Using Extensive Reading to Improve IELTS Writing Skills
By Christopher Redmond
If I were to teach a lesson for IELTS candidates, I would emphasize the importance of Extensive Reading (ER). In my role as an IELTS examiner, it has become clear to me that most candidates lack the vocabulary needed to produce language that is both fluent and authentic. Instead, they rely on a narrow range of formulaic expressions designed to conceal their linguistic deficiencies. Any examiner would admit that the persistent use of these expressions undermines rather than enhances the quality of the candidate’s work, particularly in the Writing section.
I am referring, of course, to overused lexical crutches like “Every coin has two sides” or “With the development of China’s economy…” These phrases are typically learned at IELTS training agencies, and while they may help the candidate to get a 5 or 5.5, their continued presence makes it harder for a higher Band to be reached. This is where ER comes in.
What is ER?
ER is an approach to language learning which is popular among researchers but resisted by teachers. In their classic work on the subject, Day and Bamford (1998) define ER as being an approach to reading that aims to get students reading as much as possible at a level they are comfortable with. Any activities related to ER focus on instilling a fondness for English reading, to the point where the students read for pleasure both in and out of the classroom. This stands in contrast to the more conventional approach to reading instruction - namely, Intensive Reading - in which students answer several comprehension questions based on short and difficult texts.
The research supporting the linguistic benefits of ER is vast, but teachers tend to steer clear of it, especially in countries like China where more traditional, teacher-centered approaches are used to teach languages. Considering the potential for vocabulary development through ER (Horst, 2005), this is somewhat surprising. The good news, as we will now see, is that there is an activity IELTS teachers can use to cultivate a reading habit among their students.
Sustained Silent Reading
Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) is ER in action. Its premise is really quite simple: the students - and the teacher - sit down and read for about 15-20 minutes. The problem with this seemingly straightforward activity is that it can be difficult to find the right materials. For example, not every school is equipped with a library of graded readers or other levelled reading resources. Nevertheless, there is an abundance of graded material to be found online, from the excellent
Read Oasis to the wide-ranging and informative
ER Foundation. Given that most IELTS students have a genuine incentive to learn English, they may already have several English resources they can read during SSR time. For SSR to work properly, however, the teacher ought to read in tandem with the students. “If the teacher is seen to read with concentration, to enjoy reading…”, writes Christine Nuttall, “the students are more likely to take notice of her when she urges them to do the same” (1996: 229; cited in Bamford and Day, 2004: 200).
There are, however, a few issues that the teacher ought to be vigilant about. Some students, particularly the inexperienced readers, may wish to use this time to surreptitiously play with their phones. These are the times when some individual chats with students can help to refocus their attention on the importance of reading. I would also recommend a whole-class discussion on the linguistic benefits of reading (see Shaffer, n.d., for a concise review of the literature). To spur the skeptics on to an ER habit, it would be a wise to mention that high scores on high-stakes tests are often predicted by large amounts of ER, as research by Gradman and Hanania (1991) has concluded.
A Useful Follow-Up Activity
As mentioned earlier, follow-up activities are often unnecessary after ER, but for students new to the process, it would make sense to include one or two. What I have done in the past is to have students simply share what they read with their partner. They can either narrate the story or explain what they liked about the book. To add some immediacy to this activity, the teacher could give students a time limit, whereby they would need to convey the book’s key details to their partner within a 2-minute timeframe, to be reduced and extended as needed. The advantage of this activity is that it also allows for practice in oral fluency, in a way that resembles Part 2 of the Speaking section. A plethora of ER-based activities can be found in Bamford and Day (2004), while Pilgreen (2000) and Gardiner (2005) have both written helpful books on the subject of SSR.
Considering ER’s benefits for vocabulary development, an IELTS candidate who rarely reads in English would find it difficult to score high on the Writing section. Lexical growth through ER does take time, but no one becomes fluent in a language overnight. Implementing ER in IELTS preparation classes would make it easier for students to acquire higher levels of vocabulary, thereby reducing their reliance on a narrow range of formulaic expressions.
Bamford, J., and Day, R.R. (2004) Extensive Reading Activities for Teaching Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Day, R.R., and Bamford, J. (1998) Extensive Reading in the Second Language Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gardiner, S. (2005) Building Student Literacy Through Sustained Silent Reading. Alexandria: ASCD.
Gradman, H.L., and Hanania, E. (1991) Language Learning Background Factors and ESL Proficiency. The Modern Language Journal 75(1): 39-51.
Horst, M. (2005) Learning L2 Vocabulary Through Extensive Reading: A Measurement Study. The Canadian Modern Language Review 61: 355-382.
Nuttall, C. (1996) Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language. London: Heinemann.
Pilgreen, J. (2000). The SSR Handbook: How to Organise and Maintain a Sustained Silent Reading Program. Portsmouth: Heinemann.
Read Oasis - Read Big. https://readoasis.com/. [Accessed: 17 February 2018].
Shaffer, D. (n.d.) In Defense of Extensive Reading for Language Learning. https://www.academia.edu/2454421/In_Defense_of_Extensive_Reading_for_Language_Learning. [Accessed: 15 February 2018].
The Extensive Reading Foundation. http://erfoundation.org/wordpress/. [Accessed: 15 February 2018].