What Not to Do to Get Students Reading


This blog post first appeared as an article written for the Bulgarian English Teachers’ Association January-February e-newsletter, which is available here

First and foremost, let’s begin by outlining what extensive reading is NOT. 

512px -Antonio _Sicurezza _Young _man _readingMany teachers treat reading as a means to teach difficult vocabulary along the lines of “Can you think of synonyms for the word ‘tedium’ in line 37?” or to reinforce an input session on a grammatical structure. Krashen (1987), among many others, however, argues that it is very difficult for teachers to inculcate a joy of reading in their students when their real goal is to highlight proper use of relative clauses from the chosen text. Harmer (2013) discusses research supporting the view that intensive reading, with a view to linguistic analysis, uses a different part of the brain from that which comes into play when people are reading for pleasure. In other words, reading is not just reading: it depends on the purpose behind it. Extensive reading, then, should not be a vehicle for improving students’ grammar or teaching new words.

It is, then, not surprising that Krashen’s well-known formula of i + 1 – that teachers need to grasp their students’ level of understanding a foreign language and then ensure that input in lessons is comprehensible to them (1988) is reversed when it comes to reading. Here, Krashen (2003) argues that i – 1 is more appropriate. If students are to enjoy reading, then texts with difficult vocabulary and structures which are for them hard to understand are unlikely to achieve that goal. He, therefore, suggests that students should read below their current level of linguistic competence.

There are many different ways to determine if a book is suitable. One is the five-finger test. A student holds up her hand with all five fingers extended and drops one every time she encounters a word she does not know. If she has not finished the page with at least one finger still standing, then the book is probably too difficult for her to enjoy. Time to move on to another book! Extensive reading does not mean hard labour!

Bamford and Day (1998) along with Krashen (2004) go one step further. They suggest that teachers should not pressure students into reading ‘approved’ texts. Much as it may dismay lovers of good literature – and I am one of them – there is no evidence that the quality of the language read or the message conveyed by the author have a similar impact on the reader’s language acquisition as the sheer volume of what she reads. Put another way, if a learner wants to read graphic novels, full of blood and guts, or a romantic page-turner, where the young princess finds her Prince Charming, this is just as likely to improve their reading skills and overall linguistic development as George Orwell’s ‘1984’. So, we arrive at another maxim about what extensive reading is not: teachers should not dictate what students read but let them choose whatever interests them.

Then, there is the understandable temptation on the teacher’s part to encourage students to read ever more complicated texts, perhaps because for us they are more interesting. But it is also true that I, despite my earlier boast that I am a reader of literature with a big L (McRae, 1994), am more likely to read a detective novel on a plane than I am to tackle a research paper or a nineteenth century classic with sentences averaging seventy words.

This goes for L2 learners as well (Day et al., 2012). There is a wealth of evidence that students reading books way below their level of linguistic competence do not do so for long: they move on to more complicated works. Perhaps, the lower level texts help to ease them into more demanding ones; maybe they need the confidence that they can understand English books before they feel comfortable with harder language. This gives us yet another guideline as to what extensive reading is not: teachers should not use extensive reading as a goad to more complex texts. Letting students choose applies just as much to language level as it does to content.

Finally, English teachers as lovers of the written word – and, if they are not, then they are in the wrong job – sometimes have a fetish for the printed page. I confess that I too am guilty. Yet, there are students who are put off reading by books themselves – perhaps because of being forced at school to struggle through Shakespeare in the original, understanding only one idea in ten?. But does it matter greatly if they prefer to read on a screen? (There is some research that it does, by the way: see Myrberg & Wiberg, 2015, for example, who suggest that learning from a screen is less educative than from the printed page for psychological reasons.) I think though we have to go with learner preferences here, whether these are to do with convenience, such as being able to check email simultaneously or carrying around something as light as an ipad or phone rather than a weighty tome, or simply not liking paper. So, a final dictum: extensive reading is not about books but reading through whatever medium.

In my next article, I will write about how we can get students to read in the first place and look at classroom and whole school activities that may turn students on to reading.

Mark Bartholomew has worked in many areas of education from EFL to vocational training, universities to secondary schools, and in just as many locations: Saudi Arabia and Sri Lanka, Thailand Turkey, to name but a few. At present, he is a consultant to Nisantasi University in Istanbul and working on www.readlistenlearn.net, a free website which aims to promote reading and listening in English among (young) adults.


Day, R., Bassett, J., Bowler, B., Parminter, S., Furr, M., Prentice, N., Mahmood, M., Stuart, D. And Robb, T. (2012): Bringing Extensive Reading into the Classroom (OUP)
Harmer, J. (2013): https://jeremyharmer.wordpress.com/category/extensive reading/
Krashen, S. (1987): Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition (Prentice-Hall)
Krashen, S. (1988): Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning (Prentice-Hall)
Krashen, S. (2003): Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use (Heinemann)
Krashen, S. (2006): The Power of Reading: Insights from the Research (2nd ed.) (Heinemann)
McRae, J. (1994): Literature with a small ‘l’ (Macmillan Education)
Myrberg, C. & Wiberg, N. (2015): Screen vs. Paper: What is the difference for reading and learning? Insight.uksg.org/articles/10/629/uksg.236


Young man reading by Antonio Sicurezza [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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