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Encouraging Extensive Reading
by Scott Shelton
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What is it and why do it?

Reading extensively means reading widely and in quantity. It means reading large amounts (often of what we find intrinsically interesting) with the main aim of getting a global understanding of what you are reading. Palmer makes the distinction between intensive reading (1968:137) which often refers to careful reading and possibly translation of shorter, more difficult foreign language texts with the ultimate goal of complete and detailed understanding. It is often the case that intensive reading is the only kind of reading that students do in the language classroom. As Dupy, Tse and Cook explain,

" for the most part, students have only been exposed to intensive reading of short excerpts or passages in their ESL classes and tend to believe that this is the only way to read in a second language." (1996:10)

This may be because it is largely associated with teaching reading (and other) skills and for the purpose of disassembling text for later detailed scrutiny. This is often a slow, difficult, painstaking process which is more focused on the meaning of individual words or sentences containing whatever discrete grammar point the students are supposed to be learning that day. Many students consequently associate reading in English with this approach and are therefore (understandably) reluctant to engage in reading outside of class.

Brian Seaton (1982:150) suggests that extensive reading may begin with short illustrated anecdotes, and on to short stories written in graded language that the learner can be expected to understand without great difficulty. Extensive reading presupposes that the learner reads the text without difficulty and if possible for pleasure.

In a recent survey conducted by the students themselves in one of my classes on the subject of reading, (appendix 1) several people reported they liked reading in English 'what they could read fluently and without having to use a dictionary every three words.' Helgesen, M (1997) backs this up by suggesting that an average of three or four unknown words per page, or less, means a book can be read fluently. Dictionaries should not normally be consulted as this disturbs fluent reading.

The majority of the students surveyed said that they read in English mostly at work via e-mail and web-sites as part of their duties as well as newspapers and literature that had something to do with their job. They all agreed that reading in English could help them learn vocabulary and grammatical structures.

By reading extensively, these learners recognize that they can improve their vocabulary and comprehension, and also recognize the need to read something they can easily understand and have an interest in. Ronan Brown (2000) insists that the more learners read, the more skilful and fluent they become. He argues that the bottom-up process of instantaneous word recognition, upon which true comprehension depends, is the result of practice.

Thus, by engaging in reading extensively in what the learner is interested in, utilizing a top-down process, where the reader brings in outside knowledge and interest and is reading for global understanding, the development of a large sight vocabulary is exercised and automaticity of decoding is spurred on. This is of course only true if what is being read is largely understandable to the reader to begin with. If the small amount of learning of a word is not soon after reinforced by another encounter, then that learning will be lost (Nation, 1997). In an article on teaching vocabulary, Sokemen (1997) mentions that throughout the literature, certain pedagogical themes emerge:

"build a large sight vocabulary, integrate new words with the old, provide a number of encounters with words, promote a deep level of processing, facilitate imaging and correctness and encourage independent learner strategies."

It sounds as if she were referring to the benefits of extensive reading for language learners.

As Brown points out (2000), familiarity leads to automaticity Automaticity to speed and fluency. Krashen also argues in his 1994 book, the power of reading, that extensive reading leads to language acquisition, provided that there is adequate exposure to the language, interesting material and a relaxed and tension free environment. The results of two studies linking reading for pleasure and language acquisition (Schackne 1986) resulted in this conclusion:

"There is evidence that extensive reading promotes language level increase within a short period of time as measured by cloze."

There seems to be no shortage of experts and literature extolling the inherent power and purpose of extensive reading, there seem to be no lack of reasons why we, as teachers, should not be encouraging our students to do this. How is it to be done?

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