11 – Big Reading Works

11-Big Reading Works!

A man walks into a library. He says to the librarian, “Can I have a hamburger and some French fries?” The librarian says, “Sir, this is a library.”  “Oh right. I’m sorry,” says the man in a quiet voice. “Can I have a hamburger and some French fries?”

Maybe this man is crazy. And he doesn’t know the difference between a library and a fast food place. Or maybe he wants to eat and read a book at the same time. Maybe he thinks: “Reading is boring. Eating is fun. Reading will be more fun if I eat.”

Fun Facts About Reading
But here is a fun fact. Reading is fun. People buy books. The Harry Potter series has sold over 500,000,000 copies. Harry Potter is popular because readers love his stories. When a readers read Harry Potter, they get lost in the stories. They forget about time. They feel in the now. We call this a state of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991). And reading gives people a flow experience. What is more, reading is play. Nell  (1988, p. 7) says, “Pleasure reading is a form of play.”

If reading is so enjoyable, why can’t we use it for language learning? Of course, the answer is “Yes, we can!” We call it extensive reading (ER) or big reading, and many experts recommend it. Waring (2009, p. 83) says, “Graded reading, or extensive reading, is a completely indispensable part of any language program, if not all language programs. Krashen (2003, p. 26) says extensive reading is “perhaps the most thoroughly investigated and best-supported technique we have in the field of second-language [teaching].” And Nation (2013, p. 18) says, “Adding an extensive reading program to a language course is the most important improvement that a teacher can make.”

According to these experts, ER is totally necessary; it works as the best supported technique that we have and the best way to improve our language courses. If we are not doing ER in our classes, we should be. We should do it because students can enjoy it. We should do it because it works. These simple facts challenge us with two basic questions. (1) What do we need to know about ER? (2) How do we get started?

Big Reading: The Basics
Day and Bamford (2002) have provided the most widely used guidelines for doing ER in the “Top Ten Principles for Teaching Extensive Reading.” This is a great place to start. But here we will look at a very simple summary of ER. We will use the word BEE to do it. That is, extensive reading is BIG, EASY, and ENJOYABLE.

BIG. First of all extensive reading is big. Students read a lot. They can read any kind of material, fiction, non-fiction, news, history science, comics, romance, or fantasy. But for ER to work, students need to read big. What is big? Well, we know that after students read 300,000 words, we can measure results. Nishizawa (2010) says this. When students read 300,000 words, they get confidence. They stop translating back and forth between their first and second language. And their scores increase on tests like the TOEIC or TOEFL.

EASY. Second, with extensive reading, students read easy. They shouldn’t read books that are too easy. And they shouldn’t read books that are too hard. If books are too hard, students will lose motivation — and hate reading. Rather, they should read books that are just right. That is, readers need to know 98% of the words in a story or text. If they know 98% of the words, they can guess unknown words from context. They can understand the story or text without using a dictionary too much. Most importantly, they can enjoy reading, because the level is just right.

ENJOYABLE. All people like rewards. When reading is enjoyable, reading IS the reward. We call this kind of pleasure “intrinsic motivation.” With extensive reading, readers freely choose their favorite books and topics. Teachers can also recommend good books to students. But the goal is pleasure, and most readers tend to enjoy fiction. That is, enjoyment comes more commonly in stories. In the end, the dream is this. Help our students enjoy reading — so that they will want to do it — even when they don’t have to.

Getting Started With ER
If our schools allow it, we can make big reading a part of any class. We can even make big reading part of the grade in a speaking class. This is because people talk about books, and reading gives us something to talk about. For example, students can read freely outside of class. When they come to class, the teacher can set up a speaking activity about their reading. Students get into small groups and answer these questions. (1) What did you read this week? (2) If fiction, what happened? Who are the characters? What did they do? What do they want?  (3) If fiction or non-fiction, what did you read? What did you like? What did you dislike? What did you learn?

These activities assume one thing. The students have books! If your school does not have books, here is one solution. Each student pays $10 into a “Reading Library.” Graded readers cost about $10 each. If there are 25 students in the class, the teacher can buy a set of 25 different books. Now students have their own library of books. And they can read all of them if they want. At the end of the year, each student can take one book, or they can donate it for the next class.

If the teacher doesn’t want to buy books, the class can go digital. Students can sign up for ReadOasis.com, which has over 1,500 stories for English learners.  (Disclaimer: The author of this chapter is the Editor of ReadOasis.com). Or the class can sign up for other online systems. But the most important thing is to get started! Remember. Big reading is BIG, EASY, and ENJOYABLE, and it works!

Words + ER RFS

Dr. Joseph Poulshock

Dr. Joseph Poulshock works as Professor of English Linguistics in the Faculty of International Communication at Senshu University.