SpiderwebExtensive Reading is an approach to language learning that aims to make reading in English enjoyable. By encouraging the language student to read in Engish at the learner's own pace and level, additional meetings with the language will occur. As the number of these meetings increases, knowledge of the language, its vocabulary, structures and the contexts within which it is used will grow. Extensive reading, as opposed to intensive reading, is concerned with noticing many words often and in different ways so as to familiarize the learner with the various uses of the English language. If reading is fun and is its own reward then the reading skills that are exercised will improve. In addition to more advanced reading skills, the benefits that accrue from regular reading, such as more confidence and improved writing skills, will also become more highly developed (Bell, 1998).

While some educators believe that Extensive Reading is an essential part of any language learning program (Waring, 2006), it is especially valuable when there are few opportunities for actual language use. In an environment where language learners do not come into regular contact with English-speaking interlocutors, practicing English can be nearly impossible and reading in English for pleasure exposes the language learner to a variety of contexts within which the English language is used.

By reading simplified, graded texts, a motivated English student can be repeatedly exposed to the most common word families in the English language. This continual exposure to English vocabulary is necessary for language students to learn not only the words and their meanings but their nuances, pronunciation and collocations as well. In addition to learning vocabulary, the learner can pick up thousands of useful phrases and language chunks that are common in native English use. Grammatical rules, which are applied by native English users in many ways depending on such variables as form and use, can also be observed and adapted. Learning these intracacies from reading is more productive than from listening due to the transitory nature of listening. We can re-read when re-listening may not be possible.

"We know for example that it takes between 10-30 meetings of a word receptively for the form (spelling or sound) of an average word to be connected to its meaning. A far greater number of meetings will be needed to deepen the knowledge of the word (e.g. to learn a word's collocations and colligations, whether it is typically spoken or written, informal or formal and so on)" (Waring, 2006).

In order for the language learner to meet so many words in a single or series of USSRs (Uninterrupted Solitary Silent Readings) the 'graded' text must consist of a high percentage of frequently occurring English words. In written text 85-90% of general texts consist of approximately 2000 families of words (Nation, 2001). Graded texts are specially formulated readings which have been created to contain just these commonly found word families. These graded readings can be original texts or adaptations of classics that retain the original meaning and appeal. Since the intent is to encourage a high volume of enjoyable reading, new vocabulary, while unavoidable, occurs infrequently. It is also important to realize that graded readers are concerned with appropriateness. As such, they are stepping stones to authenticity rather than end-products.

Authenticity is a necessary characteristic of readings designed for native speakers and high-level language learners. It is also a common characteristic of readings that are attractive to native speakers. Care must be given however, when choosing graded readers to avoid complexities that would require the reader to 'decode' or read intensively. Each time the reader becomes unable to read fluently and retreats to a dictionary the task becomes less like extensive reading and more like intensive reading. Once the learner has achieved native-like competency, authentic texts are favored and appropriate. Graded materials though, must be easy enough to be enjoyable. A primary goal of extensive reading is to foster positive reading experiences. For any reader of any competency, a text that is too complex or inaccessible may produce frustration and demoralization. This is not an objective of extensive reading.

Improving vocabulary awareness as a goal of Extensive Reading means that attention must be paid to including a range of appropriate and diverse words and their contexts in the graded readers. In 1953 Michael West developed a General Service List (GSL) of the roughly 2000 most frequently used words in general English use. Since then many other word lists have been developed. These include the Academic Word List (AWL), which is composed of words commonly used in academic texts. For more on word lists and their importance in learning vocabulary, please click here.

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Last Updated: November 18, 2016