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Reading for pleasure: appealing to learners, not readers

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Girl reading bookVerissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, outlines the benefits of extensive reading and how to convince learners it’s worth doing.

“Teacher, why should I read in English when I don’t read in my own language?”

A very good question and one that I often get from students as I set up my class library.

“Students don’t like to read.”

Another familiar comment, this one from other teachers and some parents.

I didn’t believe those comments when I first began working with class libraries over 20 years ago and I don’t believe them now, despite continuing to hear them.

The benefits of reading for pleasure are well-documented.  You can watch Professor Richard Day explain the benefits below.

So, how do we get our students to read, to read a lot, and equally important, to enjoy the experience? Reacting to what my students like to do, I focus on establishing a positive reading environment.  They frequently talk to each other about movies, music, and television. I add books to this list. I appeal to them not as readers, but as people and so my class library is part of a social environment.

I am aware that what I am proposing to them is new, to some it is so new it is difficult to understand. Linking reading for pleasure, and the class library, to something they understand is important.

I begin by associating reading for pleasure to playing a sport, or playing a musical instrument.  After some discussion we agree that it is important to establish a routine – to play a sport or an instrument well takes time and practice. To get the benefits from our class library will also require time and practice. I ask them for about 15 minutes of reading per day, outside the classroom.

Soon, my students point out that they are not required to play a sport or a musical instrument. This is a key point to the success of the class library – it isn’t reading for pleasure if you are required to read a book you may not like. So, I tell them the class library is voluntary. There are usually some raised eyebrows of disbelief. I also tell them that they will be able to choose the book they want to read. More raised eyebrows! And since I’ve got their attention, I finish by promising that there will be no homework and that I will not test their reading.

In essence, our class library can only help them. After all, we will continue with our normal lessons, which include homework, testing and the required grades at the end of each term. Through the library they will be able to improve.

In essence, I am challenging them. Their initial reaction is to put me to the test. My students continue to believe they don’t like reading. Many even believe they can’t read in English. But I am not appealing to them as readers. I am not preaching to them about the benefits of reading. These they have heard before. I am appealing to them as learners. That is what a student is – a learner.  And just as you become better at playing a sport or a musical instrument by simply doing it, I am betting that my students will improve their English by simply reading.

My first challenge is getting them to understand that the books we will be reading were written for them – learners of English. My students simply don’t understand the concept of a Graded Reader. Then, I need to help them choose a book they like. Again, this is not easy for many of them. When it comes to reading, they don’t know what they like.

You may have noticed that I have not appealed to my students based on the well-documented benefits I mentioned at the beginning of this article. As a matter of fact, I haven’t said one word about them. Like the foundation of a house that is not seen, the benefits will be the foundation of the class library. They will become apparent to my students as they read.

Having challenged them and raised their curiosity, I will focus on setting up the class library and getting all of them involved. This will be the topic of my blog post next month.

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Author: Verissimo Toste

Veríssimo Toste is a teacher trainer working in the Professional Development Department at Oxford University Press in Oxford. He has taught English as a Foreign Language (EFL) for over 25 years, having taught students from 3 to 93 years of age. He has completed a Master’s degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) from the University of Edinburgh. Veríssimo’s interests include using readers to learn English, and how students learn a language naturally. Although he enjoys teaching young learners, he finds teaching adults challenging – and he loves a good challenge.

10 thoughts on “Reading for pleasure: appealing to learners, not readers

  1. Dear Verissimo Toste,
    I do agree with your approach because I see its rationale. Another point is that by breaking the students’ “bad” expectations to reading, I mean, no test, no homework may be positively surprising. However, considering the rush of nowadays, how convincing this proposal may be when spare/free time is something rare nowadays?
    Best regards,
    Marco Rodrigues

    • Hi Marco,
      Thanks for your comment and I agree, time is always important nowdays. With my students 2 things happen that are very important: One, they are surprised that they can read a book in English, not only understand it, but enjoy it too. Their sense of achievement encourages them to find the time. It becomes contagious in the classroom. Secondly, they talk to each other about their stories in the same way they talk about music and cinema. For this, they find the time to belong to the scial atmosphere created in the classroom.
      Put the books in their hands and you will be amazed at what they can do.

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  3. Mr. Toste:

    I agree with your point of view and the comments above. To read inside (part of activities) or outside (homeworks) classrooms has become a boring activity due to the testing process coming right after this intellectual activity. Tests and the impossibility to choose the book to read are the two main factors why learners do not like to take any written material at schools. However, here I have a point, how can a teacher be sure that his/her learners are developing reading skills whithout any tool for verifying their progress?

    • Hi Patricio,
      you bring up a point that teachers often ask me – how can a teacher be sure learners are developing reading skills and understanding what they are reading? I worried about that when I first began my class library. Soon, I accepted that students understand to the extent that they enjoy the story. It is difficult to enjoy a story you do not understand. The second thing I realised is that my class library is like going to the gym – by simply going and doing the exercises, your muscles develop and you become fitter. By reading for pleasure on a regular basis learners are exposed to a lot of language, which is communicative and in context. This exposure helps them learn the language better. I develop reading skills specifically as part of my regular lessons, but not as part of the class library.

      I hope that helps and thanks for your comment.

  4. Pingback: Reading for pleasure: appealing to learners, not readers « Oxford ... | Teacher development | Scoop.it

  5. Hi,
    I really appreciate this topic as i find it very difficult to introduce some free reading into my classroom. Lookng forward to reading your blog.

  6. Pingback: ‘Reading for pleasure: appealing to learners, not readers’ by Oxford University Press ELT | English Teaching Daily

  7. Pingback: Reading for pleasure – setting up the class library | Oxford University Press

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