Talking Points July 2013
Chika: Recently, I introduced one of my classes to extensive reading using the Oxford Reading Tree (ORT) series. We started by reading one of the beginner-level stories together in the class. The Haircut is very popular, I hear, in primary schools in the UK and I realized that ORT includes various phrases and expressions that could be useful for Japanese university students. Moreover, the series itself is very interesting: although it’s a children’s book, it’s good for adults, too, as it takes you back to childhood and the realm of the imagination. As I expected, most of the students enjoyed reading it and were keen to exchange their ideas and opinions when we had finished.
Because reading is something that we both place a great emphasis on in our teaching, and because we both feel it plays an important role in our own learning, Alison and I will be devoting the months of July and August to a discussion of extensive reading and its place in learner development.
For my part, my first encounter with extensive reading was when I was an 11-year old elementary school student. At that time, I thought that what we doing in class was “free reading time”; I didn’t know it was extensive reading until I learned the theory and practice of extensive reading later. Much later, about 10 years ago, I had a chance to visit a private high school in Tokyo, which is famous for its English extensive reading programme. The school held a public lecture on extensive reading, after which it kindly allowed outsiders like myself to look around the facilities. The extensive reading room was decorated with colorful pictures and written work composed by students; it looked like an exciting space that invited the students to experience something new and interesting. Although the room was the same size as a regular classroom, there were no desks or chairs, and no podium. Instead, there were colorful storage shelves for the books and even a consultation space where teachers and students could talk about the books. From my elementary school experience of extensive reading in Japanese, I somehow thought that I was quite familiar with extensive reading, but I found that my understanding was very limited as I was simply thinking that extensive reading was just for enjoyment. Alison, how about you? How did you encounter extensive reading?
Alison: But isn’t it just for enjoyment? I thought that was the main point! I didn’t come across “extensive reading” until I’d been working as a language teacher for a few years. I never encountered the term when I was at school, nor when I was studying for a degree in French and Russian. But reading extensively is something that I did, and was encouraged to do, from as far back as I can remember. I can actually remember my very first Ladybird Keywords reading books at kindergarten. Peter and Jane may nowadays be remembered for the rampant sexist attitudes they depicted, but I was oblivious to all that back then. I still remember the thrill of deciphering each word and finishing each book. I could hardly wait to get my hands on the next one.
When it came to other languages, the Communicative Language Teaching paradigm had yet to make an impact on classrooms in schools and universities in my day, and the skill that we were expected to practice most was reading. Unfortunately, there was no such thing as graded readers. Textbooks contained short reading passages at the appropriate level, but apart from a couple of abridged short volumes of Lermontov that my Russian teacher had salvaged from her own schooldays in the Soviet Union, there was nothing to read except the real stuff. Actually, the real stuff was what I really wanted to read. But I was too daunted and too lazy to try by myself until my third year at university. But when I did finally start, reading those great 19th century classics made all the difference to my language ability. I’ve often felt that my struggles with Japanese have been all the harder because I haven’t been able to read. Actually, now that I am finally getting to grips with kanji, I can see that I’m at the exciting place where books (easy ones at any rate) are now becoming accessible to me.
So I believe very strongly that reading can play a vital role in language learning. At my university, we have a self-study library with a well-stocked graded reader room. At the beginning of the year, I take all the first-year students on a tour of the library and they all leave with a book. My hope is that after a semester of reading a book a week (they read 12 in all), they will themselves see the benefit and start to use the graded readers, or any other reading materials, of their own volition.
Chika, it strikes me as interesting that, in talking about extensive reading, you refer to it as a communal activity which occurs in special places. I tend to think of reading as a solitary activity. Do you think that there are particular benefits to be got from making extensive reading “special”?
Chika: One commonality with you is that we both are bookworms! For us, reading is a very enjoyable activity, but, speaking as a teacher, I sometimes think it is difficult to share this feeling with students. Seeing is believing – even if I enthusiastically explain how enjoyable it is to read books, it does not always transmit to students. What is really important is that students actually touch and hold a book. Like you, I also take my students to the extensive reading classroom to show them around and let them grab books they like. I sometimes go to the library with students to introduce the section for English extensive reading books together (I like this section the best as it is more colorful and brighter than the other sections in the library!). Then they naturally grab some books which look interesting, start reading them at their own pace, and change books if the ones they chose don’t keep their interest. This small but whole process includes elements for autonomy and nurtures their development as autonomous learners. If students are lucky enough to have sharing time to read books they choose in a classroom, this will create an environment where they share the time and atmosphere even if they choose the different books. In this way, I think reading is not an individual or solitary activity, but can be a communal activity.
However, even if the journey of extensive reading gets off to a great start, there is a problem I always face: continuity. Students don’t continue reading by themselves once they are “free” to carry out their extensive reading journey. Do you have the same problem, Alison? Any solutions for this?
Alison: To be honest, Chika, I’m quite sure that most of my students never pick up another graded reader again once my course is finished. The problem, I guess, is time and incentive. One of the problems of the Japanese higher education system is that there are too many courses, and not enough time for students to read outside of their required courses. As teachers, you and I are probably typical in that we value reading and make time for it in our lives (although, like my students with English, I often balk at making time to read in Japanese). In any case, not all students share our love of reading, even if they have chosen to go to university and major in English. I often hear fellow teachers complain that students don’t read. And this phenomenon isn’t limited to Japan. Recently, I’ve read a couple of articles in the American media about reading: “The Decline and Fall of the English Major,” in the New York Times decries the fall in the number of students majoring in a non-practical, but intellectually and spiritually enriching degree like English, and “How Reading Makes Us More Human” in The Atlantic magazine claims that reading is what makes us human. I agree with these. Of course I do. I love to take the moral high ground when it matches my own practices and beliefs.
Seriously though, I would be cautious about asserting that extensive reading is the only or best way to make a successful learner. Certainly, in my experience, the weakest learners don’t read, but they don’t do other stuff either.
Next month, we’d like to talk in more depth about the actual practices we’ve tried of extensive reading. We’d also like to ask you to share your experiences both in and out of the classroom on our blog. We’ll try to include your comments in our dialogue next time.
Hunt, R., & Brychta, A. (1991). The Haircut. Oxford Reading Tree. OUP