Dr. Richard R. Day is a Professor at the Department of Second Language Studies, University of Hawaii. He has authored numerous publications, particularly on second language reading, including Bringing Extensive Reading into the Classroom (co-author).
Extensive reading is based on the well-established premise that we learn to read by reading. This is true for learning to read our first language as well as foreign languages. In teaching foreign language reading, an extensive reading approach allows students to read, read, and read some more.
When EFL students read extensively, they become fluent readers. But there is more. Studies have established that EFL students increase their vocabulary, and become better writers. We also know that reading extensively helps increase oral fluency—listening and speaking abilities. Finally, students who read a lot develop positive attitudes toward reading and increased motivation to study English. So there are some excellent reasons for having EFL students reading extensively.
Let’s now look at what extensive reading is by looking at four of its key principles*:
1. The reading material is easy.
For extensive reading to be possible and for it to have the desired results, students must read books and other materials that are well within their reading competence—their reading comfort zone. In helping beginning readers select texts, I believe that more than one or two unknown words per page might make the text too difficult for overall understanding. For intermediate learners, appropriate texts have no more than three or four unknown or difficult words per page.
I recognize that not everyone agrees with using easy materials. Many teachers believe that learners must read difficult texts; they also believe that students need to be challenged when learning to read. Perhaps they think that reading difficult texts somehow gets them used to reading materials written for first-language reading.
This is a mistake. Of course, our goal in teaching students to read is to have them read literature that is written for native readers. But we should not start with that goal! We need to start with books and material that have been especially written for beginning and intermediate levels of reading ability. They have to read texts they find easy and enjoyable as they learn to read.
2. A variety of reading material on a wide range of topics must be available.
For an extensive reading program to succeed, students have to read. So it is critical to have a large number of books on a wide variety of topics to appeal to all students. Such a library will include books (both fiction and non-fiction), magazines, and newspapers. There should be materials that are informative, and materials that are entertaining.
3. Learners choose what they want to read.
Allowing students to select what they want to read is key. Again, this is related to the basis of extensive reading: we learn to read by reading. Students are more likely to read material in which they are interested. So it makes sense for them to choose what (and where and when) to read.
In addition, students should also be free, indeed encouraged, to stop reading anything that isn’t interesting or which they find too difficult.
4. Learners read as much as possible.
The most crucial element in learning to read is the amount of time spent actually reading. We have to make sure that our students are given the opportunities to read, read, and read some more. This is the “extensive” of extensive reading, made possible by the first three principles.
How much should we ask our students to read? The quick and short answer is, As much as possible! I usually set reading targets for my students. For example, for beginning EFL readers, the minimum is one book a week. This is realistic, as language learner literature for beginners (for example, graded readers) is short. Some teachers set their reading targets in terms of time. For example, students must read for 60 minutes each week.
To finish, let me repeat this important fact: we learn to read by reading. There is no other way. Extensive reading helps students become readers.
Day, R. R. and J. Bamford. (2002). Top ten principles for teaching extensive reading. Reading in a Foreign Language 14/2. http://nflrc.hawaii.edu/rfl/October2002/