Extensive Reading: Why it’s good for you and your students

Extensive Reading: Why it’s good for you and your students

The interview below was previously published in a book edited by Michael McCollister.

McCollister, M.A. (2014). Community of Readers: Interviews with Extensive Reading Scholars & practitioners. Taipei, Taiwan: Kaun Tang International Publications, Ltd.


Michael McCollister: Can you remember when and how you first heard about or became involved with extensive reading?

Willy: Yes, very vividly, not as a teacher, but as a student. I was majoring in English in a teacher’s college in Indonesia years ago. The English department had a small ER library that was managed by the students themselves. The books consisted mainly of simplified classics (e.g., Moby-Dick, David Copperfied, Wuthering Heights and Oliver Twist) which I had to read and then wrote a book report on.

My initial enthusiasm quickly died down and I began to lose interest. I found the books boring and the book report burdensome. There were some rather interesting books, but they were not exactly the most exciting, suspenseful books that I used to read in my L1.

Then one day I stumbled upon a novel in a local book shop. I can’t remember the title, but it’s a Perry Mason book written by Erle Stanley Gardner. Although it was an unabridged novel, I found the book quite easy to read. This was in spite of my rather limited proficiency in the language. The plot was intriguing and full of suspense and the book contained lots of dialogues, which helped me a great deal in following the flow of the story.

I got hooked immediately. I finished the book quickly and went back to the bookshop for a new title of Perry Mason. After reading 5 books or so, I became completely addicted. Before I knew it, I had bought all 40 or so titles and read them all in no time. I would often stay until the wee hours to finish the books.

But did this have any impact on my language development? Absolutely!! I started out at the bottom of the class in terms of language proficiency and it was quite a struggle for me to be attending classes conducted completely in English. My classmates were already quite fluent and they didn’t seem to have difficulty with the lessons.

But at the end of my undergraduate studies, I became very fluent and spoke as well, if not better, than most of my classmates. Back then I didn’t know why I did so well. It was very much later when I read the works of Stephen Krashen, Richard Day and others that I understood the powerful impact my reading had on my language development.

Michael: Can you remember your students’ first reaction to ER? Positive? Negative? Quizzical?

Willy: I was fortunate to be teaching a group of highly motivated group of adult learners of English from Vietnam. Their reaction was largely positive, I must say. But there were some who felt that they didn’t get a lot of benefits from reading and that they preferred to have more speaking practice. I had to work hard to convince them that ER was a great source of one’s language development. At the end of the program, my hard work paid off. Almost everyone was convinced that the extensive reading they did had helped them become more confident users of English.

Michael: Can you remember one early, enlightening “Eureka” moment when you became thoroughly convinced that ER would be indispensable to your approach to language teaching?

There’s no ‘eureka’ moment for me. In fact, it’s been a slow process and it has taken me a while to become convinced that ER is really good for EFL learners. There was a time when my early confidence got shaken after reading papers and books written by those who questioned the theoretical underpinnings of ER. But as I became more familiar with the ELT professional literature and after talking to teachers and practitioners on the ground, I had a stronger grasp of the role of ER in our students’ language development.

Here’s my position on ER. ER is indeed an indispensible element in our EFL program. If we expect our students to achieve a level of proficiency considered sufficient for functional communication (roughly B2 level on the CEF or Band 6 on IELTS), we need to have a strong ER program in place.

But ER alone is not sufficient. To help our students develop a higher level of proficiency (C1 level on the CEF or Band 7 on IELTS), we would need to provide students with other useful learning experiences. These include an opportunity to use English for meaningful oral and written communication.

In other words, comprehensible input is important, but comprehensible output does have a place too in a language program. Perhaps the latter should not be introduced too early in the course, but after the learners have developed a solid language base through extensive reading.

Similarly, we should heed the findings from research that learners can benefit from some form of explicit grammar teaching. There are a number of non-salient grammatical features in English that might escape the attention of EFL learners unless these are brought to their attention. Examples of non-salient grammatical features for many EFL learners include the –ed ending for the past forms of the verbs, the –s ending for verbs and nouns.

 Michael: If someone is interested in setting up an ER program at his/her school or in his/her class, what are two or three of the most important “Do’s” and “Don’ts” that you would recommend?

 Willy: Here are some Do’s:

  • Get your colleagues to be involved in setting up and running the ER program. If possible, get your head of department or principal to be involved too. You will need a lot of support from these people.
  • Get parents to be excited about your reading program too. Tell them what you know and what research tells us about the many benefits of ER and what they can do to promote extensive reading at home.
  • Show your students that you are a keen reader and that you read regularly. Share the book you are reading with your students and show them how enjoyable reading is and how reading has helped you become an effective language user.
  • Read what your students read. This is a great way for you to connect with your students and also to send a strong message that you take a personal interest in what they read.

 Here’re some Don’ts:

  • Don’t worry too much if student don’t seem to enjoy reading at the early phase. They probably haven’t found the book that they like.
  • Don’t expect results overnight. Noticeable results can take up to one year.
  • Don’t force your students to read more challenging books too soon. Let them develop more confidence by reading easier books before they move to harder ones.
  • Don’t give your students post-reading tasks that are hard to do and that take up a lot of their time. These kinds of tasks would take away the joy of reading and lower your students’ motivation.
  • Don’t turn ER into IR (intensive reading). IR is about teaching students reading skills and strategies to get detailed understanding of text. ER on the other hand is reading for general meaning; it’s a light reading primarily for personal enjoyment.

 Michael: Based on observations or discussions, what is the biggest mistake that teachers new to ER tend to make?

Willy: People often expect instant results. They want to see improvements in students’ ability in a few weeks or months’ time. We now know from research that extensive reading takes time. In the first 6 months or so, we normally begin to see improvements, but not much. At this stage, students have just begun to become more interested in reading, develop more confidence as they can now read faster and more fluently and with greater comprehension.

Unfortunately, these improvements don’t always translate into higher test scores. As a result, some teachers may conclude rather prematurely that ER does not work and is just a waste of their time. Little do they know that real and robust improvements usually occur after one year or so. In his book The Power of Reading, Krashen (2004) provides a comprehensive review of research into extensive reading showing that ER programs that lasted more than a year consistently produced more positive language learning benefits than those that lasted less than a year.

Michael: Could you introduce your approach to the role of assessment in your ER program? Purists seem to feel that there is no role for quizzes or reports. Do you agree?

 Willy: If we use quizzes or reports as assessment tools (and not as testing tools), I think that’s perfectly fine. We should design our post-reading tasks in such as way so that they give us information about what our students read, what kinds of books they enjoy reading most, whether male and female students have different preferences, how they read the books, what kinds of difficulties they encounter, etc. Armed with this information, we can tweak our ER program so that we can help our students become even more interested in reading.

I also use post-reading activities as a means to motivate my students to read more books. One success indicator for our ER program is when we see our students read a lot of books and also when they do this not because they have to, but because they want to. My post-reading tasks are normally short, fun to do, and cognitively and affectively appealing. Tasks that I have used include the following:

  • Which character in the story is most similar to or different from you or the people that you know? Can you list 3 characteristics?
  • If the story took place in your country, would the ending be different? Please give 3 reasons.
  • What sort of people would enjoy reading the book you’ve just read? Please give 3 good reasons.
  • Design a book poster that reflects the theme of the book you’ve just read.
  • Which part of the story made you feel happy, sad, angry, disgusted, offended, excited, touched, outraged, amused etc.?

Michael: How do you measure student progress; that is, how do you prove to yourself and to school administrators that students truly benefit from their ER reading?

Willy: Students will eventually (after at least one year) make substantial progress by scoring higher in the school examinations. There is enough empirical research to support this. However, in the earlier phase of an ER program, student progress should not be measured in terms of test scores. As I pointed out earlier, while they do make progress, this progress does not always translate into increased test scores.

I think we need to explain this to our colleagues and supervisors and tell them that we should instead look at other more important aspects of ER. Student motivation for example is one such aspect. We need to assess their motivation regularly, making sure that they stay motivated and that they can find interesting and compelling reading materials to keep their motivation high.

Michael: What arguments do you feel would be most effective in persuading reluctant school administrators about the benefits of instituting an ER program?

Willy: The best way to convince school administrators would to present them with hard evidence. You would need to do some homework and read up the available research to show them that ER brings about real and tangible language learning benefits.

If you could show them research studies done locally, that’s even better. If you work in Singapore, for example, you could show your school administrators how an extensive reading program administered in a number of local schools program in the 80s significantly improved their students’ O Level English test scores. Because the O Level is a high-stakes national examination, and getting students to perform well on this test is a top priority, school principals are more likely to be persuaded.

If funding is an issue (it often is in less developed countries), convince your administrators that starting an ER program does not need a huge amount of money. There’re a lot of online reading materials available freely on the internet. You just need a decent desktop computer with fast internet connection to download materials from the internet. If you need printed materials for a class library, you can ask parents and local publishers to donate one or two grader readers. After two or three years, your collection will grow considerably.

Michael: Could you briefly introduce your research interests as they relate to ER?

Willy: I have for a long time been interested in the relationship between amount of reading and improvement in students’ general proficiency. In one of my earlier studies (Renandya, Rajan & Jacobs, 1999), I found that amount of reading was the most significant predictor of my students’ performance on the end-of-course proficiency test. This is an important finding, but more research needs to be done to help us better understand the relationship between the quantity of reading and increased proficiency.

However,we don’t know the exact amount of reading needed to bring beginner level students to the next higher levels of proficiency (some suggest 500,000 words, others 1 million words). This type of research can have very practical implications. When we speak to our administrators and ask for funding, we can be more precise in our proposal by specifying the number of books that need to be purchased and the number of books that we want our students to read in order to bring our students’ proficiency to a desired level.

Michael: Could you introduce some research areas that young scholars who wish to focus on ER could contemplate exploring?

Willy: Yes, sure. Here are some research questions that junior scholars new to ER might want to explore.

What is the short-, mid- and long-term effect of ER on vocabulary development? There’s been some interesting research that explores this question, but a lot more needs to be done. For example, we know that when students start reading extensively, their knowledge of vocabulary tend to increase. But we don’t know much about the nature of this early improvement. This is partly because we don’t have a sensitive enough measurement that would pick up this early and subtle improvement in vocabulary knowledge.

What is the effect of extensive reading on grammar? ER is a great source of learners’ grammar development, but we still need to know more about the relationship between them. Learners often report that following an extended period of doing ER, they begin to develop a better feel of the language. But what does ‘better feel’ really mean? Does it mean that they have now acquired what is known as implicit knowledge of grammar (as opposed to explicit knowledge of grammar)? If so, what is the nature of this knowledge? How does it interact with the explicit knowledge that they learned from their teachers via formal instructions in class?

What is the role of the teacher in an ER program? The success of an ER program often depends on the teacher, so research into their cognition, i.e., what they know, believe and do, would have practical applications. There is quite a bit of theoretical discussion on this issue, but empirical studies are lacking.

Michael: Any thoughts on what is next on the horizon for ER?

Willy: ER’s twin sister EL (Extensive Listening), is beginning to attract the attention of L2 researchers. This I think is an exciting development. Since both ER and EL aim to give learners greater opportunity to experience a lot of comprehensible language, it makes a lot sense to consider introducing both in a language program. By exposing learners to both written and oral language input, we can expect our students to learn a lot more from the power of the combined input.

There’ll be more research looking at the combined effects of ER and EL on language learning. Some of the most successful EFL learners that I have spoken to have recounted to me how they benefitted a great deal from doing both ER and EL together, how reading has helped them develop good writing skills and how listening has improved their speaking skills. Empirical research in this area however is lacking. So I call upon teachers and researchers to investigate this exciting new topic.

 Michael: Any final pearls of wisdom to leave us with?

Extensive reading, also known as pleasure reading or self-selected reading, should be made an indispensable part of our EFL curriculum. The research evidence demonstrating the language learning benefits of extensive reading is compelling. Both empirical and theoretical research papers are available in http://erfoundation.org/wordpress/er-bibliography. I invite the readers to browse through the annotated bibliography that I have helped put together in the website.

If you are not convinced about the effectiveness of ER after reading this interview and the others in this book, I suggest that you find out for yourself if ER is really useful for language learning. You could have a chat with one or two of your most successful learners of English and ask them how they came to be very proficient in English. I have spoken to quite a number of highly successful learners of English and all of them, without exception, mentioned ER as a key factor that has helped them become very proficient users of English. You should do the same and find out for yourself. You need to be convinced about the effectiveness of ER before you start your ER program.

As for me, I am thoroughly convinced that ER works. My conviction is supported by own positive experience with ER as an EFL learner, confirmed by inspiring stories I have heard from students and teachers who found ER to be extremely useful for their language development, and further verified by hard evidence from empirical research.

Long ago, Christine Nuttall (1982: 168) said this: “The best way to improve one’s knowledge of a foreign language is to go and live among its speakers. The next best way is to read extensively in it.” Since not many EFL learners can afford to go and live in a native English speaking country, this point becomes unnecessary. The quote should perhaps be rewritten like this: “In EFL contexts, the best way to learn English is to read extensively in it.”

Or better still, if you want your students to get the most benefit from being exposed to richer language from two sources of language input, here is my favorite line: “In EFL contexts, the best way to learn English is to read and listen extensively in it.”


Krashen, S. (2004). The power of reading: Insights from research (2nd edition). Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Nuttall, C. (1982). Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language. London: Heinemann Educational.

Renandya, W.A., Rajan, B.R.S., & Jacobs, G.M. (1999). Extensive Reading with Adult Learners of English as a Second Language. RELC Journal, 30 (1), 39-61.

2 Replies to “Extensive Reading: Why it’s good for you and your students”

  1. The students should be awared of Extensive Reading importance. My students did not have enough abilities in reading because they were lack of information in learning the Extensive reading content. I hope this resource will help the teachers and also the students. Thanks for sharing pak Willy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *