The other day I watched this video I had originally come across on Russ Mayne’s blog. Actually, it was Sandy Millin who had drawn my attention to it first. Long story short, the video is an interview with Sue Leather and Jez Uden, who have a new book out on the topic of Extensive Reading and Motivation.
I should kick off by saying that before I saw the interview, I had definitely been well aware of the benefits of extensive reading in L2 learning/acquisition. I think I’d even heard about the study published by Patsy Lightbown Jez mentions in the interview which concludes that after one year, a group of students who had read extensively for 30 minutes every day without any further language instruction performed just as well as the controlled group who had only learned English with their teacher for 30 minutes a day through the audio-lingual method (the first group did equally well on all standards, except for writing, which started dipping at some point).
Now, this very notion has been a source of hope as well as anxiety for me for ages and I’ve wanted to write about it many times here on my blog; the notion that L2 learners can actually learn the language on their own, outside of the classroom, and in the light of it, our job seems to be quite redundant. Luckily, at some point, Jez dispels my nagging sense of potential redundancy by urging us, sceptics, to imagine what those students taking part in the experiment could have achieved if they’d had regular tuition in addition to their extensive reading practice. So, the answer is: we probably need both to achieve the desired effect.
Anyway, a few minutes into the video, I wonder, like many times before, why on earth is extensive reading not a regular practice in my classes. The word regular is paramount here and it in fact turns out to be the biggest problem. I mean, we can’t ask our students to read fifty pages at one go once in a while and still call this practice extensive reading, can we? By definition, extensive reading means reading large amounts of stuff and doing so pretty often. In other words, students need plenty of exposure to the language for them to become fluent readers and proficient language users. But how do you achieve this?
Luckily, halfway through the video, the interviewees have answered many of my pressing questions and addressed some of my doubts. Apparently, it’s not just me who is plagued with guilt regarding the lack of extensive reading practice in their teaching context. In fact, the reasons why teachers only dabble in extensive reading but don’t really engage with it seriously are well known. And, in all honesty, it’s comforting to know that to a great degree, these reasons overlap with my own rationale.
As Jez puts it, one of the most obvious constraints standing in the way of extensive reading practice is the cost, i.e. people have to give up something to commit themselves to extensive reading. Reading for at least 30 minutes a day is a time-consuming process. Unfortunately, teachers have to follow busy curriculums and prepare students for high-stakes exams. But it’s not only teachers who have busy schedules; students have heaps of homework to do and they have to get on with their own stuff like seeing friends or attending groups or clubs. So, they need to value reading enough to be willing to sacrifice something else. Also, teachers want to feel they want to be teaching (or want to be seen teaching) but extensive reading requires teachers to step back and allow people just to sit and read, which in fact may seem to be the opposite of teaching. Add to that the fact that extensive reading is harder to test than discrete items of grammar or vocabulary, for example. When studying grammar, students can physically see that they’ve learned a grammar point very quickly whereas, with extensive reading, they don’t see the gains that easily. It’s a much subtler process. This can be a real challenge, particularly in terms of motivation, as Sue argues. Finally, not every school or institution has enough materials for extensive reading. Obviously, there are some ways to sidestep the issue; for example, I really liked the idea mentioned by Jez of students buying graded readers (one student=one book) and then swapping them within their group.
I should be happy now, I guess. After all, we’re all in the same boat. But here’s my biggest concern, which for the most part comes from the realm of practicality. Although I do have enough graded readers at hand and I could easily start an extensive reading project right away, the truth is, I simply don’t know how to go about it. Here are some of the issues … Apart from the obvious wheres and whens, I feel like there always needs to be a follow-up stage after a certain amount of reading, e.g. a book. (This probably links to the teachers’ productivity issue mentioned above). What would this stage look like? I mean, do I ask students to read the same book each week or can everybody choose what they like? The latter option definitely sounds better but if they choose a plethora of different books, what happens next? Do we discuss them all? How? Does each student prepare a presentation of the book or a review? If so, will they present those orally or will I (we) read it? Such a phase may be quite time-consuming and, come to think about it, quite boring. You know, it’s undeniably a great experience to sit with a friend and chat about what we’ve recently read, and we could probably replicate this genuine process in the classroom. But …. the students are at different levels of proficiency, even though they are in the same class. Also, I normally choose to meet with friends who usually have similar tastes, but students may have totally different interests regarding genres.
The list of practical obstacles goes on and on. But what probably troubles me most is the fact that as a teacher, i.e. the coordinator of the extensive reading project, I should be a bookworm myself; I should be familiar with the books in question, even those the students would spontaneously bring to class. In other words, I feel like I’d have to be an expert in literature.
I could obviously decide on a less structured extensive reading course design; I could simply encourage my students to read as much as possible by offering them opportunities and suitable materials. Then I could just ask them what it was they’d read, tick a box and then we could go on to the next item. This happens in real life too: somebody tells you about a great book they’ve read and you go like “yeah, right, never heard of it”. But again, this raises a red flag regarding the teachers’ productivity and the measurability of the students’ progress.
To sum up, I’m all for extensive reading in L2. The trouble is that we are trying to take something very genuine (reading for pleasure) and place it in a somewhat artificial context (school). This is a hard nut to crack, in my mind (for me anyway).