Read to Succeed!
- Posted by: ramy
Why Extensive Reading Can Make a Huge Difference in Learning English
‘Studying English as a foreign language, I had the same teacher during the first three years of secondary school. By the end of the third year, every single one of the 25 or so students in my class succeeded passing in the FCE exam. What was the secret of our success? It certainly helped that all of us started secondary school with a good basic knowledge of English, but that wasn’t all.
One of our teacher’s strategies played a key role; at the beginning of each academic year, he would ask us to purchase three or more books of our choice – these were usually novels adapted for English learners. Each week he encouraged us to exchange our paperbacks with those of our classmates, keeping track of the books we borrowed.
It was impossible to read all the novels which passed through my hands because of my heavy homework load. Still, I got the chance to enjoy a good deal of them. They ranged from detective stories written by Agatha Christie or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (I was a big fan of Sherlock Holmes!) to science fiction and more profound literary works like Animal Farm and 1984 by George Orwell.
I didn’t read these books to improve my skills, but because I found them intriguing and entertaining. However, without realising it at the time, they helped me become so familiar with English that it started feeling more and more natural. At age 16 I succeeded in the C2 Proficiency exam and later on I was accepted into an American university.
To this day I read more books in English than in my mother tongue and occasionally I write articles for an international audience. I’m very grateful to my secondary school teacher for enchanting me with the magic of English fiction. My language skills have played a major role in my career; they wouldn’t have been the same without his encouragement to read.’
This is Maria’s story, who is now a successful EFL teacher herself. It illustrates the powerful effect that the practise of Extensive Reading can have. Following this method, students choose from a wide range of compelling texts and topics. Reading is done systematically for pleasure or for getting information. This process is considered its own reward; it’s individual, silent and fairly fast. There are no questions, exercises or tests nor are dictionaries used. The books and other materials are selected based on the language competence of the learners. The instructor, being an avid reader, serves as a role model. He/she first describes the aims and process of Extensive Reading and then observes and offers guidance.
There is plenty of research that demonstrates the benefits of this practice. For example, Extensive Reading expands and consolidates students’ vocabulary, providing multiple encounters with words and collocations in context. General language acquisition is also improved. As researcher W.B. Elley points out, there is ‘a spread of effect from reading competence to other language skills – writing, speaking and control over syntax’.
Furthermore, reading is one of the most effective methods to develop learner autonomy – students do it privately, any time they choose and at their own speed. They can actively use their imagination, visualising and interpreting the text in their own way. They can also gain extended general world knowledge, acquiring fresh perspectives on people and society. Finally, Extensive Reading motivates students to read more and more as their familiarity with English increases. This creates a virtuous circle of success and increased confidence.
So, how can you make the most of this method for yourself if you are a learner, or for your students if you are a teacher? It’s important to find compelling, not just interesting, texts. Luckily, many publishers have released graded readers, books of various genres created specifically for learners of foreign languages. They are often simplified versions of existing novels, but they can also be original stories or non-fiction books. Their vocabulary and syntax are controlled in order to make the content more accessible, depending on one’s level of knowledge.
You can easily find the right books for you or your students online. For example, the Extensive Reading Foundation has created a detailed, searchable, downloadable database of graded readers. It has also established the Language Learner Literature Awards, honouring the best graded readers of each year. If you happen to be a technology fan, you can find such books in digital format to read on your tablet, smartphone or e-reader. Best of all, some of these are free. So, read on and enjoy!