Extensive Reading Programme in Japan: ‘Just studying English is boring... but reading is nice’ Ian M. Robinson Ian M. Robinson now lives and works in Kobe in Japan where he is working at Kobe Women’s University. As well as teaching in his home country of Britain, Ian has taught in Greece and in southern Italy. His academic interests include student autonomy and material development. He is running reading and writing course in Japan and these now invariably include extensive reading programmes. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
References Introduction This work tries to go some way to placate Macalister’s (2007) lament that although the benefits of extensive reading have been discussed for some time, over twenty years, the idea has not been much implemented in higher education. This article reports on an extensive reading programme implemented in a university in Japan with English majors. The quote in the title comes from one of the students involved in the programme and is her reaction to it. First, we will investigate what is meant by extensive reading and some of the issues involved in it. Then, we will look at the programme in Japan and move to results and conclusions drawn from the programme and students’ responses to it.
Extensive reading In Susser and Robb’s (1990) extensively researched paper they said that there was ‘a large body of research on L1 extensive reading’ (2) but found evidence of very little written concerning second or foreign language. This has now begun to change. From their research they put together a definition of extensive reading that considers it as ‘reading of large quantities of material or long texts … for global or general understanding … with the intention of obtaining pleasure from the text (and) because reading is individualised … the books are not discussed in class’ (3). For his definition Brown (2001) applies Richards distinction of direct and indirect approaches to conversation teaching to the teaching of reading. Extensive reading comes into this second category. Brown’s definition of extensive reading is that ‘it is carried out to achieve a general understanding of a usually somewhat longer text (book, long article, or essays, etc). Most extensive reading is performed outside of class time’ (313.) Extensive reading programmes (ERP) are included in the category of out-of-class language learning strategies that Pickard (1996) reports about. He places it in the formal and functional practising strategy that he cites Bialystok (1978, 1981) as having identified. To highlight its importance Green (2005) concludes that ‘it is vital to introduce extensive reading within the purposeful and interactive framework of the task based language curriculum’ (311). From this we can gather that extensive reading is the out-of-class task of reading large quantities of individually chosen long texts for general understanding and personal pleasure.
The contrast to extensive reading is intensive reading. In intensive reading the students use the text, usually quite a short one, as a source for further activities: these can include ‘syntactic, semantic, and lexical analyses and translation’ (Susser and Robb, 1990: 1). Grellet (1981) discusses the necessity to move away from treating a text as a series of words or sentence units and to see the text as a whole, thus pushing towards extensive reading. Further impetus comes from Lightbrown and Spada (2006) who state that the best way to learn new vocabulary is through reading. They also note that research evidence suggests that second language learners benefit from opportunities to read material that is interesting and important to them. Williams (1986) came up with his top ten principles for teaching reading. Amongst these is ‘The primary activity of a reading lesson should be learners reading texts’ (42). This fits well with the call for the need for extensive reading, and his stating ‘it does not matter very much what learners read in extensive reading, as long as they enjoy doing it’ (44) fits in well with the individual choice that is a part of such a programme. Paran (1996) looks at how people read and suggests that it is heavily bottom-up. This means that word recognition is very important and that there is a lot less intuitive guessing going on than some theories might claim. An implication for this is that L2 learners need to develop ‘automaticity of word recognition’ (30) and he states that ‘the most important way is to have learners read as much as possible … clearly the role of extensive reading is crucial in this respect.’ (ibid).
These are all good reasons to start an ERP. Bell (1998) came up with ten points to elucidate the role of extensive reading in language learning:
it can provide ‘comprehensible input’,
it can enhance learner’s general language competence,
it increases the students’ exposure to the language,
it encourages the exploitation of textual redundancy,
it facilitates the development of prediction skills.
Here Bell is obviously being cautious in saying that ‘it can’ rather than ‘it does’. However, it is obvious that there are many possible advantages to extensive reading. His top ten is supported by research, but fits well with the intuitive feeling that an ERP should bring results.
One aspect of extensive reading that has not been touched on is its link to learner autonomy. Holec (1981, 3) defines learner autonomy as “the ability to take charge of one’s own learning.” He says two conditions must be satisfied. The first is that the learner must have the “ability to take charge of his learning”. The second is that “there must be a learning structure in which control over the learning can be exercised by the learner”. It seems that an ERP is a way to promote such autonomy. This also connects to motivation. Dörnyei, (2001, 28) describes motivational strategies and suggests focussing on ‘key motivational concepts’ amongst which he includes ‘intrinsic interest, self-confidence … student autonomy.
This demonstrates that an ERP can have many potential positive effects.
Having seen the advantages it is next necessary to see what is involved and Day and Bamford (2002) came up with their top ten principles for an ERP:
The reading material is easy.
A variety of reading material on a wide range of topics must be available.
Learners choose what they want to read.
Learners read as much as possible.
The purpose of reading is usually related to pleasure, information, and general understanding.
Reading is its own reward.
Reading speed is usually faster rather than slower.
Reading is individual and silent.
Teachers orient and guide their students.
The teacher is a role model of a reader.
Issues There are several points open to discussion with the definition we have used for extensive reading. What exactly is a ‘long’ text? How long should it be? How much time should be dedicated to it? How is the understanding of the text to be verified if all the work is done out side of the class? How can we assure that it will be for fun if it is set as an assignment? Should graded readers be used or must it be authentic material?
Susser and Robb (1990) looked at some of these ideas and saw that research seemed to indicate a wide variety of ideas concerning quantity and time. The available literature could not agree on how much should be read in what time limit. In Harvey’s (2007) interesting research into his own attempts at language learning through an ERP he reported reading one and a half hours a day and stated ‘I was aware that I was attempting too much in too short a space of time but aware also that this is exactly what some students have to do’ (51).
We have seen phrases like ‘comprehensible input’ and ‘material is easy’ and Lightbrown and Spada
(2006) note ‘that in order to successfully guess the meaning of new words in a text, a reader usually needs to know about 90 per cent or more of the words in that text.’ (188). This often leads to the use of graded readers in ERPs. Graded readers are what Hill and Thomas (1988) refer to as ‘a vast resource available to learners and teachers of English as a Foreign Language and without parallel in other languages’ (44). They identify two types of readers:
a simplified version of an original work,
a simple original.
Their survey on graded readers, although now in need of updating, offers a clear insight into what readers are and what the various book series on offer can give. However, Davis (1995) seems to feel that the under-use of ERPs could be due to the feeling that it is an ‘expensive extravagance’ –partly for the need to buy readers and other material - although he notes many advantages of such a programme. Indeed cost is one aspect of an ERP that should not be undervalued. The programme does require resources being channelled into it. His article gives much practical advice on the setting up and running of such a programme although mainly aimed at English medium schools rather than EFL classrooms. Liang (2004) brings the discussion very much up to date by investigating the use of e books as readers.
It can be hoped that by implementing an ERP in which students choose the material they want to read and are autonomous in the way they use it then the teacher will gain the benefits for their students that Williams and Burden (1997) describe:
Learners learn what is meaningful to them.
Learners learn in ways that are meaningful to them.
Learners learn better if they feel they are in control of what they are learning.
As for the questions posed earlier it seems that each programme must be negotiated with the individuals involved in it.
The programme This project involved 21 first year students from Kobe Women’ University in Japan. The students were all English majors and were in a class of reading and writing. As this class focussed very much on intensive style reading it was decided during the first semester to introduce an ERP. This was negotiated with the students. It was to be a non compulsory part of the course and no part of the final grade would be attached to the work. It was introduced as a way of encouraging learner autonomy in that the students would decide for themselves when, where and if to do the work. The teacher (author of this) acted as an initial guide and collector and corrector of written reports.
The students were introduced to various graded readers that were available in the university library. We were fortunate in that the library already contained a wide range of readers. These were mainly Oxford University press readers. The graded system was introduced and explained to the students. It was then negotiated that a target of one book every two weeks would be set. This then was a goal that the students had participated in setting for themselves. Upon reading the books the students were to write a report. This was aimed at helping them structure their thoughts about what they had read, to help the teacher gather whether the student had understood the book and also to indicate whether the student had worked. The report was to involve a brief summary and then a brief personal reflection. The learner would then hand it in and then it would be checked by the teacher. The students were allowed to choose what book they read, where they read it, when they read it and even if they read it. The two weeks was seen as a guideline and some students tried to adhere to it while others took a freer view of it. At the end of the second semester the students were asked to answer an open question concerning the ERP:
‘This year, you have been reading simplified readers. What do you think about this? (Be honest)’ Results These results are for the second semester (15 weeks). Of the 21 students in the class not all of them decided to participate in the programme. Table one, below, indicates how many book reports were handed in by each student and whether or not they wrote the final report. Only three students did not hand in a book report during the semester. Three only handed in one report. Six students consigned seven reports, which in a term of 15 weeks meant that they were averaging almost one book every two weeks.
Book reports handed
in during the second
Table one: book reports and final report completion
Of the 21 students in the class 14 students wrote the report and handed it in. This means that two thirds of the class did the final report. It may be noted that one student did the final report without having handed in any book reports. The fact that there was no book report does not necessarily mean that the student did not read. Other students who had given in book reports (C, G, L, Q, U) did not do the final report. The written replies are provided verbatim below in the appendix. The results were looked at in relationship to Bell’s ten roles for extensive reading. The students were not asked to comment directly upon these and so not all the points were covered directly by the students
Bell’s ten roles
it can provide ‘comprehensible input’:
Students read and commented on books and so it can be inferred that the input was comprehensible
it can enhance learner’s general language competence:
(A) is good way to increase my English
(D) to get many knowledge
(E) I feel my reading English skill is improved
(H) I read and, find something from the new story. It likes a treasure hunt. In this case, sentences treasures
(O) We can learn spelling and meaning
(S) I can remember words and idiom.
it increases the students’ exposure to the language:
(J) I read a lot of books this year.
it can increase knowledge of vocabulary:
(E) Because I had a lot of new words
(I) we can understand many words.
(K) because looking up the unknown words is very important things
(N) I can learn the particular words in the tales
(R) Reading book has the advantage of learn English words
(P) I want to read high level books. I must read more English
it can consolidate previously learned language:
it helps to build confidence with extended texts:
(J) I didn't like to read a lot of English sentences, but I enjoyed reading these days
(M) my goal is that like to read original
(T) At first it took many times to read a book, because I was not used to reading it. Honestly, it was hard to do book report that two weeks. I can read a book easily now … I'll try to read a long book in spring vacation
it encourages the exploitation of textual redundancy:
it facilitates the development of prediction skills.
Table two: students’ comments concerning Bell’s top ten
The students also commented on if they thought that the programme had been positive. Many used the word ‘good’ to describe it (A, D, E, H, I (important), J, K, M, N, O, P, R, S, T).
Some students (E, H, J, R, S) stated that it had been fun. Other results also showed up from the comments. Some students noted that they had learnt about other facts or ideas (after all this is the general idea of reading, although one that sometimes we forget about).
(D) I can know various story of foreign country
(H). It was fun, that I read a new story. My belief is able to learn about new something, because it becomes my knowledge
(J) I read true stories lately. So I can know oldtime events. Mother Teresa, for example
(M) The translation as a lot of difference, both Japanese and English. This is very interesting, and I can learn about language,
(R) I can understand the difference between Japanese express, an English express
It was also noted that attitudes to reading changed:
(E) Because I didn't like reading a book. But I like reading a book now. The fact that it was individualised was also noted. Students were able to choose the level that suited them and each was comfortable with this:
(I) Someone reads level two or three, but it is no problem The difference between extensive reading and intensive reading can be seen from this comment:
(K) because looking up the unknown words is very important things. And some words in the reading books is repeating many times. So I learnt the meaning of the words naturally. Conclusions This ERP put emphasis on the autonomy of the student. Some students autonomously decided not to participate in the programme and did not turn in any reports and so, possibly, did not read any books. At least it is presumed that they did not read, they might have just decided not to do the report. Others did not keep to the one book every two weeks agreement we had brokered. In a programme like this in which it was hoped that the students would opt in rather than opt out these results have shown there was something lacking in the programme. I had not wanted the programme to be compulsory as learner autonomy ideals give the student the decision making reigns and allow the students to decide on the when, where, how, why and if to study. It is the role of the teacher to act as a guide. Maybe in a future programme students could be encouraged to use five or ten minutes of some lessons to talk about their books in a sort of literary circle, even if this does take an out-of-class activity into the classroom. Hafiz and Tudor (1989) also note the advantage of pooling ideas in sessions that allow students to talk about what they have read and so maybe suggest books among themselves. Other improvements on the programme could include greater variety in the style of reporting on the books. Helgesen (2005) devised four different type of model to be completed by the students. I feel that certainly in the second semester the students could be encouraged to increase the quantity of their reading. They could be encouraged to read one book a week. The idea of an easy quantity to set is one reason why graded readers are so often used. It is much more difficult to set newspaper or magazine articles as you loose the neatness of target setting, although these could be introduced in a second phase so as to give greater variety.
To encourage all students to participate it could be an idea to start all students with the lowest level book and maybe have them start reading in a classroom situation. This should demonstrate that reading a book in English is not beyond their ability. After that it can become an out-of-class activity.
The results show that many of Bell’s proposed roles of an ERP were perceived by the students. The others were not directly related, but neither were they asked about. Green (2005) concludes that ‘it is vital to introduce extensive reading within the purposeful and interactive framework of the task based language curriculum’ (311). The partial results from this particular work would seem to suggest a similar idea. An ERP plays a vital role. It can motivate students and help them learn in a pleasurable way. It could be hoped that English majors at tertiary level would be motivated enough to see the benefits of an ERP. The fact that some of the students decided not to read would seem to disprove this assumption.
Intuitively an ERP feels as though it should provide positive results. The reports of the students involved show that they feel that the programme helped them and various members are becoming independent learners in that they have become motivated to continue with their extensive reading and have set goals of improving and moving up a level. The fact that so many described the programme as ‘good’ and even ‘fun’ shows that this intuition could be right. Reading that this programme has helped changed the way some students think about English and reading in general makes me feel that it was a success. It might also go some way to help change the mind of the student who was quoted in the title of this article, and maybe start to make her think that studying English can be fun.
Appendix Written answers to report question
I think the book report is good way to increase my English, especially writing, but ... sorry, my poor impression report, and I skip!! Of course, two-week is very reasonable, but... I couldn't... sometimes I skip a report! Sorry!! And I should be grateful if you would reply and correct my poor English reports, so, I wish "skip a line."
It would be a teacher would correct easier. For examples, I enjoy playing guitar and report would be to peaces. Okay. (here the student wrote on alternative lines and corrected the mistakes herself as an example of how she thought it could be written and then corrected easily by the teacher) D
I think it is a good idea. We need to read book, in order to get many knowledge. In Japan, we read various Japanese knowledge: idiom or proverb.
Equally, we can learn grammar of English. I can know various story of foreign country. It's different, Japanese story. E
I think it was good. Because I had a lot of new words. I found to read books are very important.
Just studying English is boring... but reading is nice. I haven't read some books before. Because I didn't like reading a book. But I like reading a book now.
I feel my reading English skill is improved little more. I have read level 1 or two books, until now. So, from now on, I'll read level 3 or four books. If I'm up to reading level, little by little, my reading level is better, I think. From now on, I'll read many books that! H
I think it is good idea for study. Of course, it helped me. I like reading books, so, it was interesting for me. But I am not good at write English grammar. So, it was difficult to me that wrote my impression and a summary. It was fun, that I read a new story. My belief is able to learn about new something, because it becomes my knowledge. I read and, find something from the new story. It likes a treasure hunt. In this case, sentences treasures; likes a precious stone. I don't like this homework, because it is a little hard for me, but, this is important. It is practice, but writing my mind. I
Reading is very important, I think. We can get used to read "writing", and we can understand many words. In my case, my voice stories sentence. So, I can get words pronounce. Reading helps us in many ways. To tell the truth, this assignment is tired a little. But, we need to do it as homework. We should keep going reading.
Someone reads level two or three, but it is no problem. To keep reading is important, I think. If you have effort, you need to read next step will. J
I read a lot of books this year. At first, I had more sense to read many English sentences. As I read English, I was accustomed to reading, and I was happy. I don't know words, but by I look up with my dictionary, it was easy for me to read book. I learned many things. This is because I think that this is a good idea.
I didn't like to read a lot of English sentences, but I enjoyed reading these days. By reading books, I think and learn various things.
I read true stories lately. So I can know oldtime events. Mother Teresa, for example. This is why I want to read a lot of books
I think your lesson is good for us. Your lesson is easy to understand, constructive and helpful.
I think reading books is a good idea. Since there are a lot of unknown words in the reading books, I must look up the words. This is the good for me, because looking up the unknown words is very important things. And some words in the reading books is repeating many times. So I learnt the meaning of the words naturally.
Then, I think writing homework is a good idea to. In paragraph thinking what I want to tell is very important! I think.
And you find out my grammatical or word mistakes. It is very instructive for me! So, your lesson is good for us.
However, there is an only thing I want to say. When we must discuss something about the unit theme, some people talk about non-relative things. Moreover, in Japanese! Noise and students lose attitude robbed me of my ambition. So please be more a little strict. I think it's good for us.
As a whole, I love your lesson style. So I want to take your lesson next year to. Thank you very much! M
I thought this was a good idea, because I like to read, so that those experiences were beneficial to me. The translation as a lot of difference, both Japanese and English. This is very interesting, and I can learn about language, so I want to try to read any foreign literary works. I owe you thanks for introducing me to the world of English literature.
Now, my goal is that like to read original, so that I want to study hard to read one.
Actually, I don't like to write the summary, but I can learn how to write this. N
I think reading the readers is good idea, because I don't have a lot of readers. Even in Japanese ones. So I can't read a lot of readers, but I read the readers in English. I can read and know a lot of tales and reading readers help me I can learn the particular words in the tales. Reading the readers are interesting, but writing is little difficult. When I read some very I can recall those stories easier and you checked my writing. So I can learn grammar, and I can think, what are my mistakes. Then I can understand those. O
I didn't like to write reports, because it was too difficult for me, and it was need long time. But I think, reading and writing are very good learning ways. We can learn spelling and meaning.
I didn't know how to write a book report that first-time. So my report was short writing. When I wrote a book report at first. Now, I think, I could write long writing. I like to read books. So reading wasn't hard for me. There were many interesting books in this university's library. I often borrow Japanese books. Next time, I want to borrow English books, too.
I want to continue reading books and writing English. Book report was very good study ways for me! P
It was difficult for me to read English books and write my opinion and feeling. But good chance to read and write English. I can read only level 1 books now. So I want to read high level books. I must read more English. I decide to read English and memorize English words during winter vacation. It took me much time to read English book. So I was hard. But to continue is good for me. I think to read English book is good idea! R
English was not my best subject. Specially, I was very weak in reading and English sentence. I am slow to understand the content of book. So, reading at English book is very difficult for me. But, I like at English. Reading book has the advantage of learn English words.
So, I think that reading book is very good idea. And, I am interested in English book. It is good for the gain ability in a language to continue reading a book. I can understand the difference between Japanese express, an English express. It is very interesting. And, it is very fascinating to me. S
I think that this is good learning English. Because I can remember words and idiom. I can enjoy this learning. I like to read books. Sometimes, the book, which I haven't read. I can learn literature to. This homework is good. But, sometimes, I have no times to read books. I will work hard to do. T
At first it took many times to read a book, because I was not used to reading it. Honestly, it was hard to do book report that two weeks. I can read a book easily now, because I continue to do book report. I think I make progress ability to read English and to write sentences. I was hard for me to write an English but I can write a long sentence now. I think book reports were good for me. I'll try to read a long book in spring vacation. References Bell, T. 1998 ‘Extensive reading: why? And how?’ The Internet TESL Journal, vol. IV, No. 12. http://iteslj.org/Articles/Bell-Reading.html Brown, H. D. (2001) Teaching by Principles: An interactive approach to language pedagogy (second edition) New York: Longman.
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Helgesen, M. 2005 ‘Extensive reading reports – different intelligences, different levels of processing’. Asian EFL Journal Vol. 7 Issue 3, article 2. http://w.w.w.asian-efl-journal.com/September_05_ mh.php Hill, D. R. and Reid Thomas, H. 1988 ‘Survey review: graded readers’. ELT Journal 42/1: 44-52, 124-136
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Paron, A. 1996 ‘Reading in EFL: facts and fictions’. ELT Journal 50/1: 25-34
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