Willy A Renandya, Maria Hidayati & Francisca M Ivone
The goal of this paper is to explore some of the main reasons that teachers might have about ER, which can range from teachers being concerned about the amount of time that ER may eat into the already crowded curriculum, lack of knowledge about ER, low student motivation to lack of resources or support from school leaders and administrators. We discuss each of the ten concerns and offer suggestions on how teachers’ concerns about ER can be alleviated. We argue that unless we adequately address these concerns, the adoption rate of ER in schools may continue to be small. Even if it is adopted, the implementation may fall far below expectations, thus yielding minimal or no language learning benefits.
Since the publication of Day and Bamford’s (1998) book on extensive reading (ER), the number of theoretical discussions and empirical research studies on this topic has grown tremendously. A decent body of literature on ER now exists and is easily accessible. For those new to the idea but wish to explore the theoretical underpinnings of ER and its associated empirical research studies, they could visit a dedicated site on the Internet that archives more than 600 works, including journal articles, book chapters, books, MA theses and Doctoral dissertations (https://www.erfoundation.org/bib/biblio2.php).
Similarly, a growing number of language teachers have begun to implement ER in their teaching as they want to see for themselves whether and to what extent the much acclaimed approach could actually help their students improve their overall proficiency in the target language. Some have been quite successful, while others encountered numerous problems and ended up discontinuing the ER programme barely a year after its implementation.
However, a larger number remain non-committal. Many of them are unconvinced that there is such an approach to language teaching “that is so universally hailed as beneficial, important, and necessary – truly an approach that has no detractors and many fervent advocates …” (Hedgcock & Ferris, 2009, p 208). It is small wonder that the implementation of ER has been rather spotty or sparsely distributed.
In some places (e.g., Japan), ER seems to be flourishing, perhaps partly because of the larger concentration of ER scholars who not only actively promote ER but also provide on-going support to teachers who are keen to start their ER programme. It is not a coincidence that the Extensive Reading Foundation is managed by ER scholars and enthusiasts who reside in Japan. In other places, however, ER is only beginning to make small waves (e.g., Indonesia, Korea) and in other countries (e.g., Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand), ER may still be “under-utilized or even ignored” (Hedgecock & Ferris, 2009, p. 208).
Yet in other places, ER may be quite popular and widely applied, but often not for the right reason. In some provinces in China for example, ER is a familiar concept and many college English teachers are actually teaching it using locally produced coursebooks to give students a taste of ER.
However, a recent study by Renandya, Hu and Yu (2015) found that the contents of these ER coursebooks are not quite well-aligned with the accepted principles of ER; in fact, the design, contents and organization of the coursebooks show typical characteristics of an intensive reading approach (also known as read-then-answer-comprehension-questions-approach to teaching reading). The reading passages are uninteresting and difficult, the post-reading tasks and activities are also unappealing and not likely to motivate students to read more outside the classroom.
The goal of this paper is to explore some of the main concerns that teachers might have about ER, which can range from teachers being concerned about the amount of time that ER may eat into the already crowded curriculum to lack of resources or support from school leaders and administrators. Unless we address these concerns, the adoption rate of ER in schools may continue to be small. Even if it is adopted, the implementation may fall far below expectations, thus yielding minimal or no language learning benefits.
We outline below top 10 reasons why ER has not been enthusiastically embraced by teachers and school leaders, and in some places, why it remains underutilized or put on the back burner. As noted by Renandya and Jabobs (2016), ER is often treated as an optional extra, one that carries little or no pedagogical significance.
In the following sections, we explore each of these reasons or concerns and offer suggestions on how to deal with them based on our collective experiences as ER researchers and practitioners.
1. LIMITED TIME
Time seems to be a rare commodity among teachers. This is not surprising as teachers tend to work longer hours compared to other people in other professions. In addition to a heavy teaching load, they carry other school-related responsibilities, including marking, supervision, mentoring junior colleagues, giving extra tuitions to low progress students, attending endless staff meetings, organizing educational trips for their students, just to name a few.
When schools introduce a new teaching innovation, their initial response is likely to be “Yes, but I have no time”. Similarly, many teachers know that reading is good; they may also have heard from their colleagues or language teaching experts that extensive reading is an excellent way to improve language proficiency. But when asked if they would implement ER in their teaching, we are likely to hear the same response: “Yes it’s good, but ER would take up too much of my time and it would also eat into my curriculum time.”
There are two possible solutions. One is to convince teachers that ER is worth implementing because of its numerous and proven language learning benefits. If we can show them good evidence, they might be keen to set aside time to infuse ER in some way in their teaching. The other way is to work with school leaders or ministry officials. Again, if we can present compelling evidence about the efficacy of ER, they might consider including ER in the language curriculum. A case in point is the inclusion of ER in the English language curriculum in Singapore. The explicit mention of ER in the curriculum gives teachers the motivation to implement ER in a more sustained manner.
2. LACK OF RELEVANT READING MATERIALS
At the heart of an ER programme is the availability of large amounts of reading materials. These materials are fiction or non-fiction books that have been specially written for language learners. Known as graded readers, these books can cater for the needs of language learners with different proficiency and ability levels. Lower proficiency students can start by reading linguistically less challenging books, while higher proficiency students can choose to read the more challenging ones.
Since amount of reading is usually associated with a higher language learning benefits, schools usually have a sizeable collection of graded readers in their library. For well-resourced schools, the cost of purchasing graded readers may not be a huge problem. But for most schools in low resourced countries, the cost may simply be too prohibitively high. This especially true for higher quality graded readers published by mainstream publishers such as Cambridge or Oxford University Press.
Thus, the concern about schools having little access to graded readers is real and unless this is addressed, teachers are not likely to implement ER.
I offer two suggestions here. First, instead of purchasing physical books, we now have a choice of purchasing a digital library. This is a popular option because the cost is lower and students nowadays prefer to read books on their laptop or mobile gadgets. One such digital library can be purchased from XReading (https://xreading.com/). XReading contains some 1,000 graded readers published by major ELT publishers. The XReading platform is student and teacher-friendly; it is easy to use and it allows teachers to guide and monitor students’ reading.
Second, a less costly way to set up an ER library is to use online reading materials that teachers and students can view and/download for free. The following are some of the more popular sites that provide free access to ER reading materials:
3. DELAYED IMPACT OF ER
This is another often heard concern. Teachers are pragmatic people who want to see the immediate results of their labour. After three months of ER, they would expect some tangible results, e.g., improvements in students’ reading comprehension skills and increased performance on tests and examinations. This is of course understandable.
However, ER is not a technique or teaching trick that produces instant results. It is an approach to language learning that is geared towards activating students’ internal language learning mechanism. Research shows that internal processes such as comprehending the language input, noticing language features present in the input, establishing the form-meaning relationship, consolidating and restructuring previously seen or heard language features, and finally developing a complex and implicit linguistic system takes time (Renandya, 2013; N. Ellis. 2002, Wong & VanPatten, 2003).
Ellis (2002), a theoretical SLA theorist, aptly describes the slow and gradual process of language acquisition:
The real stuff of language acquisition is the slow acquisition of form function mappings and the regularities therein. This skill, like others, takes tens of thousands of hours of practice, practice that cannot be substituted for by provision of a few declarative rules. (p. 175)
In the same vein, but from a more applied perspective, Elley (2001) describes the acquisition process through ER in the quote below:
When the student repeatedly focuses on the meaning of a large number of interesting messages, he/she incidentally and gradually acquires the form in which they are couched. This is where the learning takes place, not in the conscious, step-by-step direct teaching and applications of rules. (p. 129)
To sum up, the professional literature on language acquisition and ER seems to suggest three key points: (i) language acquisition is a slow and gradual process, (ii) extensive input-based practice where students are constantly exposed to interesting and comprehensible contents is a necessary condition for language learning; (iii) ER can promote incidental language learning, which contribute to the development of students’ implicit knowledge of the language.
The practical question then is: how long does it take for ER to show measurable impact on language learning? Estimates vary. Some suggest that we can see improvements in reading fluency (the ability to read faster as measured by number of words per minute) after students have read some 100,000 words; others say 200,000 words. For a more remarkable improvement in different areas of language learning (e.g., reading, writing, listening and speaking), the number of words can be much higher, ranging from 500 thousand to 1 million words.
In his book The Power of Reading, Krashen (2004) provides a synthesis of research studies that compared students who did ER and those who followed traditional intensive reading instruction. Overall, his conclusion was that ER students outperformed non-ER students; but students who were put in the ER programme for one year or longer, showed much greater improvements on a variety of measures.
Thus, it is a too hasty a conclusion to say that ER does not produce results. Indeed, the empirical evidence on the effectiveness of ER is well documented in the professional literature (see recent meta-analysis studies by Jeon & Day, 2016; Nakanishi 2015 ). This is further supported by successful stories recounted by teachers who have successfully integrated ER in their teaching.
What teachers need to remember is that the effect is delayed, rather than immediate. Students do make improvements after a month or two (e.g., faster and more efficient form-meaning mappings), but these improvements are difficult to measure using traditional language testing measurements.
4. LEGITIMACY ISSUE
Teachers and administrators have certain fixed views about what constitutes legitimate language learning activities. In most language learning situations, teachers are expected to be an authority figure who is responsible for learning to happen in the classroom. They prepare a well-structure lesson plan which is then delivered in an orderly and systematic manner. This often involves the teacher taking on a very active role of explaining the objective of the lesson, presenting the key learning points, assigning individual or group activities, checking and monitoring student learning and assessing the learning outcomes, i.e., whether the objective of the lesson has been successfully achieved.
ER is an approach that relies more on students doing independent learning via self-selected, silent reading and less on teacher explanations. So, students choosing books that they want to read and then reading silently in the corner of the classroom with minimal intervention from the teachers are often “not perceived as a class learning, … both by the students themselves and the school administration” (Prowse, 2002, p 144). Teachers may feel that they have not done a good job as teachers, students may feel that they have not been taught by their teachers, and administrators may feel that ER is not worth any curriculum time.
One way to tackle the issue of legitimacy would be to integrate ER into coursebooks. Brown (2009) for example, has suggested that coursebooks provide the much needed legitimacy for ER and can make ER a credible language learning activity. This is because coursebooks are often seen as “powerful legitimizing tools, for teachers, for learners, and for institutions” (p. 240).
There is one problem though. Most commercially available coursebooks do not usually include ER-inspired texts and tasks. One plausible solution would be for teachers to create a set of ER reading materials that are thematically related to the lesson units in the coursebooks. By explicitly linking ER to coursebook contents, ER may no longer be seen as a stepsister of the more popular (and legitimate) approach to language learning, i.e., the intensive reading approach.
5. LACK OF SUPPORT FROM SCHOOL LEADERS
There are well-resourced and less-well-resourced schools. Interestingly, even the more well-resourced schools often cite limited resources as being the main reason for not providing adequate funding for ER. School leaders or administrators would readily acknowledge that reading is good, but they may not be fully aware of the salutary benefits of ER in students’ literacy development. Even if they have heard about its benefits, they would still demand to see more concrete evidence demonstrating the positive effect of ER on improving students’ high-stake examination results.
What can be done to get a buy-in from school administrators is to put together a synthesis of the ER research written in a style that suits their needs. In other words, instead of summarizing the research on ER using technical jargons, the document will need to be written in using non-technical language and with a strong slant on how ER can enhance not only their reading and general proficiency, but also their examination scores.
There are research studies that have examined the impact of ER on students’ examination performance. One such study was conducted by Davis (1995), in which he reported the effect of large scale ER programmes on students secondary school leaving examinations. Students who performed below the national average on the O level English examination made substantial improvements following a year-long ER programmes. At the end of the experiments, these students’ performance on their O level English examination was above the national average. It is this type of studies that is likely to convince school administrators to allocate adequate resources for ER.
6. LIMITED KNOWLEDGE ABOUT ER
Information about ER is more widely available and accessible than ever before. The Extensive Reading Foundation website (www.erfoundation.org), for example, provides extensive information about ER, including information about how to start an ER programme, how to use graded readers, how to find free online reading materials, how to use M-Reader to monitor and assess reading, and a practical guidebook written in multiple languages. The site also houses an annotated bibliography of hundreds of academic and research papers on extensive reading.
Mainstream journals also regularly publish new research articles or conceptual papers that teachers can get hold of. TEFLIN journal, one of the oldest ELT journals based in Indonesia, for example, has a special issue on ER that Rob Waring and Willy Renandya guest edited. There are also a number of professional associations that regularly conduct outreach workshop activities to promote ER to teachers and parents. In Indonesia for example the Indonesian Extensive Reading Association (IERA) holds free webinars and workshops for teachers. Likewise, the ER Foundation organizes their ER World Congress every other year in different countries in Asia (e.g., Japan, Korea and Taiwan).
Despite these efforts, a number of teachers seem to have minimal or no knowledge about ER, or even misconception about ER. Some believe that extensive reading is good for advanced level students, i.e., those who can read longer and more difficult texts. They would insist that lower proficiency students won’t benefit much from ER. For this group of students, they feel that the step-by-step teaching of language done in an explicit and systematic manner would produce superior results (Elley, 2001).
Others believe that students should read only ‘quality’ books, i.e., books that have literary or moral values. Reading fiction books (e.g., romance and thrillers) for pleasure is often frown upon. They are often referred to as ‘fluffy’ books that students should not be reading in school (Renandya, Krashen & Jacobs 2018). But it is precisely these kinds of books that get students become hooked onto reading, which overtime would enable them to read more serious books.
Fortunately, some school libraries that we have visited in Singapore are beginning to acknowledge the importance of having fiction books that are more appealing to the emerging young readers. Popular series books such as the Harry Porter and Percy Jackson Series can now be seen on display in strategic, high traffic areas in the school libraries.
7. NO PERSONAL EXPERIENCE WITH ER
Having relevant knowledge about ER, which includes knowing the technicalities of implementing it in school, is important ingredients for success. But this alone is not sufficient. We have seen excellent ER programmes that started off with great fanfare but only to disappear in one or two years’ time. We have also seen ER programmes that are only half-heartedly implemented. We have seen how some teachers became very excited when they heard from ER experts about the numerous language learning benefits of ER. They wanted to give it a try and to see if this approach really worked. However, their initial enthusiasm was often short-lived. When they faced implementation issues and when they didn’t see immediate results, they lost interest and discontinued the programme.
One of the reasons is that they may not have had a personal success experience with ER when they were learning the target language in schools or colleges. Francisca, the third author, was able to achieve a high level of proficiency mainly through ER. She was and continues to be an avid reader. She has for the past few years been implementing ER with her first and second year English major students in her university. Although she has encountered numerous obstacles, her unwavering conviction that ER is an excellent way to help her students improve on their proficiency has kept her motivated to continue with her ER programme.
We are currently planning to design an ER project that involves both the teachers and students reading a set number of books over a 12-month period. We will select teachers whose proficiency is at the B1 level and put them on a specially designed ER programme, which require them to read a certain number of highly interesting and readable fiction and non-fiction books. We expect to see significant improvements when the project ends, with the majority reaching at least a high B2 level or C1. When these teachers see their own improvements and their students’ improvements, they will be more likely to embrace ER more whole-heartedly and implement it in a more sustained manner.
8. LACK OF MOTIVATION
Motivation is a key factor that plays a significant role in learning. Success often depends on the extent students are motivated and whether their motivation can be sustained over a longer period of time. Work on motivation by Dornyei & Ushioda (2013) has demonstrated that in L2 learning, success often hinges on students’ levels of motivation. Those with a higher level of motivation are generally more successful in achieving at least a working knowledge of the target language. Research on ER has also shown that motivation plays a key role (Day & Bamford, 1998). As the impact of ER can only be seen after a longer time duration, sustained motivation becomes critically important in ensuring that students don’t stop reading after a couple of months or so.
Teachers’ concern about ER centres around two inter-related issues. First, many would say that their students are not interested in reading. These students have little or no motivation to read, not in their first language, much less in a second or foreign language. They would watch movies, youtube videos or listen to podcasts but they would not pick up a book to read. Second, since ER requires sustained motivation, there is little chance that students would spend time doing self-selected reading over a period of time.
We understand that not all students would enjoy reading, but our repeated experience has convinced us that the majority do enjoy reading, if and only if they could choose to read books that they can relate to and those that pique their curiosity. James Patterson, an accomplished novelist, has been quoted as saying: “There’s no such thing as a kid who hates reading. There are kids who love reading, and kids who are reading the wrong books.”
The quote above seems to be supported by research. When children find the right books to read, either on their own or recommended by their teachers, their reading motivation increases and their chances of replicating the same pleasurable experience with reading also goes up. Trelease (2001) used a special term to refer to these kinds of books: “home run books”, the kinds of books that triggers students’ first strong desire and interest in reading. Ujiie and Krashen (2002) provided empirical support for the highly motivating power of home run books. They reported that a high percentage of students who had home run book experience also enjoyed doing self-selected reading.
In addition to having home run book experience, teachers play a key role in motivating their students to do ER. As Miller (2010) noted, “students will read if we give them books, the time and the enthusiastic encouragement to do so (p. 177).” Verbal encouragement alone however is not sufficient. The teachers themselves must serve as a good role model of a reader. They should demonstrate to their students that they too enjoy reading and model good reading habits both in and out of the classroom (Day & Bamford, 1998; Miller, 2010).
9. Limited professional development opportunity
Teachers need to continually upgrade their knowledge and skills by attending professional development (PD) courses or workshops. They can attend in-house staff seminars organized by their institutions and facilitated by the more senior teachers, sign up for courses organized by external parties. The latter take many different forms, e.g., certificate or diploma courses, short courses or workshops and seminars or conferences organized by professional associations (e.g., JACET, AsiaTEFL and TEFLIN).
Teachers working in well-resourced schools have ample opportunities to participate in PD courses and may have attended workshop sessions on ER, there are those working in low-resourced schools located in remote provinces whose PD opportunities are very limited and therefore may not have heard about ER. Even if they have heard about ER, their knowledge tends to be limited, thus reducing the chance that they might include ER in their teaching.
Providing PD opportunities to those from low resourced schools might seem like an insurmountable problem at first glance. The cost of sending teachers to big cities to attend PD courses or conferences might be too high for the school to bear. However, technology has now made it possible for teachers to attend quality PD courses at a fraction of the cost of in-person workshops. Video-based workshops delivered via popular online platforms (e.g., Zoom, Google Meet) are becoming increasingly popular. The cost is either minimal; in fact, some ER scholars and practitioners are more than willing to organize free online workshops for any teachers who are keen to know more about ER. The Indonesian Extensive Reading Association, for example, has organized a number of workshops on various aspects of ER at no charge.
For those who prefer in person workshops, they can approach Board Members of the Extensive Reading Foundation (www.erfoundation.org) for free workshops. The Foundation has conducted a number of ER workshops in several countries using their internal and external funding sources. In 2019, for example, the Foundation organized a week long workshops in several cities in Indonesia fully sponsored by the US State Department via its RELO office in Indonesia. More than 1,000 teachers participated in the workshops.
Workshops and other similar PD activities are useful but not enough. Teachers may still have concerns and questions related to implementation issues. They also need support from other ER practitioners. Fortunately, there now exists a number of online ER communities, which teachers can join for free as well. They can share their concerns, problems and more importantly, success stories; they can also exchange practical tips on how to find free resources on the Internet, how to motivate reluctant readers, and how to nurture good reading habits.
10. ER principles are too demanding
A number of teachers often tell us how difficult it is to fully implement the 10 principles of ER (Day & Bamford, 2002). Many mistakenly believe that all 10 principles will need to be fully applied to ensure success. These principles are cast in stone, they say. If one or two of these principles were ignored or misapplied, the programme could no longer be called extensive reading. One of the principles that is often singled out as being the most difficult is this: “Reading is its own reward”. Day and Bamford (2002) explained this principle in this way:
Reading is its own reward. The learners’ experience of reading the text is at the center of the extensive reading experience, just as it is in reading in everyday life. For this reason, extensive reading is not usually followed by comprehension questions. It is an experience complete in itself. (p. 138)
No one would disagree that the principle is generally sound. But when applied in the formal learning contexts, teachers run into a range of problems. How do they know that their students have actually read the books? How do they assess students’ linguistic as well as affective learning outcomes? Fortunately, in their subsequent publications, the authors acknowledge the difficulties of applying some of the principles in the school contexts. They then put together a collection of post-reading activities that teachers can use to assess/monitor student reading (Bamford & Day, 2004).
Our suggestion is to use the 10 principles as guidelines (not as rules that must be strictly followed) for the implementation of ER. It is good to see all of them being applied in an ER programme, but not all of them can be applied in typical school contexts. However, there is a core set of principles that need to be put in place, or we run the risk of deviating too much from the key ER variables that have the most direct impact on language learning. These core set of principles include the following (Macalister, 2015; Ng, Renandya & Chong, 2019; Waring & Mclean, 2015).
- The reading materials are interesting and comprehensible
- Students read as much as possible
- Reading speed is faster rather than slower
- Students choose what they want to read, where possible
- The purpose of reading is mostly for enjoyment and general information
ER is about reading a lot, reading in great quantity interesting and comprehensible texts. Grabe & Stoller (2002) write that ‘students learn to read by reading a lot, yet reading a lot is not the emphasis of most reading curricula’ (p. 90). In fact, research into ER shows that reading a lot not only improves students’ reading proficiency, it also enhances their overall language proficiency. Their grammar becomes more sophisticated, their vocabulary expands, their speaking and writing skills also improve a great deal (Day & Bamford, 1998).
In this paper, we have outlined 10 of the most important reasons why ER is not widely or effectively implemented. More concerted efforts need to be done in order to address these 10 concerns that teachers have about ER. When their concerns are adequately address, we can expect a greater number of teachers and schools to embrace ER more whole-heartedly and make ER a central element of their language curriculum.
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