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IELTS Teacher e-newsletter – October 2019

Extensive reading in the EFL/ESL classroom

Reading is an important receptive skill that any language learner needs to develop to attain proficiency in a language. In any course on language learning, teachers and learners spend several hours on learning how to read. There are many techniques ranging from reading aloud to silent reading or slow reading to fast reading. Most importantly, reading can be a means to intrinsically develop productive skills, both speaking and writing, and also to acquire an implicit understanding of grammar This can be achieved more comprehensively through extensive reading than only through intensive reading in the classroom In ESL or EFL teaching, one of the oft-cited points is that there is lack of proper exposure to English language in actual usage. Usually, in EFL contexts such as in India or China, it is only the English teacher or the English textbook that is the sole means of exposure to language that the learners have; as they have their mother tongue which is more widely used for all other purposes. This is where extensive reading could be of great help to language learners – in providing that much needed exposure to different styles and usage of the English language in real life. The advocates of use of “realia” or “authentic material” in the English textbook talk of exposing the learner to the use of the English language in the real world. If only we could do that through extensive reading, there would be limitless exposure to the English language – as much as the learner wants and more!

The learner in an ESL or EFL context is always also someone who has some other language as their mother tongue. They may have had education or might be going through education in their mother tongue simultaneously while learning English. So, extensive reading might not be entirely new to these learners, as they could already be reading for pleasure in their mother tongue. For instance, I have seen a number of students in China reading the Chinese translations of the Victorian classics such as Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre. So, they indeed do extensive reading! But why not in English? Is that where the English teacher has a role to play?

This is not to say everybody should read the Victorian classics! The whole point of extensive reading is that the learner/reader chooses what he/she wants to read – something that they feel comfortable and happy reading, irrespective of genre, style, grade or any other consideration. Simply, the learner/reader decides! The teacher may have to assist by facilitating the availability of material. To share from my experience of teaching English in India, in the year 2009, while teaching at a college that encouraged teacher autonomy, I set aside one hour per week (of the three hours of English class per week) entirely for extensive reading, upon getting consensus from the learners in my class. It was agreed that everybody (including the teacher) would bring along something to read – a book, a magazine or even a newspaper – that they would like to read in the ‘reading class’. Initially, for about three weeks I took along with me a few old copies of Reader’s Digest, and a collection of random books, as I had guessed that not everybody might remember to bring a book with them. Those who didn’t have a book had to choose from the ones I had brought, so that no one is left without a book for that one hour. That one hour was simply spent only on silent extensive reading. Gradually, the learners began talking after class about the books/articles they had read and started exchanging books, magazines and articles with each other. Some even told me after class about the interesting things they had read! This was done for a semester until they picked up the hobby of reading in English.

Such emphasis on extensive reading is necessary in the English classroom because learners may not read outside the classroom otherwise Sometimes, the English curriculum may prescribe certain texts or a specific number of hours of extensive reading. However, unless the teacher takes it up in class and implements it, all learners, left to themselves, may not do any extensive reading just because the curriculum says so. Also, it is very important that the learners are encouraged to choose what they read (for example: from the available pool of graded material). It takes a while for anybody to pick up reading as a pleasurable activity as there are several other options for pleasure that could distract them from choosing to read. The English classroom has to create that conducive ambience and give them the time to read in the company of their peers and the teacher, to be able to discover the pleasure of reading until they are ready to do it by themselves. This is especially important at the beginner’s and intermediate levels.

Extensive reading is not all for pleasure with no learning. By reading extensively, learners are exposed to the use of the English language in real life. This helps them acquire language rather than learning it. They gain an implicit understanding of the language and in this way will be able to produce accurate grammar in their usage without having to spend hours learning the rules of grammar. The exposure to use of words in different contexts and styles helps them acquire the knowledge of vocabulary in real use along with the right collocation and colligation. They can imbibe the semantic sense of words in the context of a larger piece of writing without having to look up the spelling and meaning of individual words. Such deeper understanding of grammar, meaning, style and variation they get from extensive reading will reflect in their speaking and writing, provided students practice regularly.

This could, no doubt, make learning more fun and less tedious. Extensive reading has to be encouraged soon after learners have acquired some basic ability to read, at the beginner’s level, and could be used in the classroom up until the intermediate level, assuming that advanced level learners could do extensive reading on their own without the need for the teacher’s support. Nevertheless, extensive reading cannot be a substitute for intensive reading because these are two different types of skill. There could be more emphasis on intensive reading at the advanced level than at the beginner’s or the intermediate level.

by Suma Kodandaram



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