The Language Teacher
November 2002

Extensive Reading is Reading Extensively, Surely?

Anthony Bruton

University of Seville, Spain

To their credit, Day and Bamford (1998, the most extensive of their publications on the topic) resuscitated the issue of extensive reading. In current FL methodology, very often practices that preceded the so-called communicative approach are revived, but with claims for novelty and innovation rather than revival. This means that the ideas can be marketed as being new, and with an even wider scope of application than before. I think that is partly the case here. In the discussion that follows, reference will be made to the traditional use of terms in FL/SL reading which did actually need to be clarified in their time, before considering Day and Bamford's so-called "extensive (adapted) reading approach" (ERA) and concluding that extensive reading is really just that.

Traditional Practices and Terms

To understand the current meaning of extensive reading, it is useful to refer to the traditional contrast between extensive and intensive reading. Originally, the two terms were applied to pedagogical categories, as in "intensive reading lessons" and "extensive reading lessons/activities," and the two were perfectly compatible for many practitioners. However, with the advent of the communicative approach along with the selective adoption of authentic texts and the development of reading strategies, the two terms necessarily came to be sharply distinguished.

Pedagogically, intensive reading lessons were normally characterized as having comprehension and language-focussed tasks completed communally by the whole class. Both reading strategies and language input were central concerns. In the same respect, extensive reading was either communal, with exploitation activities from a reader, or individualized, with the students each selecting their own texts.

In fact, short texts with comprehension and language tasks can be photocopied and laminated for self-access, so that they are completed individually. And more extended texts can be accompanied by comprehension and language tasks, though it might contradictory if the purpose is developing reading fluency.


Intensive reading is really a way of reading. Williams (1984) contrasts it with other "styles" of reading, including "rapid" reading and "extensive" reading (p. 12). For Grellet (1981) the purpose of intensive reading is "to extract specific information" (p. 4), while Brumfit (1984) suggests that the pedagogic purpose of intensive reading is "accuracy" (p. 53).

Although extensive reading is a style for Williams (1984), aimed at "fluency" for Brumfit (1984), and for "pleasure" according to Grellet (1981), the term should really apply to "the amount of L2 material which learners are required to read" (Hafiz & Tudor, 1989, p. 5) and not be confused with the "so-called 'cognitive reading skills' of skimming and scanning" (Robb & Susser, 1989, p. 241). In fact, extensive can apply to a number of "amounts":

  1. The amount of new text that is read.
  2. The breadth of reading as in "wide reading" (Stoller & Grabe, 1993, p. 31) as opposed to "narrow reading" around a particular topic or particular genres of text (Schmitt & Carter, 2000, p. 5).
  3. The amount of text consumed, but not necessarily new text, as in "repeated reading" (Samuels, 1997, p. 377).
  4. The amount of time spent reading.

These distinctions are significant because extensive reading, for example, is often associated with the reading of narrative texts, either in simplified or unabridged form. However, extensive reading can be applied to breadth of reading, that is, to the reading of different types of text: newspapers, magazines, comics, novels and so on. On the other hand, any text can be read intensively, or non-intensively, depending on the purpose the reader has in reading the text, or part of it.

Two Current Proposals

The reading of (supposedly more difficult) genuine/authentic texts for different purposes, sometimes requiring the development of compensatory reading strategies due to their difficulty, was justified in terms of learning to communicate by communicating in realistic contexts/co-texts (Little, Devitt, & Singleton, 1989). In fact, both compensatory and non-compensatory strategies were fairly central to this option, and students read a variety of texts, from adverts to the words of songs, from personal letters to recipes. This communicative reading option is currently contrasted with the (extensive) reading of large amounts of "easier" texts independently, championed by Day and Bamford (1998). It might be called the reading for pleasure option, since this is the goal.

Day and Bamford's "approach" is actually based on reading (easier) narrative texts, which are either abridged or specially written. By giving it the label of an approach, it means that extensive reading is all-embracing and central, rather than additional or peripheral. As for the narrative texts, there is no novelty at lower levels of reading since attempts have always been made to offer texts at an appropriate level for the students--nobody was suggesting that FL readers should tackle authentic novels prematurely. However, and this is the confusion, other genres of text are more difficult to adapt/write convincingly, so the issue really becomes a matter of careful selection of appropriate texts and tasks, in order that there is engagement and authentication by the readers (H.Widdowson, personal conversation at IATEFL 2001). For this reason, Nuttall (1996, p. 38), admittedly talking about intensive reading in the pedagogical sense, argues that the teaching of FL reading can be skills-based or text-based, or presumably a balance of the two.

Limitations of an Extensive Reading "Approach"

The fundamental flaw with extensive reading as an "approach" is that the evidence is not very encouraging that low to middle level FL readers actually can improve even their sight vocabulary through reading simplified texts without support (see Hafiz & Tudor, 1989, 1990; Tudor & Hafiz, 1989; and less relevantly Elley & Mangubhai, 1983). In fact, reading a large number of texts at a level that is accessible and enjoyable seems to encourage reading fluency at the level the student is at, but does not necessarily lead to "booting up" of language in Day and Bamford's (1998) terms. In a very illuminating article, Nation and Wang Ming-tzu (1999) suggest that the vocabulary development benefits come at the higher levels of graded reading, and that, in the meantime, lower level readers might need to be given direct vocabulary instruction and to use the dictionary, when entering a new level especially, apart from needing to read approximately one book a week.

Apart from choosing and reading accessible texts, the supposed novelties of ERA are that--in the FL--reading for pleasure should be an end, not just a means; the focus should be on reading only; it should not be directed; the diet should be stories written for FL readers; the texts should be at i minus 1; and, the emphasis is on quantity and fluency rather than quality and accuracy. Not novelties at all really, but certainly questions for debate.

Apart from offering few novelties, a closer reading of ERA unfortunately reveals the following contradictions: including EFL and ESL reading under the same umbrella; emphasizing free/pleasurable reading, but recognizing the possibility of all types of assessment; emphasizing personal responses, but accommodating the use of prescribed questions; emphasizing choice, but recognizing the possibility of communal class readers, reading aloud, etc.; de-emphasizing language focus, but including vocabulary diaries and dictionaries; emphasizing reading at an i minus 1 linguistic level, but including i plus 1 as well, and not explaining how reading actually develops; emphasizing more reading, without explaining when the genuine texts and varied genres are introduced. In fact, one has to conclude that ERA is neither a coherent reading approach, nor does it clarify teacher intervention, nor does it either explain or gauge language development.

Alternative Dimensions

For these reasons, whether or not the reading is communal so that everyone is reading the same text, and whether or not the reading is supported with tasks, there might be rather more significant variables than the term "extensive" being applied to a conglomeration of rather arbitrary characteristics. The communality feature is particularly significant in terms of potential teacher support and intervention. If there is teacher support and intervention, students can be helped to develop different reading strategies while coping with more difficult texts (at i plus 1) than if they were on their own. The question of tasks reflects the fact that students can read texts which have written instructions and tasks to be completed independently, or texts which do not. That is not to say that other variables such as text type, length, or level and type of reading are unimportant, but the former two factors are considered more significant in differentiating potential pedagogical practice. In Figure 1, the four possible boxes are all compatible, although they imply different practices.

Figure 1: dimensions for supervized FL reading

+focussed tasks

-focussed tasks

+communal texts

-communal texts


My feeling is that in the EFL/ESL field there should be fewer claims of innovation, with a greater recognition of previous practice and its benefits, however limited. Likewise, the scope of application of revived or novel practice should be constrained to where it has been shown to be effective. This applies to ERA as well. Apart from that, clarity in the definition and use of terms is paramount, and, in this case, extensive reading should be recognized as just that, reading extensively.


Brumfit, C. (1984). Communicative methodology in language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Day, R.R., & Bamford, J. (1998). Extensive reading in the second language classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Elley, W.B., & Mangubhai, F. (1983). The impact of reading on second language learning. Reading Research Quarterly, 19(1), 53-67.

Grellet, F. (1981). Developing reading skills. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hafiz, F.M., & Tudor, I. (1989). Extensive reading and the development of language skills. ELT Journal, 43(1), 4-13.

Hafiz, F.M., & Tudor, I. (1990). Graded readers as an input medium in L2 learning. System, 18(1), 31-42.

Little, D., Devitt, S., & Singleton, D. (1989). Learning foreign languages from authentic texts: Theory and practice. Dublin: Authentik.

Nation, P., & Wang Ming-tzu, K. (1999). Graded readers and vocabulary. Reading in a Foreign Language, 12(2), 355-379.

Nuttall, C. (1996). Teaching reading skills in a foreign language (2nd ed.). London: Heinemann.

Robb, T.N., & Susser, B. (1989). Extensive reading vs. skill building in an EFL context. Reading in a Foreign Language, 5(2), 239-251.

Samuels, S.J. (1997). The method of repeated readings. The Reading Teacher, 50(5), 376-381.

Schmitt, N., & Carter, R. (2000). The lexical advantages of narrow reading for second language learners. TESOL Journal, 9(1), 4-9.

Stoller, F.L., & Grabe, W. (1993). Implications for L2 vocabulary acquisition and instruction from L1 vocabulary research. In Huckin, T., Haynes, M., & Coady, J. (Eds.), Second language reading and vocabulary learning. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Tudor, I., & Hafiz, F. (1989). Extensive reading as a means of input to L2 learning. Journal of Research in Reading, 12(2), 164-178.

Williams, E. (1984). Reading in the language classroom. London: Modern English.

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