How does Extensive Reading Develop Critical Thinking?


For many, many years now, the concept of students taking responsibility for their own language learning has been central to our thinking of how we master a foreign tongue.

The idea of owning our learning is not only true of TEFL though: it is assuming ever-increasing importance in universities too, as they can no longer rely on students being interested in scholarship. Degrees are now essential for so many jobs that were open to school leavers in the recent past and, therefore, people with little taste for three, four or even five more years of study after school are being encouraged - even forced - into tertiary education. The difficulty that universities face is that new intakes are sometimes not equipped with the critical skills they need to cope with further studies because they are not captivated by their choice of subject and so have not acquired these themselves, nor been taught them at school where exam results often take priority over learning.

Extensive reading though offers us a way into developing these abilities. The first thing to consider is the variety of reasons why we read. Paul and Elder (2014) make the point that we do not approach adverts, speeches by politicians, laboratory reports, poetry or newspaper editorials with the same expectations. For instance, a claim by a toothpaste or cosmetics manufacturer about scientific tests 'proving' the superiority of their product is not believed so readily as a medical report into clinical trials on a prospective treatment for multiple sclerosis. Similarly, a politician's 'facts' may not be the same as a newspaper editor's, as Mr. Trump is now demonstrating every day of the week in his tweets.

As a result, we, as readers, need to ask ourselves what an author's intentions are when writing a story or article: to titillate in romantic novels, convince in political speeches, demonstrate in scientific journals, explore in novels, and so on.

But we also have to ask how we as readers are approaching a text: what is our frame of mind? Are we reading to enter a different world - such as in the escapism of science fantasy - or to gather specific information, by skimming an academic article until we arrive at the data we require?

This is made all the more complicated for the person reading in a foreign language. It is hard to judge the nuances of a structure or a word in a second or third language which we have not grown up speaking. Extensive reading offers us opportunities to feel our way around this language. If we see many sentences using the passive voice, we will, with time, become aware that the writing is supposed to be objective and formal; if sentences are short, we are probably reading something that is intended to be action-packed. But this understanding only comes through practice and exposure to many different kinds of text. We may not even realise that we are acquiring a different skill because the process of doing so is gradual and, in some cases, even subliminal.

What can we, as teachers, do to inculcate these skills in our students? First, they need access to a wide variety of stories and articles. Next, they need to be able to choose for themselves what they wish to read, not have approved texts shoved down their throats. Then, they need guidance and, perhaps, mentoring. This may take the form of questions about a text, questions that ask their opinions, not that focus on grammatical structures or the meanings of difficult words.

If the development of critical thinking is important as a safeguard of democracy - and who can doubt it? - then there can be little argument about its importance. But encouraging students to explore texts for themselves, to question their own expectations and the author's agenda, to differentiate between reading for entertainment and for information, for exploration and for analysis, these are areas where the teacher comes into her/his own.