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The Inescapable case for Extensive Reading

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The inescapable case for extensive reading

Rob Waring, Notre Dame Seishin University, Okayama, Japan

To appear in A. Cirocki (Ed.) Extensive Reading in English Language Teaching


In his article, Dr. Rob Waring discusses the necessity for Extensive Reading and Extensive Listening in all language programs. The article reviews recent vocabulary research and shows that learners need to meet massive amounts of language to learn not only single words but also their collocations, register and so forth. The article demonstrates that neither intentional learning nor course books (especially linear-based ones) can cover the vast volume of text the learners need to meet without Extensive Reading. He shows that learners need to gain their own sense of language and this cannot be gained from only learning discrete language points, rather it must, and can only, come from massive exposure in tandem with course books.


This paper puts forward the idea that graded reading, or extensive reading, is a completely indispensable part of any language program, if not all language programs.  In order to demonstrate the case for an extensive reading component within any language program, it is useful to distinguish between two kinds of learning. The first is learning to use language. The second is studying about language.

Learning to use language means learning to use a language feature such as a verb, a grammatical construction or a lexical item, fluently and automatically in communicative situations. In order to do this, the learner should not be bogged down with form. If the learner has to think mid-sentence how a tense or a phrase should be constructed, then the fluency changes to a focus on language items. Studying about language involves finding out about how the language items work, such as learning the grammar and vocabulary through course books, a teacher’s presentation, or from a reading passage. The learners are introduced to a piece of language in say, a reading or listening passage and then asked to analyze it and find out its form and function. For example, the learners may learn the difference between make and do, or between the past simple tense and the present perfect tense, and so on. Typically, in course books and lessons, this presentation phase is followed activities that check the item is understood and can be manipulated and controlled at the form, meaning and pragmatic levels by giving some kind of drill, a gap-fill, a sentence completion activity, or a test. All this learning about language is fine, but how much language do the learners need to learn? 

1. The amount of language to be learnt

Let us first look at the vocabulary. We know from vocabulary research that English is made up of a very few extremely common words which comprise the bulk of the language. In written text, we know that about 2000 word families cover about 85-90% of the running words in general texts and that 50% of any text will be function words (Nation 2001). We also know that to read a native novel, a newspaper or a magazine with 98% vocabulary coverage, a learner would need to know about 8000-9000 word families. But how should these words be learnt? And what do we mean by “learning”? And how do we define a “word”?

One of the few things language researchers can agree about is that learners can learn words from reading provided the reading is comprehensible. They may though, disagree over the uptake rates and types of texts to be used. Determining uptake rates is a vital component in the overall picture of vocabulary learning because these rates affect how much text learners need to meet, and over what time period the learning should take place. Over the last decade or so we’ve been able to patch together a picture of the rate at which incidental vocabulary learning can occur from second language reading. However, the estimates vary sometimes considerably. For example, Dupuy and Krashen (1993) state that 25% of their target words were learnt, and in other studies the figures range from 20% (Horst – Cobb – Meara 1998), to  6.1% (Pitts – White – Krashen 1989), and to 5.8% (Day – Omura – Hiramatsu 1991). More recent estimates put the uptake rate and 25% and 4% (Waring – Takaki 2003) depending on the type of test used to measure gains.

One of the reasons for this variation is that uptake rates vary widely depending on a range of factors. Among these factors are learnability, criteria for learning and the opportunity for successful learning. One of the main factors affecting learnability includes the ratio of unknown to known words in a text. The more dense a text is (more unknown words it has), the less likely incidental learning can occur. Liu Na and Nation (1985) and Hu and Nation (1999) suggest the optimal known word coverage rate be about 95-99% of known words for there to be a good chance that learning can take place. Learnability is also affected by other factors such as whether a word is concrete or abstract, a cognate or not, or if it appears with highly redundant co-text, and whether the target word appears in a transparent or opaque context, and so forth. Laufer (1989) and Nation (2001), and many others have shown that unless we have about 98-99% coverage of the vocabulary of the other words in the text, the chance that an unknown word will be learnt is minimal. This means that at minimum there should be one new word in 40, or 1 in 50 for the right conditions for incidental vocabulary learning. The figures for learning from listening appear to be even higher due to the transitory nature of listening (Brown – Waring – Donkaewbua 2008).

The criteria for learning refers to the measures used to assess learning. Waring and Takaki (2003) have shown that some test types are easier to complete than others. For example, a simple word recognition test (Have you seen this word?) requires only knowledge of seeing the orthographic string of letters and does not require the word’s meaning to be known. By contrast, an L1 to L2 translation test will require considerably more knowledge. Supporting this, Brown, Waring and Donkaewbua (2008) found that multiple choice tests consistently return higher scores than translation tests because they require less knowledge for completion. One of the reasons for this is that multiple choice tests will naturally generate a 25% score for 4 option tests if subjects guess randomly. Thus, depending on one’s criteria, the acquisition rates will vary considerably and researchers should be careful to select appropriate measures.

Uptake rates also depend on the opportunities for learning that is, the number of times an unknown word appears in a given text and how closely spaced the unknown words are, so that knowledge can be retained in memory before it is lost. It is pertinent to look at the opportunity that learners have for learning from natural text because this can tell us how how words are spaced in the language. Moreover, this data combined with the uptake rates stated above, can help us determine whether incidental learning of vocabulary from reading is efficient enough to be a major vocabulary learning strategy.

Table 1 shows the frequency at which words occur in a 50 million word sub-corpus (both written and spoken) of the British National Corpus (BNC) of English. The corpus was analyzed using Range (Nation – Wheatley 2000) whereby words were counted in word families by type. For example, all instances of the verb use and its derivations and inflections members (used, user, usefully, uselessness), count as one occurrence.  The table can be read as follows. The most frequent word in English (the) covers 5.839% of any general English text (i.e. it occurs once in every 17 words) (see (1) in the table). The 2000th most frequent word in English covers 0.00432% of any general English text and occurs once every 23,103 words (2). Note that when the learner meets the 2000th most frequent word in English, this means that all the previous 1999 words have also been met at least once.

Table 1: A statistical analysis of the number of English words needed to meet at given occurrence rates to ‘learn’ that number of words





C (= 100 / B)

D   (= x times C    )


Word rank

Percentage of English this word covers

Number of running words needed meet all these words once

Volume of text needed to be read to meet the

words at these recurrence rates

5 times

10 times

20 times

50 times

1st  most frequent (the)


17 (1)





2nd most frequent (be)







25th (as)







50th (like)







100th (hear)







500th (present)





80,732 (4)


1000th (blood)




85,329 (3)



1500th (intent)







2000th (stumble)

0.00432% (2)






3000th (sergeant)







5000th (satellite)





2,642,857 (5)


10,000th (relativity)







It is important to remember that these data refer to opportunity of learning from reading, not to learning itself. However, we can multiply these occurrence rates with an estimate of the repetition rate to get some idea of possible uptake rates. If we set the uptake threshold whereby a word become “learnt” at 10 recurrences, 85,329 words need to be read to “learn” all the 1000 most frequent words in English (3).To “learn” all the 500 most frequent words in English at an uptake threshold of 20 times, 80,732 words need to be read (4) and 2.6 million words need to be met to meet the most frequent 5000 words at 20 recurrences (5).

Many researchers argue that learners can build a huge vocabulary simply from reading. However, even at the 10 meeting recurrence rate for learning to occur, Table 1 clearly shows that a huge amount of text needs to be met to facilitate the learning of vocabulary incidentally from reading. It also shows that as one’s vocabulary level increases, there is a huge increase in the amount of text that one needs to be read in order to meet unknown words because each new or partially-learnt word is met more and more infrequently.

Considerable evidence (e.g. Nation 2001, Waring – Takaki 2003) suggests that our brains do not learn things all in one go, and we are destined to forget many things we learn and especially recent knowledge is quite fragile. We also tend to pick up complex things like language in small incremental pieces rather than in whole chunks. We know for example, that it takes between 10-30 or even 50 or more meetings of a word receptively for the form (spelling or sound) of an average word to be connected to its meaning (Waring, forthcoming).

The data in Table 1 comes from an analysis of the British National Corpus and reflect natural occurrence in English. One might protest by saying that language learners do not meet the type of L1 language found in the BNC, but rather they meet specially graded texts (like those found in course books and graded readers) and so this is an unfair analysis. It is true to say learners can’t deal with the density of native text, especially at the early levels of reading but there are many other factors at work here that grossly under-estimate the amount of language table 1 presents that one needs to meet in order to build a functioning L2 vocabulary.

The BNC data in Table 1 are for word families based on type. In other words the data states that meeting any of the family members 20 times (use, then uselessness, then user) means the whole family will be learnt after those 20 meetings. This is obviously a gross simplification as many derivations are easy to learn (wind/windy or teach/teacher), whereas other are complex and late acquired (govern/ungovernable or excuse/inexcusable). Moreover, the analysis does not account for polywords, not the thousands of lexical chunks and set phrases such as I’d rather not;  If it were up to me, I’d…; We got a quick bite to eat; What’s the matter?; The best thing to do is … and so on. Nor does it take into account polysemy (multiple meaning senses of words), phrasal verbs, idioms and metaphor because the analysis was done by type. All these need to be learnt in addition to the single words.

Table 1 also does not take into account the volume of text needed to learn the collocations and colligations either. If we assume that the learning of a meaning and its form is a precondition for the learning of its collocations (we need to know calm and sea to know the collocation calm sea), we can conclude that these ‘deeper’ aspects of the learning of a word will take far longer than just learning the word as a single unit i.e. its form-meaning connection only. But how many collocations does each word have, on average? Here is a sample of some of the main collocations and colligations for the very common word idea (taken from Hill – Lewis 1997).

Verb collocations of Idea.  e.g. abandon an idea

abandon, absorb, accept, adjust to, advocate, amplify, advance, back, be against, be committed/dedicated/drawn to, be obsessed with, be struck by, borrow, cherish, clarify, cling to, come out/up with, confirm, conjure up, consider, contemplate, convey, debate, debunk, defend, demonstrate, develop, deny, dismiss, dispel, disprove, distort, drop …………………….

These are just a small part of the verb collocations and colligations of one word – idea. And most of them were not given. This list only goes up to the letter d and there are about 100 more! And that doesn’t count the adjective uses (e.g. an abstract idea, an appealing idea, and arresting idea and so on) of which there are also several dozen.  Not all words have this number of collocational partners and no one would suggest that learners need to know them all. Learners do however, need to know a good proportion of these to even approach native-like control and fluency over a given word and its collocations, thus the vocabulary task becomes even more arduous than that painted in Table 1.

The density of a text is a property of the learner, not the text itself. Thus a given text could be easy for one learner but impossibly hard for another. The above clearly suggest that language EFL learners who are trying to read fluently (extensively) who have not yet reached an advanced level (i.e. they know fewer than 5000 word families) should meet language which has been controlled and simplified so they are not overwhelmed by dense texts that prevent them from reading fluently. L1 texts (especially literary texts) typically are very dense lexically which would make them difficult to read and learn from and almost impossible to read fluently for all but the most highly advanced learners of English. Learners reading native texts that contain a high would make the reading slow and intensive and change the reading task into a linguistic (study) one rather than one for building fluency. This is not bad necessarily, but learners should be aware that unless they read a lot, they will not have the opportunity to meet the unknown words they need to strengthen their partially-known vocabularies. Therefore, EFL learners would need to use graded readers initially to help even out the density issues by systematizing the vocabulary load. Only when the learners can cope with more advanced texts, should they be exposed to them. Nevertheless, the volume of text needed to be met is immense and far beyond that of most normal courses. What this means is that far more than one book a week at the learner’s level will be required as was recommended by Nation and Wang (1999).

Table 1 also shows that the occurrence of general English words above about the 2-3000 headword level, becomes rather random, unstable and unpredictable for selection. The data clearly show that learners wishing to master more than 3000 words must resort to upgraded texts as most graded reader series top out at around this level. However, doing this further complicates the task because as frequency lowers, each new word appears less frequently which in turn requires more volume of text to be written to meet unknown or partially known words (one’s “partially-known vocabulary”). Unless the volume of reading is increased, it is likely that any partial knowledge of a given word will be lost from memory especially as each individual occurrence of words above this level appears so randomly and unpredictably in ungraded text. These data together suggest that it is unlikely much learning will occur from only reading above the 3000 word level unless several thousands of words are read per day.

To this point we have examined the vocabulary task at hand. If we now turn to the grammar, we can see a similarly massive task ahead of our learners. These examples of the present perfect tense, in its various guises, mask various forms and cannot be seen in the same way words can be, as the tense is abstract which makes it even harder to acquire.

 A government committee has been created to …

He hasn’t seen her for a while.

Why haven’t you been doing your homework?

There’s been a big accident in Market Street.

Have you ever eaten snails?

The tense appears with differing subjects and objects, as both yes/no and wh- question forms, in the negative as well as declarative. It can be active or passive, continuous or simple, with have or has and that does not count the myriad regular and irregular past participle forms and the short answer forms. There are about 75 different possible variations of the form of the present perfect tense – and that does not count the different uses such as present perfect for experiences (I’ve been to Paris), present perfect for recent news (He’s got a new car); or present perfect for recently completed events (He’s just finished dinner)! Nor does it count how the present perfect is different from say the past simple or past perfect tenses.

To be able to master the form, function and pragmatic information underlying the forms, let alone the different uses and nuances of the present perfect tense as well as learning how it differs from other tenses, must surely take thousands and thousands of meetings. One of the major problems facing the learning of say a tense is that syntax is abstract. Learners cannot see the present perfect tense (or indeed any syntactic feature) as they always come with different verbs and subjects. The example sentences above are all the present perfect tense but are hiding in passive and active forms, and inside the verbs create, see, be, eat and so on. The abstract have (has) + past participle cannot be seen which makes the job that much harder and possibly requires meeting the tenses thousands of times before the learners become comfortable with it.

We have a fairly good idea about the uptake rates for words, but what about grammatical features? It is sad to say that after an exhaustive search for the uptake rates of grammatical features it appears that in the whole history of language research there is no data at all. None. This is amazing given that the vast majority of language courses taught today have a grammatical focus at least in part. How can we, as an industry, create courses and write learning materials without at least some idea of how frequently grammatical items need to be met for learning to occur? That said, it is clear that it typically takes several years after learners have been introduced to language features that they finally feel comfortable enough with them to start to use them at all, let alone correctly.

2. Is there a case for intentional learning?

The above would seem to be a damning indictment on the benefit of incidental learning from fluent reading because it could be said that the time expended on the reading might be more fruitfully spent on intentional learning. Statistically, Table 1 would suggest that as the learner’s ability increases, more words in the learners “partially-working vocabulary” (the words in the learners partially known set of words) shifts to more and more rare and less frequent words. This is because the highly frequent words (their “working vocabulary”) have already been learnt. It could be concluded that this time is “wasted” because a natural outcome of increased vocabulary knowledge is that it takes so much more time to meet words in the “partially-working vocabulary” or in one’s “unknown vocabulary”. To meet even one unknown, or partially known word might require the learner to read several thousand other, already known, words first which suggests intentional learning might be faster and more effective. Indeed, recent research (Nozaki 2007) has shown that direct and intentional learning of vocabulary is faster than from incidental learning (i.e. from reading). Nozaki used two groups in two conditions, in a rotated design. Both groups were given the same amount of time to learn the same words either from word cards or from an easy reading text. Nozaki found that the words met with word cards were learnt not only 16 times faster (words per hour of study), but were also retained longer than words learnt incidentally from reading.

Additionally, a case study of a learner in a study by Mukoyama (2004) showed that 30 minutes a day of learning Korean-Japanese word pairs for 30 days lead to 640 words being attempted and partially learnt. At the end of 30 days, 468 words were learnt (all the words were tested by L1-L2 translation) and two months later 395 words were still known, and at 7 months 310 words were retained all without any further meetings. These two studies together clearly show the power of intentional learning over incidental learning.

One might easily conclude from the above that we should not ask learners to learn vocabulary incidentally from reading, but rather adopt a systematic and intensive approach to direct vocabulary learning such as with word cards. One might even go further to conclude that by doing so, learners would not need to “waste” time reading, because they can learn faster from intentional learning and free up valuable class / learning time. However, this would be a grave mistake and a fundamentally flawed conclusion because language learning is far more complex than the extremely simplistic picture given above.

As has been mentioned, the above mentioned studies and the data in Table 1, define a “word” as a single meaning based on orthographic forms that a computer can understand and thus polysemous meanings, collocations and so forth were omitted which vastly underestimates the actual task at hand. To really know a word well, learners need to know not only meanings and spellings, but the nuances of its meanings, its register, whether it is more commonly used for speaking or writing, which discourse categories it is usually found in, as well as its collocations and colligations, among many other things. The above studies see words as single stand-alone objects rather than words that co-exist and are co-learnt (and forgotten) with other words. They vastly underestimate what might be learnt because they only look at a partial, though very important, picture of word learning – the learning of single meanings.

One might be tempted to suggest given the rather slow rate at which vocabulary is learnt from incidental reading, that the multiple meanings, colligations, collocations, register, pragmatic values and so forth could be learnt intentionally. While this may be possible in theory and even in practice, we have to then ask where is the material to do this with? Where are the books that systematically teach this “deeper” vocabulary knowledge and recycle it dozens or hundreds of times beyond the form-meaning relationship (collocation etc.) for even the 1000 most frequent words? A few books exist but do not even come close to more than random selection of a choice few collocations, whereas as we have seen, learners need vastly more. In short, these materials do not exist. Even if they did, it would take a monumental amount of motivation to plough through such books intentionally and I doubt few, if any, learners have this stamina.

Moreover, there are as yet no available data to tell us which collocations might be the most frequent and useful for which words and without these data we could not systematize the learning and teachers would be left to the ad hoc teaching of collocations. Moreover, there are simply far too many individual collocations for each word for learners to try to master intentionally and each collocation is far rarer than the words that it is made up of. For example, the word woman and beautiful occur hundreds of times more frequently with other words than as beautiful woman together. No course book could ever be written to encompass them all. This leaves the learner only one realistic option, which is to pick the vast majority of them up incidentally.

3. The structure of language courses

No learner has the time to methodically go through and learn all the above. No course  book, or course, can possibly hope to teach even a tiny fraction of them. There is too much to do. But our course books were not designed to teach all of this. Let us look at what course books and course typically are designed to do. Our course books concentrate on introducing new language items with each appearing in new units or lessons, with new topics all the time. For example, learners may meet copula be and jobs in Unit (or lesson) 1, and in Unit 2 they may meet the present simple tense and learn some words for simple actions (play, go, watch). In Unit 3 might come the present continuous and sporting activities. The structure of our courses and course books allows each unit/lesson to present something new – new grammar, new vocabulary, new reading skills, new pronunciation points, and so on in a linear way. Figure 1 illustrates this linearity.

Figure 1: The structure of a typical beginning level course

The structure of course books and linear courses in general, shows us that they are not concerned with deepening knowledge of a given form, only introducing it or giving minimal practice in it beyond a token review unit, or test. They do not concentrate on the revisiting, recycling and revising necessary for acquisition. The assumption underlying most courses and course books is that our learners have “met” or “done that now” and we do not need to go back to it, so we can move on. Adopting this default view of language teaching (that “teaching equals learning” implicit in these materials) is a massive mistake if that is all we do because it undersells what our learners need – which is massive language practice with the things taught in course books but under the right conditions. But how well do course books actually present their vocabulary?

Tables 2, 3 and 4 present a vocabulary analysis four levels of a typical four-skills course book (Sequences by Heinle Cengage) that a typical class may use. The series analyzed here is quite typical of those currently on the market. It has a four-skill focus plus a grammar and vocabulary focus and includes readings and listenings as well as speaking activities. Each unit is about a particular topic or theme (such as home, family, sports, or the environment). As each unit has its own vocabulary, the words tend not to be re-taught or even met again (even in review units) as there is a constant focus on learning new words and new grammar at the expense of recycling previously taught words.

Table 2 shows the number of types (defined as a word family) for each of six recurrence levels (more than 51 recurrences, 21-50, 10-20, 5-9, 4-3 and 2-1) at four frequency bands - the 1-1000 most frequent words in English (the same list was used for the Table 1 analysis), the 1001-2000, the 2001-300 and the over 3000 list. 40% of the types in the top band (3000+) is made up of proper nouns with the remaining 60% are words over 3000 most frequent words. Table 3 presents the data from Table 2 as a percentage of the total types used.

Table 2: The total number of occurrences by type by frequency band level








Not used*

























3001 +
















*The words in the not used category refer to words in that frequency band that did not appear in the series.

Table 3: The percentage of types by recurrence rate by frequency band





























3001 +














Tables 4 and 5 presents the number of tokens for each frequency band for each of the recurrence rates at the four frequency bands. The four books in the series comprise a total of 162,175 tokens. The percentages of the total tokens by recurrence rate and by frequency band are shown in Table 5.

Table 4: The total number of tokens by recurrence rate by frequency band level
































    3001 +
















Table 5: The percentage of the total number of tokens by recurrence rate by frequency band level

































    3001 +

















As one might expect, given that more than 60% of the English language is made up of function words and high frequency delexical verbs (be, go, do, have etc.), 82.88% (Table 5) of the volume of the series are words which occur more than 51 times, but these actually only account for 400 of the total of 4358 types (Table 2) occurring in the series. More interestingly, the data in Tables 2 and 3 show that there is a small set of words which occur frequently. 400 types occur more than 51 times in the series with 795 (400+395) occurring more than 20 times but account for only 18.25% of the total types met in the books.  There are also a very high number of singletons (one occurrence words) and doublets. 43.08% of the types are in this category, which are very unlikely to be learnt due to their infrequency.

We should now ask how many of these can we reasonably expect to be “learnt” by the end of the course. If we assume that over 20 recurrences is the threshold for “learning”, the remaining 81.75% of words occurring fewer than 21 times (higher if we exclude the proper nouns from this) in the books are not met enough to be “learnt” but could be considered “partially learnt”, or in fact, never learnt. In other words after finishing four levels of a typical four-skills course the best we can expect is that the learners will have learnt about 800 (400+395) words receptively. As productive vocabulary is often a quarter of the receptive, the learners will likely have a productive vocabulary of about 200 words by the end of the course. This is also assuming that all the words in the family will be learnt – a highly unlikely situation. It probably means very few collocations, lexical phrases and so forth have also been learnt either.

These data suggest that course books do not, and cannot by their very design provide the recycling of vocabulary needed for acquisition. This should not in any way be seen as an attack on course books. Course books are very useful and powerful but because of their design, they can only do half the job. They are good at introducing new language features in a linear way, but are not good, because of their design, at recycling this language and are poor at building depth of knowledge. If learners only use course books, and endless intensive reading books, they will not be able to pick up their own sense of how the language works until very late in their careers (i.e. until they have met the language enough times).

This, we can suspect, is one of the reasons teachers and learners alike complain that even after several years of English education, many learners cannot make even simple sentences even though they can get 100% on grammar and reading tests but can hardly say a word in anything other than faltering English. The reason for this should now be clear. Simply put, they did not meet enough language to fully learn what they were been taught. Their knowledge is abstract, and stays abstract, because it was taught abstractly because the course books and courses tend to break down the language into teachable units. This atomistic knowledge is useful for tests of discrete knowledge (e.g. selecting a tense from choices or completing gap fills) because this knowledge was learnt discretely, which allows them to do well on discrete point tests. However, because their knowledge is held discretely, it is no wonder when the learners are called upon to use it in speaking or writing they don’t know how to put their discrete knowledge together fluently. The endless drudgery emphasizing only abstract knowledge for tests, at the expense of language use, compounds this problem.

4. The NEED for extensive reading and listening

So, how are the learners going to deepen their knowledge if they do not have time to learn these things intentionally, and our course books do not re-visit the features / words they teach? Where is the recycling of language we need for real learning? The answer lies with graded or extensive reading used in tandem with a taught course such as the course book shown above. The two must work together. The course book would introduce and give minimal practice in the language features and vocabulary while the reading of graded readers consolidate, strengthen and deepen that knowledge.

Graded reading, extensive reading and listening focus on several things. Most importantly, extensive reading (and listening) are primarily about meaning. The aim is to fluently read, or listen to, massive amounts of comprehensible language within one’s comfort zone with an aim being to build fluency while consolidating language knowledge. Reading fluently means reading quickly for meaning and provides opportunities to notice and pick up more depth of knowledge about language features that the course books can only introduce. Importantly, if the reading text is too hard (less than about 98% knowledge of the surrounding unknown words), then their fluent reading will be interrupted and their chance for meeting a lot of language will be reduced as they have to return to more intensive language study to work on the unknown language. It’s only by reading fast can they meet a lot of language. Reading 200-300 running words slowly and intensively from a reading text in one 90 minute class is not going to build reading speed. Thus the learners will not be able to meet enough language input to meet and pick up new words or collocations from context.

Therefore, it is vital that when they are learning to use language fluently that they read fluently and smoothly with minimal interruption and at the right level. When they are studying language (such as that done in course books and grammar books) the text can be more difficult in order that they learn or re-visit previously taught language.  Very often in language programs teachers mistakenly use native materials with the intention of exposing the learner to “authentic” texts. This is fine if, and this is a huge if, if the learner can deal with it. If not, then the text is noise and frustrational (for the teacher and learner) and not is not instructional (from a linguistic point of view) but will be interfering with instruction and is unlikely to help build reading speed.

Probably most important benefit of being exposed to massive amounts of text is the opportunity it gives the learner to consolidate the language that was learnt discretely and abstractly in the “studying about” phases. Our course books and studying language in general, necessarily remove the item being studied from its context so the learners can examine it. The aim of this type of work is most often to control the language features to make them “teachable”. In other words, course books tend to be structured to present language, not to work with communicative meaning, but to help learners understand and get control over language form and use in an abstract sense. But this knowledge is about that item and is studied apart from other language items and any knowledge gained exists in a vacuum of knowledge. Therefore, it is largely unavailable for production in anything but a limited way, as we have seen.

Therefore to gain fluent control over the language, the learners also must meet these items in real contexts to see how they work together, to see how they fit together. In other words learners must get a “sense” or “feeling” for how the language works. This sense of language can only come from meeting the language very often and by seeing it work in actual language use (i.e. from their reading or listening). This depth of knowledge gives learners the depth of language awareness and confidence to feel comfortable with the language that will enable them to speak or write. And this exposure comes from graded readers and extensive reading and extensive listening.

An oft-asked question is “Why can’t my learners speak? They’ve been learning English for years now. I teach them things, but they just don’t use them. It’s so frustrating.”  Learners will only speak when they are ready to. That is, they will speak once they feel comfortable enough using the language feature or word. If they do not know how to say something, they simply will stay silent or resort to doing their best by holophrasing or speaking in single words often ungrammatically (I went shopping. New dress, very nice). Fluent speaking only happens once an item enters a learner’s “comfort zone”, where they feel confident of using it without looking like a fool. But where does this comfort come from? It comes from experience with the language. The more times they meet a word, a phrase, a grammatical feature, the more chance it has to enter their comfort zone and the greater chance there is for it to become available for production. It is no wonder then that research into extensive reading that show gains for speaking only from extensive reading (e.g. Mason – Krashen 1997).

Bluntly stated, language programs that do not have an extensive reading or graded reading component of massive comprehensible sustained silent individualized language practice will hold back their learners. Any program that does not allow learners to develop their comfort zone of language is denying them the chance to progress to productive language use.

5. The price of opting out of extensive reading

Most language teachers do not require their learners to read much. Instead, they consider extensive reading as somehow supportive, or supplemental and rarely they set fluent reading for homework. This chapter has argued that it is fundamental mistake to consider sustained silent reading as supplemental, or optional. Extensive reading (or listening) is the only way in which learners can get access to language at their own comfort level, read something they want to read, at the pace they feel comfortable with, which will allow them to meet the language enough times to pick up a sense of how the language fits together and to consolidate what they know. It is impossible for teachers to teach a “sense” of language. We do not have time, and it is not our job. It is the learners’ job to get that sense for themselves. This depth of knowledge of language must, and can only, be acquired through constant massive exposure. It is a massive task that requires massive amounts of reading and listening on top of our normal course book work.

Teachers and learners can opt out and avoid extensive reading (or listening) if they wish, but no matter what happens, it will still take a certain amount of time to get that “sense of English”. This applies just as much for general English classes as it does to special purposes classes. Learners studying a specialist area (say nursing or engineering) also need constant exposure to massive amounts of text in their discipline to master and consolidate their knowledge of the specialist language, too. Thus the principle that extensive reading is indispensable for all language programs is maintained. Similarly, learners focused on oral skills need to listen to massive amounts of comprehensible text at their fluent understanding level so they can get a sense of how the spoken language works. Where else are they going to pick up the collocations, the colligations and the thousands of lexical phrases, sentence heads and other multi=word combinations they need to approach native-like or even advanced use? Where does their sense of language come from? Certainly not, as we have seen, from only working with their course books or with any other linear-based course.

Unless learners read and listen extensively, they will be tied to classes and teachers, dictionaries and course books until they have met the required volume of language that will build the depth they need that allows the item to enter their comfort zone. There is no way round this. Thus, there is no excuse for not having an integral extensive reading program in every language program. It would, quite rightly, be a scandal if the learners were denied access to graded reading and listening materials given as we have seen that course books and linear courses alone are insufficient.

Teachers who say we do not have time to add extensive reading to our courses are missing the point. The point of this chapter is to show that our classes need a balance of course work and extensive language work with whatever time is available. If we have only one class a week, some of that should be course work and some extensive work. If we have ten classes a week, the same applies. If we can add extensive work to our classes by asking learners to read out of class on top of their course work, then all the better. If not, we should still maintain the need for an appropriate balance of coursework and fluency work.

There is also no excuse to delay starting. Recently, the graded reader publishers have graded readers which start at very low levels. For example, the Foundations Reading Library (Heinle Cengage) starts with only 75 headwords which are readable after only a few months or weeks of language work. There are now over 2000 graded readers available from the major publishers with books going up to the 5000 headword level and include non-fiction as well as fiction. There is something for everybody.

Teachers may say, “but we do not have a budget, time or resources to do this”. This chapter’s answer is, speak to the people who make decisions, tell them why it is vital (not just a good idea) that the learners have chances (and are required if necessary) to read and listen to massive amounts of comprehensible texts within their comfort zone. If necessary, re-allocate budgets and resources, and re-draw curriculums to give the learners a chance to read and listen fluently. Course work and extensive language exposure must work together. They are the two sides of the same coin. One without the other will not be enough.


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