together a mishmash of 83 separate nuts bolts and planks which uses no words and only arrows, is by it’s very nature going to be leaving out the most important part of building anything.  How tight the screws have to be.  Whether once you put a bolt in place, will you be able to take it out again (often the horrifying answer is no).  How loud you will curse once you realise that the very middle shelf has been put in backwards.

So what am I trying to say with this mild rant about ER articles and people who talk about ER?  Not much, really.  All I’m trying to say is that instead of focusing on the big picture, we need to be spending more time presenting individual stories, small grain case studies of what students are doing in an ER classroom, and what role a teacher takes on with an individual student.  Because while you need some basic instructions to get going (see Bamford and Day’s Extensive Reading top 10, neither the big picture basic instructions, or the hard data of successful ER programs is going to convince teachers that they might want to implement ER in their own classes.  I think we have reached a moment in the development of ER and it’s penetration into the ELT community, where qualitative information has become much more important and valuable than quantitative information.  And as a case in point, I would like to share a short story of one of my students, Karin.

My school doesn't allow us to share photo's of students, so I asked my daughter to draw an image of Karin to help you visualise what's going on in the following case study.

My school doesn’t allow us to share photo’s of students, so I asked my daughter to draw an image of Karin to help you visualise what’s going on in the following case study.

Filed under: reads too fast

Karin is not a traditional reader in that she likes to sit down with a book in her native language and lose herself in the story.  But she reads huge amounts of material in Japanese every week because she is training to be a professional MC/announcer.  And not only does she read huge amounts of materials in Japanese, she also reads them out loud.  Probably with an eye to her future, she actively volunteers to read materials out loud in English class whenever she gets the chance.  So it’s not surprising that her reading speed is a much better than the class average at 210 words per minute.  In fact, at one point she was reading so many words per minute (almost 300), that I decided maybe a little intervention was in order.  I took her aside, complimented her on having a reading speed as fast as a native speaker’s.  I told her I was interested in hearing if she was able to use her “narrator super powers” when she read in English.  I had her select an early intermediate level text (800 headwords), pick a page, and gave her a minute to read it through one time.  According to the vocabulary test we had given at the semester break, Karin had a receptive vocabulary which covered about 90% of the first 1000 most frequent words in English and 70% of the second most frequent words in English.  So asking her to read out loud from an 800 headword text should have been quite a stretch for her, even after having read through it once.  I told her I was going to be timing her and asked her to read as clearly and quickly as possible.  She read smoothly, with inflection, at a rate of just under 200 words per minute.  Just blazingly fast.  And I think that most people listening to her would have thought she really understood what she read.  But when I asked her, “How much of that did you understand,” she shrugged and guessed 60%.  So we talked about why we measured words per minute (WPM) in class, and how extensive reading WPM score was pretty different from what an announcer was aiming for when it came to speed.  We kind of hit upon a bargain.  She would alternate between keeping track of two scores.  Her AWPM (yep, announcer’s words per minute) and her regular WPM.  When she was keeping track of her regular WPM, she would focus on enjoying and understanding the story.  When she was doing her AWPM thing, she would read out loud in a quiet voice and focus on speed and pronunciation clarity.  After our talk, both her WPM and AWPM fell below her feverish 300 mark and became a more accurate reflection of her reading speed.

Any Conclusions To Be Found Here

Now I realise that Karin is not your standard student.  But, when it comes to how and why students read, I pretty sure there is no such thing as a “standard student.”  Every student is going to have their own goals, problems, and successes.  When Bamford and Day explain that in ER, “Teachers guide their students,” they are giving us the IKEA instructions for what we need to do.  But I think it would be nice to have a centralised place to collect the stories of how that guidance played out in a real classroom.  A repository of case-studies, tagged with the issues or main features presented by each student, would go a long way in helping to provide a better picture of what is happening in ER classrooms around the world.  At the same time, it would provide the kind of detailed advice that teachers in an ER program often need when dealing with individual students.  And best of all, it’s just these kind of stories of real life problems and real life success which can help show interested teachers just what ER is all about.  Because marshalling an army of ER effectiveness data has only gotten us so far.  It’s time to let the individual stories of our students carry us the rest of the way.

P.S. If you are interested in ER, and would like more information, I highly recommend:

The Extensive Reading Foundation 


The JALT Extensive Reading Special Interest Group


Teacher Dereliction Anxiety Dissorder
(a follow up to my first extensive reading post here)

T-DAD is not found in the
DSM-5 and is not likely to be
found in the DSM-6 or DSM-7
Extensive Reading, or carving out class time so students can read what they want for pleasure and hence spend reading time practicing reading, is a large part of my program here in Osaka.  Students read for three 30-minute periods a week.  There are no rules about what they can read, how long they have to continue reading one book, and no follow up exams.  Students just read.  

Now, if you don’t have an extensive reading component in your English program, you might have a few questions about how to set up an ER program for your school, in which case I highly recommend you check out the Extensive Reading Foundation’s Guide to Extensive Reading as well as Bamford and Day’s “Top Ten Principles for Teaching Extensive Reading.”  And if you are looking for some evidence to back up that idea that this whole ER thing actually works, I recommend thisthis and this which read together point to the fact that extensive reading improves reading speed, spelling, writing, vocabulary and attitudes towards reading itself.  

But that’s not what this post is about.  This post is about T-DAD and the fact that teachers are teachers and often have the very bad habit of wanting to actively teach something.  Even more so, teachers too often sometimes want to measure if students learn what the teacher has taken pains to actively teach.  In general, a pure ER program, one in which students are just reading for pleasure, doesn’t really allow a teacher to do either of these things.  And this can lead to some serious anxiety.  Are the students really reading the books?  Are they learning anything?  Are they improving?  I also suffered from these flashes of panic.  I too was diagnosed with T-DAD.  So I want to give 3 or 4 ideas of things a teacher can do to decrease the anxiety around extensive reading.

  • Have students keep track of the number of pages they have read.  They keep a running tally of the total number of pages they have read in their notebook.  It’s amazing how quickly the pages add up.  Don’t worry about the level of the books.  Don’t worry about the rate of reading.  Just have students keep track of this raw number.  In my class, many of the students are reading starter-level books.  Usually they are about 17 to 20 pages long.  Most of them will complete one book in a 30-minute period.  This means that at the end of a week, they get to add about 60 pages to their page tally.  At the end of a month they usually get to tack on over 200 pages.  At the end of a semester, a big number like 500 pages of English read really helps the students feel like they’ve accomplished something.  And it also gives you, the teacher, something tangible to hang on to.  What did your students really accomplish with all that class time dedicated to reading?  THEY READ 500 PAGES OF ENGLISH!  That’s what they did.  Relax.
  • Add a 1 minute speed reading sprint to the end of the lesson.  Tell the students to read for one minute, time them, then have them count up the total number of words they read.  Instead of just writing the number, have them plot it on graph paper.  Students in my class have seen steady reading speed improvement over the past two years.  Those steadily climbing line-graphs give the students a lot of confidence in their own reading abilities, and helps reduce my anxiety that ER is worthwhile.  I just took my last reading speed rates for this semester and each and every student in my class is now reading at over 150 words per minute.  Most of them over 200 words per minute.  And most of them started with a reading rate at right around or under 100 words per minute.  Sometimes their line graph will show a sudden extended dip, and this is almost always do to the fact that they have jumped up a level in regards to the reading material they are selecting.  When this happens they get to enjoy watching the rates crawl steadily back up from 120 to 200 again.  
  • 3 sentence book reviews on the inside back cover of the book.  Just what it says.  Students only have to write three sentences about the book.  They can write whatever they want.  The book reviews are not graded, but they are signed.  You can go back at the end of a few weeks and notice how the language the students use in these reviews changes and develops.  And the best part, students think they are doing it to help their friends and fellow students read interesting books and avoid boring ones.  They have no idea that actually, producing these short reviews is all about making the teacher feel good about the fact that students are picking up new vocabulary and improving their grammatical accuracy.

As you might have noticed, all of the activities above are low pressure and don’t require a lot of time and clearly show improvement in some way or another.  This is key as the whole point of extensive reading is that students enjoy the act of reading.  If ER comes attached with all kinds of difficult tasks and assessment components, than they joy of reading is likely to become infected with the taint of “school work.”  Which is why I’m a little hesitant to share my fourth (and last) ER extension activity.  But when it comes to easing the symptoms of T-DAD, this is the absolute best activity I’ve ever used.  And I still use it in my classes.

・Read/Think/Write: This is an old activity recommended by Michael West, the guy who gave us the General Service List.  It’s also something that my friend and mentor John Fanselow recommends highly and mentions in this article.  But I don’t recommend it because it comes attached to big names, but rather because I have seen how well it has worked in my classes.  The activity lasts 7 minutes.  Students turn to the front page of the book they read during an extensive reading period.  They read as much as they can easily hold in their working memory (as much as they can easily remember), turn the book over, count to 3, and write down what they thought that had just read.  Then they draw a slash.  Then they pick up the book and read from the last word they wrote down.  Once again they read as much as they think they can easily remember, turn the book over, count to 3, and write down what they can remember, ending with a slash.  It looks something like this:

They do this for seven minutes.  They do not correct anything.  They do not go over what they have just read.  They just keep plowing ahead.  And ahead.  Right until 7 minutes is up.  Then they count the total number of words they wrote and the number of slashes.  If you divided the number of words by the number of slashes, you get a rough idea of how many words a student can hold in their working memory.  Even better, if students are putting slashes in the middle of syntactic groups (those groups of words that hang together naturally in a sentence), you have a pretty good indication that something odd is happening with how they are reading the text.  Reviewing their read/think/write notebooks can highlight students who are reading at an inappropriate level, are having trouble with spelling and sound relationships, and a host of other factors. Here’s a sample of two Read/Think/Write exercises from the same student, one at the beginning of May:

and one from October:

You can see that the average number of word per slash increased from 4 to 8, a pretty good sign that the student is starting to work with larger and larger chunks of language.  

The final step in the read/think/write activity is to have the students compare what they wrote with the text and circle any differences between the two.  Some of those difference will be perfectly acceptable, such as a student who wrote down “the very pretty girl was loved by her father,” instead of “the most beautiful girl was loved by her father.”  Going over these differences with the students and showing them how some changes are OK while some are not, can help them to develop good summary skills and also helps you, the teacher, to see at what level students are comprehending the texts.  

It usually takes a while for the students to get used to the read/think/write process; I’ve found that things go smoothly after about a month of regular practice.  But just giving the students a chance to clearly see that they are working with larger and larger chunks of language makes the time and effort worthwhile.  As an added bonus, read/think/write is an activity that students can use outside of class and with any text.  So not only are they improving their English, students are also adding another activity to their autonomous learner’s toolkit.

So that’s my list of 1 relatively long (~12 minutes in total) and 3 very short extension activities you can do to reduce your T-DAD around ER.  But these activities also reduce your students’ anxiety as well by giving them concrete evidence that they are improving.  And that’s important, because as much anxiety as you as a teacher might have around extensive reading, I find it often pales in comparison to the anxiety students are feeling.  For a majority of our students, learning English has been a story of struggle.  They’ve been forced to read texts in which they have minimal interest, littered with language they cannot understand; even worse, once the text is read, it is usually only reviewed for the purpose of preparing for the test which looms at the end of the semester.  So for many of our students, reading classes are by nature joyless and stressful.  A well-structured extensive reading program combined with unobtrusive extension activities can convince students (slowly but surely) that this doesn’t have to be the case.  And that’s a pretty good thing, seeing as how a classroom free of T-DAD and S(tudent)-DAD, is classroom where everyone can settle into a good book, secure in the knowledge that the joy of reading is very much the joy of learning. 

In case anyone is wondering, at the end of the semester, we take the raw data from students’ ER extension activities and give each student a reading report.  Here’s the report for one of my second year students from the second semester of this year:

If you’re interested in getting the Excel file (which includes all of the equations and graphs), just let me know in a comment or send me an email.

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.