No one disputes the benefits of extensive reading (ER) for students of English. There is a substantial body of evidence supporting using graded readers as an effective way of exposing students to comprehensible input, through which they can acquire not only vocabulary and fluent reading skills but also grammar and oral fluency. Here are just some of the language improvements that ER can make, and the relevant studies.
- Gains in reading proficiency (Elley and Manghubai, 1981; Mason and Krashen, 1997; Suk, 2017)
- Gains in writing proficiency (Elley and Manghubai, 1981; Mermelstein, 2015)
- Gains in vocabulary (Pitts et al., 1999; Hafiz and Tudor, 1990)
- Gains in oral skills (Cho and Krashen, 1994)
- Gains in positive affect (Cho and Krashen, 1994; Rodrigo, 1995)
- Expanded grammar knowledge (Aka, 2018)
Overwhelming, isn’t it? Of course, we might reasonably expect that reading extensively would improve reading skills, but the interesting thing is that ER seems to improve pretty much every aspect of language acquisition. Stephen Krashen, in The Power of Reading, claims: “Reading is good for you. The research supports a stronger conclusion, however: Reading is the only way… we become good readers, develop a good writing style, an adequate vocabulary, advanced grammar, and the only way to become good spellers” (1993). The accumulation of evidence amounts to what Waring (2009) has called “the inescapable case for extensive reading” (p. 93), and has made Grabe (2009) ask the question: how much evidence is needed to make the case for extensive reading?
The Missing Link?
Despite all this evidence, though, the fact is that ER is still noticeably missing from many English language classrooms. So what can we do as teachers to incorporate ER into our teaching programs? How do we motivate students and teachers to really unlock the full potential of ER? In our book Extensive Reading: The Role of Motivation, Jez Uden and I propose that motivation is the missing link between the research and the classroom. We suggest a motivational reading cycle based on beliefs, values, and goals.
Beliefs, we say, include, among others, learners’ need to believe they can read successfully, that they must have appropriately leveled materials, and that the materials must be interesting. Learners should have plenty of choice of reading material, and they need positive and encouraging feedback.
Values include the idea that collaborative tasks related to the reading materials are necessary for enhancing social relatedness and maintaining situational reading interest. Students need to feel like valued and respected members of a reading community, and the benefits of an extensive reading approach need to be clearly understood by teachers and learners as well as other interested stakeholders. Above all, reading materials should be relevant to learners’ interests, needs, and/or knowledge.
Goals need to be clear and tangible, realistic and achievable. Short-term goals are likely to result in higher motivation. Students should feel motivated by setting their own reading goals and be supported by their teachers.
Motivational Reading Cycle
Building on these basic ideas, our proposed motivational reading cycle shows the four phases necessary to make ER successful in your classroom:
- Create the right reading environment
- Generate initial reading motivation
- Maintain and protect reading motivation
- Encourage positive retrospective evaluation
As Dornyei (2001) suggests, to generate motivation, certain preconditions need to be in place. Firstly, we need to create the right reading environment. For teachers, this means creating a supportive and cohesive environment in the classroom that encourages learners and makes them feel like valued members of a reading community. They need to find out what types of books their learners enjoy reading in order to provide comprehensible materials that will help trigger and maintain their interest. Teachers also need to project enthusiasm and share their passion for reading and become role models. Outside of the classroom, learners need to do all they can to create their own ideal reading environments and consider all potential distractions. For example, they could find a quiet room in the house, turn off their phones, have some snacks to hand, and immerse themselves in a good book.
The next part of the reading cycle focuses on generating reading motivation by enhancing and developing learners’ beliefs and values. Once learners know they can read successfully in the second language (belief) and have a reason to do it (value), they require situations that spark interest, create curiosity, and encourage them toward second language literature. By creating a positive and enthusiastic environment, providing appropriately leveled and interesting materials, and allowing plenty of choice, teachers can help learners feel inspired to find a book that interests them.
The third phase of the cycle focuses on maintaining and protecting reading motivation. Setting goals helps drive learners forward and provides the energy needed to complete a task. It is also an essential component for later feedback and evaluation. While some learners prefer to read on their own without any external influences, others may require or enjoy more motivational support and collaboration through projects and group work.
Collaborative tasks could be as simple as having learners discuss the books they are reading or much more elaborate, as in the case of readers’ theatres, where learners assume the roles of the characters in the books and produce a performance. Activities during this phase are likely to vary greatly depending on the reading contexts and the learners themselves, but as long as the motivation is maintained, the cycle can continue.
The fourth phase of the cycle presents an opportunity to provide positive retrospective evaluation through encouraging feedback. This stage helps clarify what learners need to do in order to achieve their reading goals. It also feeds into and helps develop learners’ self-regulatory processes. Regardless of whether goals have been met or not, the feedback stage should enable the learner to feel capable of further progress and maintain their reading motivation. In cases where reading goals have not been met, the feedback stage explores reasons for lack of achievement; it can help learners select more appropriately leveled reading materials and set more realistic goals, and it can help with creating better reading conditions.
The feedback is then further analyzed through more self-regulatory processes before learners enter the initial stage of the cycle again. Enthusiastic teachers can trigger interest by providing situations that help learners discover exciting new titles and that allow for plenty of choice. Feedback helps learners who have had to reset overambitious goals gain renewed belief in the opportunities for successful reading, while learners who are enjoying reading and achieving their goals can become excited at the prospect of further enhancing their knowledge or losing themselves once again within the next chapter of their book.
Of the almost 60 activities in our book, I’ve chosen four, one from each of these categories, to try out.
A. Create the right reading environment: What do I think I’ll learn?
Key idea: Get students interested in what they’re going to read.
- Review types of reading goals, e.g., being able to read quickly, understand well, read with enjoyment, etc.
- Ask students to look at the front cover, title, and blurb of their new graded reader. Individually, they complete the handout below. Elicit examples first. Monitor and assist as necessary.
- Put students into groups of three to share what they’ve written.
- Take feedback from the groups and discuss.
- Finish by telling students to keep their worksheets and their goals safe. When they’ve finished their book, they will review them and check how they did compared to their predictions and their goals.
Look at your new graded reader and complete this handout.
- How much do you expect to enjoy this reader?
- How much new vocabulary would you like to learn?
- What do you expect to learn about the world, or about a specific place or person?
- Are you expecting any difficulties in reading it?
- How do you expect to feel about your English when you’ve finished it?
- Write down your three reading goals.
B. Generate initial reading motivation: Don’t give too much away!
Key idea: Students motivate other students to read. (Each student has read a different book.)
Before students discuss the books they’ve just read, ask them to write some notes about the following:
- Brief description of the main characters
- Where the story is set
- How the story begins
- An interesting/exciting scene in the book (not the final scene!)
- A personal connection they had with the story
- Any deeper meaningful issues in the book
- Put the students into pairs or small groups and ask them to discuss their books with each other.
- Take feedback on which books students would like to read next.
C. Maintain and protect reading motivation: The six-book challenge
Key idea: Challenge students to read. Include competition.
Present the class with a selection of books, ensuring they are easy enough for all students to read.
Ask the class to look through the selection and decide on six books they want to be included in the reading challenge.
Put the students into small teams.
Once the students have begun reading their individual books, they should discuss what they have read within their teams each week in class. Teachers should monitor the discussions to ensure the students are actually reading the books.
The winning team is the first group whose members have all read each of the six books.
D. Encourage positive retrospective evaluation: What I learned
Key idea: Students reflect on what they’ve learned by reading.
- Ask students to take out the handout they filled in before: What do I think I’ll learn? (See Section A.)
- Individually, students check their notes and write about what they learned in the handout below. Encourage them to compare their before and after ideas.
- Put students into groups of three to share their findings.
- Take selective feedback and discuss. Did they achieve their goals?
- How much did you enjoy this reader?
- How much new vocabulary did you learn?
- What did you learn about the world, or about a specific place or person?
- Did you experience any difficulties in reading it?
- How do you feel about your English after finishing it?
As I wrote at the beginning of this article, no one argues with the fact that ER is good for language learning. Since the evidence for the power of extensive reading is so overwhelming, I believe that we owe it to our students to study the ways in which we can increase motivation to make it an integral part of our teaching programs. Let’s really make full use of its power in our classrooms.
Dornyei, Z. (2001). Motivational Strategies in the Language Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Grabe, W. (2009). Reading a Second Language: Moving from Theory to Practice. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Krashen, S. (1993). The Power of Reading.
Leather, S., and Uden, J. (2021). Extensive Reading: The Role of Motivation. Routledge.
Waring, R. (2009), in A. Cirocki (ed.), Extensive Reading in English Language Teaching.
Sue Leather is a writer and ELT educator based in Vancouver. She is an expert on extensive reading, having written over 35 original graded readers for a number of publishers. She won the Learner Literature Award twice, for Dead Cold (Cambridge University Press) and Ask a Friend (Stand for Readers), and was nominated a further two times, for The Big Picture and The Way Home (both Cambridge University Press). Extensive Reading: The Role of Motivation came out in 2021. You can find all her books on her Amazon author page. Contact her at [email protected] or www.sueleather.com.