The Language Learning Benefits of Extensive Reading
Victoria University of Wellington
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The idea that learners can develop their language knowledge through extensive
reading is attractive for several reasons. First, reading is essentially an individual
activity and therefore learners of different proficiency levels could be learning
at their own level without being locked into an inflexible class program. Second,
it allows learners to follow their interests in choosing what to read and thus increase
their motivation for learning. Third, it provides the opportunity for learning to
occur outside the classroom.
However, before investing time and money in an extensive reading program, it is
necessary to be sure that the learning that occurs from it is not restricted solely
to the improvement of reading fluency, even though this in itself is a useful goal.
This article looks at the language learning benefits from extensive reading, looking
both at extensive reading of texts prepared for native speakers and those prepared
for non-native speakers.
An important issue considered in this article is the vocabulary load of the texts
that learners should read in extensive reading. Laufer's (1989) research suggests
that learners need to be familiar with at least 95% of the running words in a text
if they want to comprehend and thus perhaps learn from the text. In the following
section we will see if texts for native speakers can meet these requirements.
Extensive Reading by Non-native Speakers of Texts Written for Young Native Speakers
The "book flood" studies reviewed by Elley (1991) show striking increases
made on measures of language use, language knowledge, and academic performance. The
studies of extensive reading that Elley was involved in are the most substantial
in terms of length (12-36 months) and number of students (from over a hundred to
several thousand). The book flood studies involved learners spending the greater
part of their class time reading books that interested them.
The measures of language use in Elley, and Elley and Mangubhai's studies included
measures of oral language, reading comprehension, and writing. An interesting finding
in some of the studies was the improvement made in writing, which appeared most dramatically
in the tests given two years after the beginning of the book flood. Elley and Mangubhai
(1981b, p. 23) comment that:
It is tempting to conclude that the Book Flood pupils had reached a threshold
level in their language growth which enabled them to exploit their passive vocabulary
and to produce more fluent interesting language of their own, an accomplishment which
the Control group pupils were not ready for.
The improvements in reading, listening, and oral language were equally striking
but not so unexpected, because the "shared book" approach used in one of
the groups of classes involved learners in listening, reading, and orally joining
in with the reading of a story.
The language knowledge measures included word recognition where learners have
to read aloud a list of words, vocabulary knowledge, and grammar. The vocabulary
knowledge measures did not measure total vocabulary size or vocabulary growth.
The measures of academic success involved the examinations used across the school
system. Learners in the book flood groups had a greater than normal success rate
in these examinations. Although there were no formal measures of learners' attitudes
to reading, informal observation and teacher reports indicated that book flood learners
These studies present compelling evidence of the improvements in second language
acquisition that can be brought about by such programs. Elley (1991, pp. 378-379)
attributes the success to five factors.
- Extensive input of meaningful print.
- Incidental learning.
- The integration of oral and written activity.
- Focus on meaning rather than form.
- High intrinsic motivation.
The control groups in the studies were classes following a syllabus of language
items that were presented one by one with substantial amounts of form focused activity.
The books that were used in the experiments were generally "well-illustrated,
and used only common-sense controls over the presentation of vocabulary and structures"
(Elley & Mangubhai, 1981a, p. 26). There was language control only to the extent
that "appropriateness of difficulty and interest were the guiding principles
of book selection" (Elley, 1991, p. 402). The books used were not graded readers
but were ones that young native speakers of English would read. The children in the
book flood studies were aged from 6 to 12 years old, and so the content matter of
such books was appropriate.
Let us look at two books written without formal vocabulary control for young native
speakers and compare them with a graded reader written to fit into a prescribed vocabulary
level. One of the texts The Three Little Pigs in the Ladybird series seems
to have been used in the Fiji book flood study (Elley & Mangubhai, 1981, p. 26).
Table 1 presents the vocabulary profile of the three texts showing the percentage
of the running words in the 1,000 most frequent words according to West's (1953)
General Service List, the words in the second 1,000 most frequent words, the
names of characters and places, and the remaining words.
Table 1. The percentage coverage (and cumulative coverage) of three texts
by the high frequency words of English, names, and all the remaining words
|Dry Days for Climbing George
|The Three Little Pigs
|Indonesian Love Story
In The Three Little Pigs pig, wolf, and (Mr.) Smith
make up the total of names. Pig is actually in the second 1,000 words but
for comparison purposes it was counted as a name. Note that the names of the characters
and places make up a large proportion of the words not in the first 2,000 words.
We can see from Table 1 that the graded reader Indonesian Love Story provides
greater control with 99% of the words coming from the most frequent 2,000 words of
English plus names. But the figures of 96.7% and 96.3% are still good coverage figures.
In The Three Little Pigs just one word in every 30 will be outside the lists,
and in Dry Days for Climbing George by Margaret Mahy (1988) one word in every
22. In addition, several of the words outside the lists were repeated several times
(huff, puff, chinny, chin). Elley and Mangubhaiís
motivation for choosing books written for young native speakers was probably that
these were much more attractively illustrated, and interesting for young readers.
It also seems that in terms of vocabulary control such texts compare favourably with
A study of texts aimed at teenage native speakers of English showed that such
texts are not as accessible for non-native speakers as graded readers (Hirsh &
Extensive Reading with Graded Readers
In two experiments, one conducted with second language learners in England for
a maximum of 60 hours (Tudor & Hafiz, 1989; Hafiz & Tudor, 1989), and one
with learners in Pakistan for a maximum of 90 hours (Hafiz & Tudor, 1990), Hafiz
and Tudor looked at the effect of extensive reading of graded readers on learnersí
language use. The study in England used standardised reading and writing measures
and analyses of the studentsí writing, while the study in Pakistan used only
analyses of students' writing. Even with these limited and indirect measures, improvement
was seen particularly in writing. There was no significant change in the vocabulary
used in writing for the group in England, but this is not surprising as the vocabulary
of the graded readers was probably far below the learners' vocabulary level (Hafiz
& Tudor, 1990, p. 36). There were some indications that the simplified syntax
of the graded readers seemed to encourage the learners to simplify the syntax in
their own writing. All of Hafiz and Tudor's measures were of language use. It is
likely if they included more direct measures of vocabulary size, word recognition,
and English structures as Elley and Mangubhai did, then there would be even more
signs of improvement. Tsang (1996) also found very positive effects of simplified
reading on learnersí writing performance.
Extensive Reading of Unsimplified Texts
Several correlational studies looking at the effect of a variety of factors on
L2 proficiency have shown the importance of extensive reading. Huang and van Naerssen
(1987) found that reading outside class was the most significant predictor of oral
communicative ability. Green and Oxford (1995) in a study of the effect of learning
strategies on language proficiency found that reading for pleasure was most strongly
related to proficiency. Gradman and Hanania (1991) found that out of class reading
was the most important direct contributor to TOEFL test performance. This study raised
the important issue of causality through the use of the LISREL program for analysing
the data. Gradman and Hanania found the strongest connection going from individual
out of class reading to TOEFL results. They found that oral exposure, speaking and
listening outside class and communicative oral use affected out of class reading.
It is clear from these studies that extensive reading can be a major factor in
success in learning another language. It is likely that the relationship between
extensive reading and language proficiency is changing and complex. Success in formal
study may make reading more feasible. Success in reading may increase motivation
for further study and reading.
These correlational studies are supported by Pickard's (1996) survey of the out
of class strategies used by a group of German learners of English in Germany, where
extensive reading of newspapers, magazines and novels ranked very high on the list
of strategies used for learning English. Use of reading and other input sources may
be the only practical options for out of class language development for some learners.
In a study using SRA reading boxes, Robb and Susser (1989) found that extensive
reading of SRA material and readers written for American teenagers produced several
results superior to a skills focused reading course involving less reading. The extensive
reading program also gave the learners more enjoyment both of reading and writing.
The effects of extensive reading were thus both cognitive and affective.
Extensive Reading and Vocabulary Growth
Experimental studies of second language learnersí vocabulary learning from
reading have not come near to approaching the careful design of first language studies
best exemplified by the work of Nagy, Herman and Anderson (1985).
The second language studies (Day, Omura, & Hiramatsu, 1991; Pitts, White,
& Krashen, 1989; Saragi, Nation, & Meister, 1978) used tests that were not
sensitive to small amounts of learning (see Joe, Nation, & Newton, forthcoming),
did not adequately control text difficulty, and generally lacked careful control
of the research design.
In spite of these shortcomings, there is no reason to doubt the finding that learners
incidentally gain small amounts of vocabulary knowledge from each meaning focused
reading of an appropriate text. The most important finding from first language studies
is that this vocabulary learning is not an all-or-nothing piece of learning for any
particular word, but that it is a gradual process of one meeting with a word adding
to or strengthening the small amounts of knowledge gained from previous meetings.
The implications of this finding are very important for managing extensive reading.
Essentially, vocabulary learning from extensive reading is very fragile. If the small
amount of learning of a word is not soon reinforced by another meeting, then that
learning will be lost. It is thus critically important in an extensive reading program
that learners have the opportunity to keep meeting words that they have met before.
This can be done in two ways: (a) by doing large amounts of extensive reading at
suitable vocabulary levels so that there are repeated opportunities to meet wanted
vocabulary, and (b) by complementing the extensive reading program with the direct
study of vocabulary. A well-balanced language program has appropriate amounts of
message directed activity and language focused activity.
There is a rough way of providing a guideline for deciding how much extensive
reading learners at a particular level should be doing. The two factors determining
the necessary amount of reading are (a) the frequency level of the learners' vocabulary,
and (b) the length of time that the memory of a meeting with a word is retained.
For example, if a learner has a vocabulary of around 1,000 words and is thus expanding
her vocabulary at the 1,001-2,000 word level, on average each word at this word level
will appear once in every 10,000-15,000 running words (see Table 2). If, for example,
the memory of a meeting with a word lasts for one week, then the learner will need
to read at least 10,000 words per week (40 pages of 250 words per page) to ensure
that there is another meeting with the word before the memory of it is lost. At this
level, this is the equivalent of one graded reader every one to two weeks. As learnersí
vocabulary grows larger, the new vocabulary is of lower frequency, and therefore
the amounts of extensive reading would need to be greater. The length of graded readers
increases as the vocabulary level increases, so up to the 2,000 level about a book
a week is about right.
Table 2. Word frequency level and the average number of running words needed
to meet each word again
|Vocabulary frequency level
||Word frequency in 1,000,000 running words
||Average number of running words between repetitions of each word
||Graded reader length
1000 word level
113 per 1,000,000
1 per 10,000
1 per 13,000
1 per 20,000
up to 50,000
1 per 30,000
1 per 43,000
1 per 62,500
1 per 125,000
Table 2 shows, for example, that each word at the 1500 word level occurs 75 times
per million running words. This means that a learner with a vocabulary of the most
frequent 1500 words would need to read 13,000 running words in order to meet a repetition
of words at this level to reinforce a previous meeting.
The figures in column two are from Francis and Kuçera (1982). Column three
converts the figures in column two to a ratio. The lengths in column four are from
the Longman Structural Readers Handbook (1976). The weakness of this analysis is
that the figures of occurrences per 1,000,000 running words are based on unsimplified
texts. Simplified texts, especially long ones, provide more repetitions of high frequency
words (Wodinsky & Nation, 1988).
The research on extensive reading shows that there is a wide range of learning
benefits from such activity. Experimental studies have shown that not only is there
improvement in reading, but that there are improvements in a range of language uses
and areas of language knowledge. Although studies have focused on language improvement,
it is clear that there are affective benefits as well. Success in reading and its
associated skills, most notably writing, makes learners come to enjoy language learning
and to value their study of English.
However, the figures on repetition indicate that teachers need to be serious about
extensive reading programs particularly in ensuring that learners do large amounts
of reading. The benefits of extensive reading do not come in the short term. Nevertheless,
the substantial long-term benefits justify the high degree of commitment needed.
Day, R. R., Omura, C., & Hiramatsu, M. (1991). Incidental
EFL vocabulary learning and reading. Reading in a Foreign Language, 7(2),
Elley, W. B. (1991). Acquiring literacy in a second language: The
effect of book-based programs. Language Learning, 41(3), 375-411.
Elley, W. B. (1989). Vocabulary acquisition from listening to stories.
Reading Research Quarterly, 24(2), 174˝187.
Elley, W. B., & Mangubhai, F. (1981a). The impact of a book
flood in Fiji primary schools. Wellington: NZCER.
Elley, W. B., & Mangubhai, F. (1981b). The long-term effects
of a book flood on childrenís language growth. Directions, 7, 15-24.
Francis, W. N., & Kuçera, H. (1982). Frequency analysis
of English usage. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Gradman, H., & Hanania, E. (1991). Language learning background
factors and ESL proficiency. Modern Language Journal, 75(1), 39-51.
Green, J. M., & Oxford, R. (1995). A closer look at learning
strategies, L2 proficiency and gender. TESOL Quarterly, 29(2), 261-297.
Hafiz, F. M., & Tudor, I. (1990). Graded readers as an input
medium in L2 learning. System, 18(1), 31-42.
Hafiz, F. M., & Tudor, I. (1989). Extensive reading and the
development of language skills. ELT Journal, 43(1), 4-13.
Hirsh, D., & Nation, P. (1992). What vocabulary size is needed
to read unsimplified texts for pleasure? Reading in a Foreign Language, 8(2),
Huang, X., & van Naerssen, M. (1987). Learning strategies for
oral communication. Applied Linguistics, 8(3), 287-307.
Joe, A., Nation, P., & Newton, J. (forthcoming). Sensitive
Laufer, B. (1989). What percentage of text˝lexis is essential for
comprehension? In C. Lauren & M. Nordman (Eds.), Special language: From humans
thinking to thinking machines. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Longman Structural Readers Handbook. (1976). London: Longman.
Nagy, W. E., Herman, P., & Anderson, R. C. (1985). Learning
words from context. Reading Research Quarterly, 20, 233-253.
Pickard, N. (1996). Out of class language learning strategies.
ELT Journal, 50(2), 150-159.
Pitts, M., White, H., & Krashen, S. (1989). Acquiring second
language vocabulary through reading: A replication of the Clockwork Orange study
using second language acquirers. Reading in a Foreign Language, 5(2), 271-275.
Robb, T. N., & Susser, B. (1989). Extensive reading vs skill
building in an EFL context. Reading in a Foreign Language, 5(2), 239-251.
Saragi, T., Nation, I. S. P., & Meister, G. F. (1978). Vocabulary
learning and reading. System, 6(2), 72˝78.
Tsang, W. (1996). Comparing the effects of reading and writing
on writing performance. Applied Linguistics, 17(2), 210-233.
Tudor, I., & Hafiz, F. (1989). Extensive reading as a means
of input to L2 learning. Journal of Research in Reading, 12(2), 164-178.
West, M. (1953). A general service list of English words.
Wodinsky, M., & Nation, P. (1988). Learning from graded readers.
Reading in a Foreign Language, 5(1), 155-161.
Paul Nation can be contacted at: English Language Institute,
Victoria University of Wellington, POB 600, Wellington. New Zealand. e-mail: <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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