The impact of an Extensive Reading project on results and engagement


Jordan, like so many other Arab nations, has high youth unemployment and there is a realisation among young adults that proficiency in English can offer an escape from years of idling away one's time on street corners. However, this does not translate to high success rates in mastering the language at school. Too often, English is taught as a subject that can be learnt by heart from the prescribed textbooks. The closer the answer in an exam is to the relevant passage in the book, the higher the marks the student will get. It's a story that is typical of the way English is taught in schools and even universities around the world and the Middle East is no exception.

In this uninspiring educational climate, an extensive reading project was born a few years ago. It had several objectives:

  • making English a living language by giving students tasks that were not just based on memorisation and improving exam results;
  • getting students to think about what they were reading and encouraging them to evaluate its value;
  • making students less dependent on their textbooks by encouraging them to make friends with books;
  • creating language learning exercises that made student engagement and enjoyment a priority but also reinforced syllabus objectives;
  • improving teachers' own language skills and allowing them to depart from their textbooks when they felt comfortable doing so.

You can read more about the history of how the project was set up in Nina Prentice's article in 'Bringing Extensive Reading into the Classroom' (OUP, 2011), but we would like to concentrate on some of the activities that teachers used to achieve an average of 17% improvement in grammar and vocabulary gap fills in just three months in 2006, as well as a 14% increase in writing performance.

Some of their ideas included:

  • peer teaching, where students were encouraged to make comprehension exercises and vocab and grammar revision tests from their reading, which all the class could then complete;
  • using stories to make plays which they the students could then act out in English in class;
  • students drafting questionnaires to find out which parts of the extensive reading programme their friends most enjoyed and, perhaps, liked least, so that their teachers could then adapt future classes to their students' preferred ways of learning.

Prentice gives many more examples, some as simple as making relative clauses by writing the names of characters on the board and then adding a relative pronoun (like 'where', 'when', 'who' and so on), for example: Pip Pirrip was the boy who met a criminal in a graveyard.

Of course, not all teachers felt that they had the time available to depart from the syllabus and there were worries that students would not score as well in the all-important termly tests. But, as I have noted, the opposite proved true ... and in only three months.

Perhaps the most important elements in this brave experiment, though, were that the language came alive and assumed some importance outside the classroom and that teachers and students inspired each other with their newfound enthusiasm.