Anyone can extol the benefits of reading, and many of us can do this with a sense of remorse because we feel that we do not read as much as we should. However, most people, including language teachers, do not fully realize the following fact. Second language learners who read extensively at their level can holistically improve all of their language skills. This approach to language learning is called extensive graded reading.
Many top linguists advocate this approach. One of them is Paul Nation, Professor of Applied Linguistics at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. He is considered one of the top experts in the world on vocabulary learning, and he has also written widely on the subject of extensive graded reading. In connection with Nation’s retirement in 2010, the journal Reading in a Foreign Language dedicated a special issue to honor his contributions to language teaching, which the journal called “legendary.”
Nation developed the concept of the “four strands” of language teaching. Three of the four strands focus on the communication of meaning, that is, meaning-focused input, meaning-focused output, and fluency. The remaining strand concerns language-focused learning. In this view, teachers and students spend 75% of classroom time on the communication of meaning and 25% of their time working on language-focused learning.
With the language-focused strand, teachers can spend time systematically on pronunciation, spelling, and direct vocabulary and grammar study. However, learners need to spend the majority of their time in meaning and communication-based activities. Extensive reading can embrace all the strands. With intensive reading, learners can focus on grammar forms and vocabulary. With extensive reading, learners can delve into the strand of meaning-focused input, and they can develop the strand of fluency.
Besides meaning-focused input and fluency, teachers can encourage students to produce meaning-focused output as they work with graded readers and texts. Though some teachers might suggest that extensive graded reading is a nice practice that can supplement language programs, Nation’s work suggests that it is an essential and core activity that is needed in all language programs.
Paul Nation’s work reminds teachers to use a balanced four-strands approach to teaching, but he also helps us renew and maintain our enthusiasm for extensive graded reading. Students can receive a wide range of benefits from extensively reading graded texts. Besides improving their reading skills, they can also improve a wide range of language skills, including listening, oral, and written skills. As students improve, they can experience the joy of success and the pleasure of learning meaningful ideas even as they learn English.