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.
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: