Talking Points August 2013


Alison: Last month, Chika and I were talking about how, as bookworms ourselves, we strongly believe that extensive reading can play a very important role in our students’ language development. As I mentioned then, it maybe isn’t the only way to learn English. Students could learn English through extensive listening and speaking, for example. But I think that most universities would like their students to be literate rather than simply able to hold a conversation in English. So, as with any skill, in order to develop proficiency, students require extensive practice in reading.

At my university, I get to teach a general English class to all the first-year English major students. One of the main stated aims of the class is for students to develop their skills and interests in English autonomously. The first thing we do in the class is go on a tour of the Foreign Language Center self-study area. Here, they learn about the resources available for them to use and are asked to look through the books in the graded readers’ room. When they have found a book that looks interesting to them and that they can read without difficulty, they check it out and return to the class. When they discover that I expect them to read 12 books during the semester, and also write about each one in a fluency journal, some of them look shocked. But all of them do it, and the amount of time they get to spend reading and writing each week makes a huge difference to them, I believe.

Chika, I want to return to something you mentioned in our last dialogue. You said that your students read a children’s book which they then discuss together. What I wanted to ask you this: Do you read the book together? Aloud? Silently? What’s your rationale for approaching extensive reading in this way?

Chika: The very first book I introduce to my students is one of the Oxford Reading Tree series. Among nine levels, I intentionally choose Level 1 (the easiest level), which has only two or three words but includes lots of pictures. Enjoyment is what I want to share with my students. More specifically, I want my students to think that they may be able to read such an English book. In the class, I simply show the book to the whole class, flipping over every page without reading aloud. Most students seem to be surprised to know that the book has few words with lots of pictures. However, we come to realize that we can understand the story simply by looking at the pictures — one of the strategies most of us use in reading and listening.

Like the first day of the class, the first encounter with extensive reading is crucial as I think the success depends on this specific time. In particular, those who do not like English or are not good at English dare not choose to read English books themselves, so I believe stimulating their curiosity and challenging spirit is what a teacher should do first. After showing the book to the whole class, I let each student pick books they like and start reading any books they like. In many cases, some students concentrate on reading the books, others show some pages which they think are interesting to their partner. The laughter, excited voices, and serious faces tell me that the students can understand the story and more importantly are enjoying extensive reading.

Alison: I like what you say about stimulating students’ curiosity and determination, particularly the weaker, less confident ones. I also believe that curiosity and determination are essential attitudes, though I’m not sure whether these attitudes need to be inculcated in order to take on the challenge of reading through several books in English, or whether the experience of extensive reading itself is what fosters them. Maybe this is a chicken or egg dilemma.

Apart from the first class when I give the students some time to read through their graded readers in the classroom, mainly so that they can decide whether the level they have chosen is appropriate for them, reading is something that students do at home. They also write about their books at home. Class time is for speaking. In the first six weeks of the semester, students talk about their books in pairs, changing partners three or four times. Gradually they move away from the notes or summaries that they have written and use the books themselves as prompts for talking about them. In addition to talking about the books, I also like to use the books for different kinds of activities in the class. For example, students read a sentence silently, then look up and say the sentence aloud. Using their short-term memory in this way, students have to catch hold of chunks rather than single words. We also use graded readers for pronunciation practice, for example, consonant and vowel links between two words (such as one apple = one (n)apple, two apples = two (w)apples) and students read a page or two from their reader while their partner comments on their pronunciation. I like to think of graded readers as multipurpose tools for learning; rather than hammers, I want them to be Swiss army knives.

Chika: All of your activities sound interesting and new to me! Especially, I like the activity that students read aloud a sentence they choose. This is closely related to choice and individuality. You could maybe expand your activity by letting students ask each other about why they like this specific sentence. Even if students choose the same sentence, their reasons will probably vary. I like this student-centered activity. It is also interesting that you add phonological elements to extensive reading.

When I was a novice extensive reading teacher, I often asked my colleagues about activities they used with extensive reading and actually tried some of them in my classes. However, after a few years, I felt like creating my own extensive reading activity and suddenly came up with an idea to extend English extensive reading through creative writing in Japanese. In the class, I had all the students read “Rapunzel” (Penguin Graded Reader). Although it may sound as though this activity differs from the concept of extensive reading, “book sharing” is one of the common activities for extensive reading. A group of three or four read the same book and share their opinions and viewpoints. For this activity, I turned their attention not to the main character, Rapunzel, but to an old woman in the story, and asked questions about her personality and background. Of course, such information is not written in the book, so students needed to use their imagination and creativity. Then, working in pairs or groups, the students wrote their own stories about the old woman in Japanese; they ended up creating original books including pictures. At that time, I was lucky to have a colleague who was teaching a Japanese extensive reading class to international students. We took this opportunity to have a joint class and my students gave their original books to the international students in the class. Immediately after the international students received the books, they looked happy and started chatting with the Japanese students. Some Japanese students read their stories aloud for the international students, while others were asked questions about the story. It is often said that extensive reading tends to be an independent activity, but, from this experience, I learned that it can be interactive and even international.

I believe that the main purpose of extensive reading is enjoyment, but in many cases, it tends to be an individual activity. However, there are a lot of possibilities for making extensive reading social, interactive and fun in a classroom using the books themselves or drawing on the students’ experience of having read them.

Here are some useful links for readers interested in finding out more about Extensive Reading:

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