It is widely agreed that extensive reading helps language learning and we are always trying to encourage our learners to read, read, read…
I started reading in French when I was doing French A-level. I remember the first longer-than-course book-length text I read, which was a short story by Guy de Maupassant, set as summer holiday reading. I looked up many, many words and wrote the translations above/next to/below the words in the book. I remember the sense of achievement when I finally finished. Homework done, I moved onto Le Petit Prince, which was a lot less laborious and more enjoyable, with much less word translation. I was in France at the time, so I was reading only in French (had to be done!) I bought myself the audio disk of Le Petit Prince and listened to that repeatedly. (I just loved the story and hearing the words!) On a subsequent trip, I began my journey through what was then the whole series of Harry Potter – up to The Goblet of Fire. Later, I had to do a lot of reading for my university studies, but I still managed to fit in some pleasure reading when I was in France doing the compulsory couple of months there in the summer after the first year of studies – I worked my way through both enormous tomes of Les Miserables!
Looking back, the extensive reading worked well for me, but I think not as well/effectively as it is now that I’m doing the same thing here in Italy. I’m reading Harry Potter in Italian. I’m an elementary (if that) learner but I know the story and Italian has a lot in common with French, so it’s manageable. (I think with very different languages, it becomes a lot more difficult at elementary level – for example, I tried to read in Indonesian but found that very difficult, though at least it shared the same alphabet with English and had its share of imported vocabulary…) But unlike before, I’m not just reading: I’m reading to learn, I’m reading actively, I’m noticing everything I possibly can about how the language works. I’m comparing and contrasting how it works and the vocabulary with both French and English. I’m also using the English version to help me: I read some of the English version, then read it in Italian. I also do it the other way round, to have a go and then check my understanding.
It’s early days but within a relatively short period of time, my receptive vocabulary has soared and even my productive vocabulary is coming along. I also have a much clearer mental picture of the language. For me, the key to successful extensive reading has been in choice of text and approach.
Ideally the text needs to be enjoyable or motivating in some way:
I’m enjoying Harry Potter in Italian because it’s relaxing, being light-hearted, amusing and easy conceptually, and I’m free to focus on all the new (for me) language contained in it, a lot which, of course, is extensively recycled. I’m motivated by all the new language I’m discovering. Familiarity helps – you’d think it would be boring re-reading things but actually once you let go of reading to find out what happens next, it’s like spending time with an old friend i.e. comfortable and relaxing. I think that relaxation helps the brain be open to new linguistic discoveries. It also lowers as much as possible the cognitive demand of the content, freeing up my brain’s resources for linguistic matters.
In terms of approach:
Shifting the focus away from “what happens next” to “how does this fit together?” is working well for me so far: noticing and then trying to understand, as well as experimenting with the new language. I find that the descriptive parts are useful for building up my vocabulary and seeing how things fit together, while the dialogue parts provide language to play with and attempt to produce. The experimentation won’t necessarily be at the same time as the reading – it often comes later when I’m walking to or from work, reflecting on what I’ve read most recently and playing with it in my mind. Sometimes that might just be mentally repeating a chunk, sometimes using a chunk as the basis for forming an original sentence of my own. I suppose it is inductive learning – rather than looking at a list of rules, I’m looking at language in action and inferring the way it works from that. I do also refer to my grammar book from time to time, though, to check my hypotheses. Contrary to how it might sound, it’s not a laborious process. And it gets quicker all the time, the more I learn. It’s also, I would say, a fairly autonomous learning process: I’ve chosen what to read, how to approach it (based on what I know should work), how much to read a day (limited by other commitments but little and often seems fine!) etc. I suppose it is also a heavily metacognitive process – I’m very aware of what processes I’m using to read and learn the language, and why I’m using these processes.
Why am I reading like this?
Because during my DELTA and M.A. in ELT, I learnt a lot about how languages are/can be learnt, which I’m now attempting to apply to my own language learning. Reflecting on this, I’m now wondering how I can use my own experience to help my learners a) do more extensive reading (because I really believe it helps) and b) become more autonomous and effective in their extensive reading. (I’m fairly sure that the way I’m doing it now is a lot more effective than the way it was when I first did it in French!) Of course, horses for courses. It won’t work for everyone – does anything? – but the trick is to help those learners find out what does work for them and to help those who it could work for but who haven’t tried it to discover it as an additional learning tool. I think this could be especially helpful for my learners here, who have 1hr20min lessons twice a week and little exposure to English otherwise. (This is why homework and guided study and PSP [Personalised Study Programme]/PSP Speaking – which all encourage the use of English outside of class – are such an important feature of the courses at the IH here.)
I might start with a little questionnaire to find out what their extensive reading experiences have been up to this point, and take it from there. I’ve been experimenting with Edmodo and class blogs, which has been overwhelming positive (they are very willing!), so by and large they do seem to be the sort of learners who will give anything a go if they think it will benefit them. The motivation to learn is definitely there, it’s a case of harnessing it, or helping them to harness it. I think helping them develop metacognitive awareness will also be key.
(Of course, extensive listening is another interesting avenue to explore but that for another time!)
NB: we don’t have sets of graded readers and the school’s little library (a few shelves) is a rather eclectic mix of books! Time is also a factor – it’s racing by. One of my courses finishes in December, the majority finish in January. My elementary teens and my 11/12 year old mid-level tweens, I have until the end of May (I believe) so a lot more time to play with there… (Though of course what may work for them will be different from what may work for adult learners.)
Please share your stories of trying to get learners to read extensively, both successful and otherwise: let me learn from your experience as well as my own! I’d also be interested to hear about how extensive reading has worked (or otherwise) for you as a language learner…