Extensive Reading, but what if…

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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.