Graded and Extensive Reading - questions and answers


The Language Teacher May 1997

Rob Waring
Notre Dame Seishin University, Okayama.

This paper will discuss what Graded Reading is, why it is necessary, where to find reading materials, and some hints for what do in the classroom. There will be discussion of some of the oft-heard objections to Extensive Reading programs and some responses.

What is Graded Reading?
Graded Reading is also known as Basal Reading . Extensive Reading is often called Graded Reading and vice versa, and the terms are often used interchangeably, but there are differences. Firstly regarding materials, Graded Reading uses specially prepared materials while Extensive Reading can but need not. Secondly regarding the reading process, Extensive Reading requires fluent reading while Graded materials can be used for extensive or intensive reading. Thirdly, Extensive Reading sees pleasure as a goal leading to increased motivation. Graded Reading has a specific purpose in mind - to read enough simple material at one level to develop fluency and other forms of linguistic knowledge at that level to enable learners to move to a higher level. The ultimate goal of Graded Reading is to do enough of it that the learner does not need to do it anymore as the learner can deal with native level texts fluently.

Why do Graded Reading?
There are several reasons. First, I shall discuss four linguistic benefits - building reading speed, lexical speed access, reading fluency and the ability to move from working with words to working with ideas when reading (see Nation this issue, for a more thorough account). A short review of reading theory is necessary here to explain the need for Graded Reading. A beginner reader starting to learn to read in a second language starts by looking at each letter of each word to decode the word, and keeps this in working memory while the next word is processed. By the time she gets to the end of the line, the first word can easily be forgotten and only a little meaning of the text is retained. As the reader reads more, she can decode words faster and remember words she decoded before faster and can read more words within the limited space of her memory. This then allows the reader to move from the word by word level of decoding to the processing of chunks of text - short phrases or 'ideas'.

The    old       lady      took      her     dog      to      the      park.      or even     

t  h   e   o  l   d   l   a  d  y   t   o   o   k  h   e   r   d   o   g   t   o  t   h   e   p   a   r   k

A beginner reader will see each of the 9 words or letters separately and is reading word by word. A more experienced and proficient reader will read

The old lady      took her dog          to the park

which is 3 ideas or propositions. This is a vital stage to reach because then the reader is not working with words, she is working with ideas. At this level she can more effectively use background information about the topic to fill in for non-comprehended parts of the text. It is a well known fact that we tend to remember ideas much better than actual words, for example you will be able to relate an article from this morning's paper in your own words much better than trying to recall the exact words that were written. Therefore, in order to remember the text well, we need to work with ideas, not words. This also explains why when we read faster we understand more.

There are psychological benefits too. Mason and Krashen (in press) found that reluctant readers can become motivated readers. Extensive Reading tends to be a pleasurable activity which makes learning easier.

What happens if we don't do Graded Reading?
If a student is asked to do only decoding of texts, through intensive study of them, then she is not getting enough practice of her eye moving smoothly over the page to learn to move up to the 'ideas' level, and she is bogged down in decoding the linguistic puzzle that is her text. How does one tell whether a student is reading intensively or extensively (see Bamford and Day this issue, for a definition of these terms)? It's easy. Are they using a dictionary? Does the text they are reading have notes and translations all over it? If the answer is 'yes', then they are trying to decode it and are reading intensively. Too much of this kind of work does not allow the reader to develop fast and fluent eye movements that bounce along the text with each idea or proposition. Unfortunately, texts of well above a learner's reading level are what most of our students only ever learn to read - the kind of passages which appear on language tests.

But my students only want to pass their tests, so reading extensively will not help them, or can it?
Extensive and Graded Reading will help them to process words faster and they will be better able to read intensively. They will also learn to learn from reading and as they read they are constantly practising the 'guessing from context' skill, so vital for work with the difficult texts that appear on tests.

What Graded Materials are available for my Class and where can I get them?
A teacher can create her own materials for use in the class, but this takes a lot of time. Many teachers find it useful to use published materials. The most well known graded or simplified materials available for the classroom are Graded Readers (also known as Basal Readers or Simplified Readers or just Readers). Some Readers have been written for complete or false beginners, and others for all levels up to advanced and beyond. Readers are short books between 15-130 pages, depending on the difficulty and story and are available in various genres. Often these stories are modified versions of popular novels or are originals written for a particular audience. Others are biographies, travel books and other non fiction works.

A walk into any bookstore that sells English books will find dozens if not hundreds of books to choose from of all shapes, sizes and levels to interest most learners. These books are not children's books, but are written for adult language learners, with the specific aim of helping them to improve their reading skills (See David Hill's review article in this issue)

How do I know what 'level' a Graded Reader is?
Usually publishers have different 'levels' for these materials according to the number of different headwords. For example, a 1200 headword Reader would be carefully written so that very few words appear in the text that are outside a publisher's 1200 most frequently used word families. This makes it easy for anyone choosing a book or creating a school or class library to get books of similar difficulty from different publishers. However, as publishers all use their own frequency lists (which can differ considerably, especially at the higher levels) it makes categorization of books from different publishers problematic at times.

But what about native speaker books, magazines and so on, aren't they helpful for reading?
Yes they are, but a reading teacher must be aware of the reasons the learners read them. If the learner is not able to deal with the text fluently, she will be decoding it and reconstructing it in her mind, trying to understand the whole picture, like she would a jigsaw. This is fine and can lead to a lot of learning (but if it is too difficult a lot of frustration and demoralization).
If decoding (intensive reading) is the aim, then use native material if it matches the aim of the class. However, learning from graded materials can be easier as they are more accessible to learners and the input is more comprehensible.

But surely they must read authentic materials, because learners must be exposed to natural language.
Native speaker materials can be motivating to learners and for those who are near native speaker levels of reading. However, if it is too difficult the learner will become frustrated and form negative opinions about reading, and worst of all may just give up as it is too hard. Countless thousands of students graduate from colleges having spent two years slogging through a classic work of literature and never want to pick up another book in English as long as they live. Their reading was hardly a pleasurable experience. Therefore reading must be pleasurable, but pleasurable does not mean it lacks a serious intent. (See Bamford and Day in this issue for more on this).

So, doing Extensive Reading is just reading, so why do it in class? Aren't there more important things to do?
This misunderstands the purpose of doing Extensive Reading. Extensive Reading is primarily an out-of-class activity. After an initial lesson explaining the program and the borrowing and reporting systems, administration of the reading only takes up a very small part of each class.
Some teachers have a Sustained Silent Reading section in their class where all members of a class read their self - selected material. The idea of this is to ensure that all the learners read individually at the same time and to give the teacher time to speak with the learners about their reading, and administer the program. It is advisable that sometimes the teacher also reads at this time to provide a model for the learners. This should not be misunderstood that the learner is only reading for the sake of reading, but very complex things are happening in the mind of the reader. The reader is not only improving her fluency, but also learning new words, collocations, patterns and so on.

How do I organize the out-of-class reading?
Beniko Mason and Tom Pendergast (see their article in this issue) give their learners a small booklet to explain the reasons for doing this kind of reading. Once the learners understand that they will not be able to read until they practice doing it, they have found them more motivated to do it. They also found that reluctant readers enjoyed this kind of reading. Some teachers require the learners to keep records of what was read and make sure that page targets have been met. If a teacher does not set number of page targets for each semester, then little reading may be done. The number of pages to be read per semester depends on the learners, their level, time, motivation and accessibility to materials.

How do I know the reading out-of-class is being done, and how do I assess it?
There are several ways. First, the teacher can require the learner to write a short report about the reading, thus extending the reading into speaking and writing, integrating the learning. Research has shown that written language use improves with the amount of reading done (Tsang, 1996). Follow up tasks (such as those by Marc Helgesen in the My Share section of this issue) can check if reading has been done and understood.
It is not necessary to test the learners on every book as doing so would be very time consuming. It also gives the message that reading is just like any other subject that needs testing and the reason we do reading is to be tested on it. We need to cultivate the view that reading is pleasurable. This does not mean we should not assess the reading, however. The monitoring to be done must move the reading onward not just check quantitatively that work has been done. As the program develops, the monitoring should become more learner centred as they become more familiar with the techniques of self-monitoring (see Ellis and McRae, pp. 10-12 for more on this). You may not need to write tests each Reader as many Readers have comprehension check tests inside the back cover.
'Book reports' (where learners write 200 words about the content of their book) can give you some idea of whether they understood or not. Another way to assess Extensive Reading is to measure their reading speed at the beginning of term and at the end. Provided the same level material is used in both tests, a learner would be expected to read more words per minute at the end of an Extensive Reading program. Another common way is for learners to keep Reading Diaries which document what was read, elements of the learners own monitoring and teacher directed monitoring.

How do the learners find out which Readers to use? How do I find their level?
In Extensive Reading, the material is self selected. One way for her to find out her 'level' is to read a page or so from books at various levels and to use her own judgment of difficulty. I ask my learners to assess their level and go down one level. This makes the reading more manageable for them. My guideline for difficulty is to see if they can read a page in 2 minutes and if they understood all but 2-3 words (not proper nouns) on the page.

Does it matter if the Reader is too easy or too difficult?
It certainly matters (from a Extensive Reading perspective) if the reader is too difficult as the reading then becomes a decoding (intensive) task rather than an Extensive Reading task and as an aim of Extensive Reading is about developing a fluent reader, this aim will not be met. However, if the reading is too easy it will allow them to read faster, which is one of the aims of Graded Reading and therefore from time to time learners should read very simple material.

Do I need to teach Intensive Reading too?
There are many opinions on this. Some people say that just reading will improve a learner's overall proficiency. Others say that a learner needs to build specific reading skills along side the fluency skill. Such skills would include, guessing unknown words from context, finding text organization, finding main ideas, understanding inferences and so on. There are many good books to help learners with this such as Mikulecky and Jeffries (1990) and Mikulecky (1996).

Does this mean that Intensive Reading is bad and that Extensive Reading is good?
Not at all. They serve different purposes. Nor does this mean that just reading a lot will make your vocabulary grow automatically. What is needed is balance. Our learners need plenty of Intensive Reading to learn new vocabulary, to look at text organization, to help them discover and develop reading skills and so on. This does not mean a critical review or literary analysis however - this done in the Literature course, not the reading skills course. Alongside this is the practice of this skill done by reading extensively. One without the other will leave our learners unprepared to deal with more difficult texts.

But doesn't it take a lot of time?
Yes, of course. A learner cannot learn to speak just by studying dialogues, she has to practice and use the skill often and with many partners. The same applies to reading. A reading teacher that requires learners to read (or translate) only one short passage for each class will not help make fluent readers, much more time needs to be allocated to reading to develop fluent reading skills.

Where else can I find information about Graded Reading and Extensive Reading?
Other helpful texts include a guide to how to use Class Readers (books that all the class read together) by Greenwood (1987); Ellis and McRae (1991) and Hedge (1985) provide helpful hints and advice for using Readers. Hill (1992 and this issue) provides insights into how to set up an Extensive Reading program. The forthcoming book by Day and Bamford is destined to become the reference work in this area.

Day, R. R. & Bamford, J. (forthcoming) Extensive reading in the second
language classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ellis, G. and J. McRae. (1991). The Extensive Reading Handbook for Secondary Teachers. London; Penguin.

Greenwood, J. (1987). Class Readers Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Hedge, T. (1985). Using Readers in Language Teaching. London, Macmillan.

Hill, D. (1992). The EPER guide to organizing programs of Extensive Reading. IALS, Edinburgh University.

Laufer, B. (1989). What percentage of text-lexis is essential for comprehension? In C. Lauren and M. Nordman (Eds.), Special Language: From Humans Thinking to Thinking Machines. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Mason, B. and S. Krashen. (Forthcoming) Extensive reading in a foreign Language. System.

Mikulecky, B. (1996). More Reading Power. Addison-Wesley.

Mikulecky, B. and L. Jeffries. (1990). Reading Power. Addison-Wesley.

Saragi, T., P. Nation and G. Meister. (1978). Vocabulary learning and reading. System, 6, 2, 72-78.

Tsang, W. K. (1996). Comparing the effects of reading and writing on writing performance. Applied Linguistics, 17(2), 210-233.

West, M. (1955). Learning To Read in a Foreign Language. London, Longman.

Rob Waring teaches at Notre Dame Seishin University in Okayama, Japan. He holds an M.Ed. in TESOL, an RSA Diploma in language teaching and has a Ph.D. in Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition. His research interests are in reading and vocabulary.

Rob Waring
This article is an extension of the previous article by Bamford and Day and looks at many questions and answers relating to Extensive Reading and Graded Reading in particular. The focus is on looking and answering the kinds of questions often arise in a discussion of the place of Extensive Reading in an EFL or ESL program.

Contact Info:
Rob Waring
Notre Dame Seishin University, 2-16-9 Ifuku-cho, Okayama, Japan 700

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