By Joseph Poulshock, PhD
While completing an MA in TESOL, I learned many helpful insights from my textbooks and teachers about teaching reading to English learners. Sadly, however, I was not fully ready for that first day of class with my reading students. I remember it clearly. With a mixture of confidence and nervous excitement, I entered a classroom that was lit up by fluorescent lights and the dedicated faces of my students. I introduced myself, the class syllabus, and the required textbook, and then we got to work.
After a few short days, the class was going over one of the assigned texts, and then I saw it. One student had highlighted about 50 words on one page, and she had written a carefully crafted translation into Japanese of each of those words. She also had repeated this arduous task on every page of her texbook. She was in trouble, but unbeknownst to me, so was I. Naively, I told her not to look up every word that she did not know. Instead, I said, she should try just to get the main idea of the text.
The reality, however, was much more complicated. The text she was reading was simply too hard. The school and I could have done much better by assigning a textbook that matched the level of the students. Even though the goals of the course included intensive reading, by which learners focus on language skills and language as content, the text should have been easier. But there was a problem even more fundamental than this. Our program gave very little time for extensive reading through which learners expose themselves to massive amounts of texts and develop fluency, speed, and reading skills.
At that time, “extensive graded reading” was not a part of mine and my colleagues’ professional vocabulary. Today, the situation is much different. Many teachers know about the practice and implement it. Some are still skeptical, and many others see it as a helpful but supplemental activity that teachers and learners might do only if there is extra time. However, a growing cadre of reading researchers is claiming that extensive graded reading should not be a supplemental activity but, rather, an essential element in every successful EFL course or curriculum.
One of those researchers is Dr. Rob Waring, who teaches English and Language Education at Notre Dame Seishin University in Okayama, Japan. Besides being involved with the writing, co-writing, or editing of about 170 graded readers, Waring has written extensively about graded reading and its relationship to vocabulary learning. In his writings, Waring claims that extensive graded reading is an essential activity for all ESL learners and programs, and he suggests the following to be the main aims of such an approach. Through extensive reading, learners should:
- Develop reading fluency.
- Improve reading speed and comprehension.
- Enhance reading skills.
With extensive graded reading, learners work on these goals by interacting with texts in which they know a very high percentage of the words. When I ask students and teachers what this percentage should be, they often say around 70%. Some students have even told me that 60% would be enough. However, even at 75%, readers would know less than one word in four. Such a lexically difficult text would look like this:
For example, I can say, “The jarvis hoult the fish.” And you can adair me. This is quorant from, “The fish hoult the jarvis.” You can adair this quorance because of pois and weles. With these pois and weles, we can always stace new duffins about things, dowricks, and ideas.
In this text, 30% of the words are actually plausible non-words, and they show us that 70% lexical comprehension is far too low for understanding a text. However, what if we reduce the number of unknown words to around 16%? With plausible non-words, the text now looks like this:
For example, I can say, “The man ate the fish.” And you can adair me. This is quorant from, “The fish ate the man.” You can adair this quorance because of pois and weles. With these pois and weles, we can always share new meanings about things, actions, and ideas.
This text is still lexically incomprehensible, or at least extremely difficult, without some serious dictionary action. Researchers like Rob Waring and Paul Nation claim that a text becomes readable without a dictionary when learners know 95% of the words in it, and that a text becomes enjoyable without a dictionary when learners know 98% of the words. In the following text, only 4% of the words are unknown, and many learners will be able to guess the meaning of “weles” from context.
For example, I can say, “The man ate the fish.” And you can understand me. This is different from, “The fish ate the man.” You can understand this difference because of words and weles. With these words and weles, we can always share new meanings about things, actions, and ideas. (See Note #2 below.)
This research shows me that, as a new teacher, I had greatly overestimated what my students could comprehend without a dictionary. This caused me to overburden them lexically with long and difficult reading passages that did not help them improve their reading fluency, speed, and comprehension. Today, though I do make room for some intensive language-focused reading activities in my classes, I am now a big “evangelizer” for extensive graded reading.
What makes reading extensive? Generally, in extensive graded reading programs, students read one book per week where they know all but 2-3 of the words on every page. In my classes, motivated students will often read more than 15 books in a 10-week term. They can keep track of their reading in various ways, such as through printed reading logs or through online surveys. They can share their reading experiences in small group “book club” discussions or through online book reviews.
Through extensive graded reading, learners can enjoyably increase their time-on-task in English. They can easily do this while on the go because the books are small and easy to read on the bus, train, or while waiting in line for an espresso. But most importantly, research strongly suggests that extensive reading is a great way to improve all language skills, and not just reading. Language educators would be wise, therefore, to make extensive graded reading an integral part of their language programs and courses.