WHAT IS EXTENSIVE READING AND SHOULD OUR STUDENTS BE DOING IT?

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If there’s one piece of advice teachers rely on to hand out to students who are looking for ways to improve their language skills, it’s reading. Read, we say, and your vocabulary and grammar will get better. And we watch our students walk away, happy in the knowledge that we have just given them they key to becoming Advanced English language learners.

Except, what do they do with this nugget of information, this gem of wisdom, this answer to everything?

Probably nothing.

Two Types of reading: intensive and extensive

Just to clarify, there are two types of reading that can be done for the purposes of learning a language: intensive and extensive reading. Intensive reading is what we do in the classroom when we take apart pieces of text for language learning purposes – we study the language, discuss the meaning behind the grammar and talk about why that particular language has been used.

Extensive reading is the kind of reading we do in our first language (if we enjoy reading): we read for fun. That’s it. No examination of the language, no discussion of the themes and topics of the plot, no considerations of why the author used the present perfect in a particular sentence. No, we read because we want to know what happens in the story.

By telling your students to read in English, without any further guidance, there is every chance that (a) they will try to read their class textbooks, a Wikipedia page or Charles Dickens, and (b) they will read sentence by sentence trying to understand every single aspect of what they are reading.

And how much fun do you think that is?

Instead, we need to give our students guidance about what they could be reading, and how. Bring in examples of novels that you think they might find interesting or even just book reviews for them to read through. These novels should not be the classics (unless that’s what floats your students’ boats) but something more contemporary and approachable. If you are teaching teens, look at young adult fiction. If you are teaching university students, maybe they’d enjoy something on the bestseller lists. If you’re teaching business professionals, maybe a motivational book.

Then, let them know that they do not need to do anything else besides read. Reassure them they will not be tested on anything related to the book and you probably won’t even know if they don’t get past the first chapter. And that’s ok.

And that, theoretically, should be that. Hopefully your students will find the time and make the effort to read in English for their own pleasure and hopefully they will see improvements in their vocabulary, grammar and general language skills as a result. Hopefully.

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