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Graded and Extensive Reading -- Questions and Answers

Rob Waring
Notre Dame Seishin University, Okayama.

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This paper will seek to clarify what is meant by Graded Reading. It will provide reasons for its importance in a language programme, will inform readers where reading materials can be located, and will provide some hints for the classroom. Responses to some common objections to Extensive Reading programs will also be provided.

What is Graded Reading?

Graded Reading is also known as Basal Reading or Simplified Reading. The rationale behind using graded materials is to allow the reader to read without difficulty. Graded Reading therefore involves the reading of material which has been made easy to read. The material can be graded (i.e., simplified) according to the use of high frequency vocabulary rather than vocabulary a native speaker might use; simplified phrasing or sentence structure; the use of illustrations; and so on.

What is the relationship between Graded Reading and Extensive Reading?

Extensive Reading is often called Graded Reading and vice versa, and the terms are often used interchangeably. There are, however, important differences between the two. First, Graded Reading uses specially prepared materials while Extensive Reading can, but need not do so. Second, Extensive Reading requires fluent reading while Graded materials can be used for extensive or intensive reading. Third, Extensive Reading sees pleasure as a goal leading to increased motivation. Graded Reading has a specific purpose: for readers to read enough material at one level to develop sufficient fluency and other forms of linguistic knowledge to enable them to move to a higher level. The ultimate goal of Graded Reading is to do so much of it that the learner can deal with native level texts fluently.

Why do Graded Reading?

There are several reasons. First, I shall discuss four linguistic benefits: building reading speed, lexical speed access, reading fluency, and the ability when reading to move from working with words to working with ideas (see Nation, this issue, for a more thorough account). A short review of reading theory is necessary here to explain the need for Graded Reading.

A learner beginning to read in a second language starts by looking at each letter of each word to decode the word, and keeps each word in working memory while the next word is processed. By the time she gets to the end of the line, the first word can easily be forgotten and very little meaning of the text is retained. As the reader reads more, she can decode words faster and remember earlier words more easily. She can therefore read more words within the limited space of her memory. This then allows the reader to move from the word by word level of decoding to the processing of chunks of text -- short phrases or "ideas."










A beginner reader will see each of the nine words separately and will read word by word. A more experienced and proficient reader will read the sentence as three ideas or propositions:

The old lady

took her dog

to the park

This is a vital stage in the learner's development because she is no longer working with words; she is working with ideas. At this level she can make more effective use of background information about the topic to fill in non-comprehended parts of the text. It is well known that we tend to remember ideas much better than actual words. For example, one is able to relate an article from this morning's paper in one's own words far more easily than trying to recall the exact words in which the article was written. In order to remember a text well, we therefore need to work with ideas, not words. This also explains why we understand more when we read faster.

There are psychological benefits too. Mason and Krashen (forthcoming) found that reluctant readers can become motivated readers. Extensive Reading tends to be a pleasurable activity which makes learning easier.

What happens if we don't do Graded Reading?

If a student is asked only to decode texts, through intensive study of them, then her eye is not receiving sufficient practice at moving smoothly over the page to learn to move up to the "ideas" level. She will remain bogged down in the decoding of the linguistic puzzle that is her text. How does one tell whether students are reading intensively or extensively? (See Bamford & Day, this issue, for a definition of these terms.) It's easy. Are they using a dictionary? Is the text they are reading covered with notes and translations? If the answer is "yes," then they are trying to decode the text and are reading intensively. Too much of this kind of work does not allow readers to develop fast and fluent eye movements that bounce along the text with each idea or proposition. Unfortunately, texts well above a learner's reading level are what most of our students only ever learn to read -- the kind of passages which appear on language tests.

But my students only want to pass their tests, so reading extensively will not help them, or can it?

Extensive and Graded Reading will help students to process words faster and they will be better able to read intensively. They will also learn to learn from reading. As students read they are constantly practising the "guessing from context" skill, so vital for work with the difficult texts that appear on tests.

What Graded Materials are available for my class and where can I obtain them?

A teacher can create her own materials for use in class, but this takes a lot of time. Many teachers find it useful to use published materials. The most well known graded or simplified materials available for the classroom are Graded Readers (also known as Basal Readers or Simplified Readers or just Readers). Some readers are written for complete or false beginners, and others for all levels up to advanced and beyond. Readers are short books between 15-130 pages, depending on the difficulty and the story, and are available in various genres. The stories are often modified versions of popular novels, or else are originals written for a particular audience. Others are biographies, travel books, and other non fiction works.

Most bookstores that sell English books stock dozens if not hundreds of readers. They are not children's books, but are written for adult language learners, with the specific aim of helping them to improve their reading skills. (See David Hill's review article in this issue.)

How do I know the "level" of a Graded Reader?

Publishers usually establish different levels for these materials according to the number of headwords. For example, a 1200 headword reader would be written so that very few words fall outside the publisher's 1200 most frequently used word families. It is therefore possible for anyone choosing a book or creating a school or class library to obtain books of similar difficulty from different publishers. It should be noted, however, that as publishers use their own frequency lists (which can differ considerably, especially at the higher levels), it can sometimes be difficult to categorize books from different publishers.

But what about native speaker books, magazines and so on? Aren't they helpful for reading?

Yes they are, but a reading teacher must establish objectives when using them. If the learner is not able to deal with the text fluently, she will decode it and reconstruct it in her mind. She will try to understand the whole picture, like she would a jigsaw. This is fine and can lead to a lot of learning. But if the text is too difficult then it will lead to a lot of frustration and demoralization.

If decoding (intensive reading) is the objective, then by all means use native material. However, learning from graded materials can be easier as they are more accessible to learners and the input is more comprehensible.

But surely they must read authentic materials, because learners must be exposed to natural language.

Native speaker materials can be motivating for learners whose reading ability approaches native competency. However, if the text is too difficult the learner will become frustrated and will form negative opinions about reading. Worst of all she may just give up. Countless thousands of students graduate from colleges having spent two years slogging through a classic work of literature and never want to pick up another book in English as long as they live. Their reading was hardly a pleasurable experience. Reading must be pleasurable, but pleasurable does not necessitate the lack of serious intent. (See Bamford & Day in this issue for more on this topic.)

So, if doing Extensive Reading is just reading, why do it in class? Aren't there more important things to do?

Extensive Reading is primarily an out-of-class activity. After an initial lesson explaining the program, and the borrowing and reporting systems, the administration of the reading takes up only a very small part of each class.

Some teachers maintain a Sustained Silent Reading section in their classrooms where members of a class read self-selected material. This ensures that all learners read individually at the same time, and gives the teacher time to speak with learners about their reading, and to administer the program. It is advisable that, on occasion, the teacher also reads at this time to provide a model for the learners. The learners are not reading simply for the sake of reading. They are improving their fluency, learning new words, collocations, patterns, and so on.

How do I organize the out-of-class reading?

Beniko Mason and Tom Pendergast (see their article in this issue) provide their learners with a small booklet which explains the reasons for this kind of reading. Mason and Pendergast found that once learners understand that they will not improve their reading without practice, they become more motivated. They also found that reluctant readers enjoy this kind of reading. Some teachers require learners to maintain records of their reading and ensure that page targets have been met. If teachers do not set page targets for each semester, then little reading may be done. The number of pages to be read per semester depends on the learners' level, time, motivation, and the accessibility of materials.

How do I know the reading out-of-class is being done, and how do I assess it?

There are several ways. First, the teacher can require the learner to write a short report about the reading, thus extending the reading into speaking and writing, integrating the learning. Research has shown that written language use improves with the amount of reading done (Tsang, 1996). Follow up tasks (such as those outlined by Marc Helgesen in the My Share section of this issue) can check if reading has been done and understood.

It is not necessary to test the learners on every book as doing so would be very time consuming. It also sends the message that reading is just like any other subject that needs testing, and the reason we do reading is to be tested on it. We need to cultivate the view that reading is pleasurable. This does not mean we should not assess the reading, however. The monitoring must move the reading onward, and not just check that work has been done. As the program develops, the monitoring should become more learner-centred as learners become more familiar with the techniques of self-monitoring (see Ellis & McRae, 1991, pp. 10-12). You may not need to write tests for each Reader as many Readers include comprehension check tests inside their back covers.

Book reports (where learners write 200 words about the content of their books) can give some idea of whether or not the contents were understood. Another way to assess Extensive Reading is to measure reading speed at the beginning of the term and at the end. Provided the same level of material is used in both tests, a learner would be expected to read more words per minute at the end of an Extensive Reading program. Another common technique is to ask learners to keep Reading Diaries in which they document what was read, elements of the learners' own monitoring, as well as teacher directed monitoring.

How do the learners decide which Readers to use? How do I find their level?

In Extensive Reading, the material is self selected. One way for learners to determine their levels is to read a page or so from various books, and then to use their own judgment. I ask my learners to assess their own levels, and then go down one level. This makes the reading more manageable for them. My guideline for difficulty is to check whether they can read a page in two minutes, understanding all but two to three words (not including proper nouns).

Does it matter if the Reader is too easy or too difficult?

It certainly matters from an Extensive Reading perspective if the reader is too difficult. The reading becomes a decoding (intensive) task rather than an Extensive Reading task. The Extensive Reading aim to develop fluent readers will not be reached. Reading material which is "too easy" will allow learners to read faster. This is one of the aims of Graded Reading and learners should be allowed to read very simple material from time to time.

Do I need to teach Intensive Reading too?

There are many opinions about this. Some people say that reading in itself will improve a learner's overall proficiency. Others say that a learner needs to build specific reading skills along side the fluency skill. Such skills would include guessing unknown words from context, finding text organization, finding main ideas, understanding inferences, and so on. There are many good books to help learners develop these skills, including Mikulecky and Jeffries (1990) and Mikulecky (1996).

Does this mean that Intensive Reading is bad and that Extensive Reading is good?

Not at all. They serve different purposes. Neither is it the case that just reading a lot will increase vocabulary automatically. A balance is required. Our learners need plenty of Intensive Reading to learn new vocabulary, to look at text organization, to help them discover and develop reading skills, and so on. This does not mean a critical review or literary analysis however -- this should be done in the Literature course, not the reading skills course. These skills can be practised by reading extensively. One type of reading without the other will leave our learners unprepared to deal with more difficult texts.

But doesn't it take a lot of time?

Yes, of course. A learner cannot learn to speak by studying dialogues alone, she has to practice with many partners. The same applies to reading. A reading teacher who requires learners to read (or translate) only one short passage for each class will not help to develop fluent readers. Much more time needs to be allocated to the development of fluent reading skills.

Where else can I find information about Graded Reading and Extensive Reading?

Other helpful texts include a guide to using Class Readers (books that all members of the class read together) by Greenwood (1987). Ellis and McRae (1991) and Hedge (1985) provide helpful hints and advice for using Readers. Hill (1992; this issue) provides insights into how to set up an Extensive Reading program. The forthcoming book by Day and Bamford is destined to become a major reference work in this area.

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

Ellis, G., & McRae, J. (1991). The extensive reading handbook for secondary teachers. London: Penguin.

Greenwood, J. (1987). Class readers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hedge, T. (1985). Using readers in language teaching. London: Macmillan.

Hill, D. (1992). The EPER guide to organizing programs of extensive reading. IALS: Edinburgh University.

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 (pp. 316-323). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Mason, B., & Krashen, S. (forthcoming). Extensive reading in a foreign Language. System.

Mikulecky, B. (1996). More reading power. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Mikulecky, B., & Jeffries, L. (1990). Reading power. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Saragi, T., Nation, P., & Meister, G. (1978). Vocabulary learning and reading. System, 6 (2), 72-78.

Tsang, W. K. (1996). Comparing the effects of reading and writing on writing performance. Applied Linguistics, 17(2), 210-233.

West, M. (1955). Learning to read in a foreign language. London, Longman.

Rob Waring can be contacted at: Notre Dame Seishin University, 2-16-9 Ifuku-cho, Okayama. 700. e-mail:

This article copyright © 1997 by the author.
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Last modified: January 29, 1998
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