Extensive Reading Revisited - An interview with Richard Day and Julian Bamford

Tony Donnes, University of Hawaii at Manoa

Richard R. Day, who teaches ESL and SLA at the University of Hawaii, began teaching English with the U.S. Peace Corps in Ethiopia. He has taught English and English Education at Ashiya University, Kobe and co-authored Impact Issues and Impact Topics (Longman). Julian Bamford teaches English at Bunkyo University Shonan Campus. They recently co-authored Extensive Reading in the Second Language Classroom (Cambridge), a teacher's resource book based in part on their experiences of teaching in Japan. This interview was conducted via email in February and March 1999.

Tony Donnes: To start with a bit of background, how did you become interested in reading in general, and extensive reading specifically?

Julian Bamford: For me, extensive reading came first. In the early 80s I was teaching beginning and intermediate students in an intensive EFL program in Tokyo. Most of the British publishers had graded readers in their catalogs and, ever on the lookout for something useful, we ordered some. Our students read them for homework and we began to realize we were on to something. Students were excited because they could read in English and succeed at it and excited at finding words that they'd learned in class. We saw that it was a way for the students to increase their contact with English and to practice skills they'd learned in their intensive reading classes. Deciding to write up what we were doing for The Language Teacher was probably the turning point for me, however. While researching that article, I found that the more I read about and considered extensive reading, the more interested I got.

Richard Day: My interest in L2 reading actually stems from a couple of experiences I had when learning French in high school. By and large, the three years of high school French I had were terrible. French was my worst subject. But I really enjoyed reading, and I still recall reading The Little Prince and Around the World in Eighty Days. It is sad to think of only two highlights in a three-year journey.

When I began teaching at the University of Hawaii's English Language Institute, I wanted to teach reading courses for two reasons. First, I was studying for my doctorate and didn't want to spend hours correcting students compositions. Second, I thought that students really needed to read well to succeed, so they might be motivated, and I could have an impact. Later, I taught the course on teaching ESL reading in Hawaii's MA program.

In 1989, while on sabbatical, I taught English at an all-girl private Japanese high school. One of my courses was an elective reading course for seniors. Previously, its focus had been skills and strategies, fine for international students at UH, who could already read, but not for beginning and intermediate L2 readers. From my experiences in teaching the ESL reading course, I concluded that the best way for the high school girls to learn to read was by reading. With the approval of the administration, I ordered a lot of graded readers and young adult fiction and put an extensive reading course into action.

td: How can teachers grade students who are reading extensively, and how can they ensure their students are learning?

RD: I have found that reading targets work well. They can be expressed in minutes or hours per day or week, pages per day or week or books per week or semi-monthly. With lower level students, I like to use a measurement of time, such as 20 minutes a day, five days a week, for a total of 100 minutes a week. They tire more easily reading in the L2 than do students with greater proficiency.

The teacher can even take a learner-focused approach, adjusting targets for individuals in a given class. In a class of 40, some students could have a reading target of 100 minutes a week, while others could be aiming at 150 or 200.

Or the teacher can involve the students in determining their grades by setting a range of targets: for example, an average of 150 minutes per week over the semester is an A; 125 minutes is a B; and so on, for an entire class or individually.

Finally, Beatrice Dupuy, Lucy Tse, and Tom Cook (1996), suggest "negotiated evaluation," in which students determine how they want to be evaluated. I highly recommend their article.

You ask how teachers can ensure that their students are learning. Well, that is a concern, regardless of the subject or the approach. In my work with teachers, I often remind them, "You can lead a horse to water, and watch it drown." We can never be certain what our students are learning, if anything. But the beauty of an extensive reading approach is that we know that students who read large quantities of easy, interesting material will become better readers and will enjoy the experience. There is a robust body of research demonstrating this.

JB: Your method of grading depends on your teaching purposes, so first, why do you want your students to read extensively? It's probably partly for the massive practice they need to develop their sight vocabulary, the ability to recognize words and phrases automatically, the basis of fluent reading. Building this sight vocabulary is part of what Richard meant by "students learn to read by reading," because reading a lot is the only way to develop it. Another purpose may be to increase their L2 contact time. For both these purposes, the amount of reading is what counts, so a grade can be based on the number of pages or books, or the length of time that a student reads, as Richard described.

But quantity means little without quality of reading. You want students to be reading for a real purpose, like entertaining themselves or getting information, so that they apply not only their skills, but who they are and what they know, rather than just going through the motions. You can monitor quality of reading by having students compile written reaction reports. These reports can give the teacher a very good idea of how students are engaging with their reading and if they are developing confidence. You can also interview students about their reading. That's usually enough, but if you want students' grades to reflect actual proficiency, you can complement the quantity measure and the reports with a test in which students read a lengthy text and answer comprehension questions afterwards.

td: Can you elaborate on the graded readers you both mentioned earlier?

JB: These are fiction and non-fiction books written or adapted for language learners of various ability levels, from beginning to high-intermediate. Careful linguistic grading means that learners can find books appropriate to their particular level, books they can easily understand. As their foreign language and reading abilities improve, they progress up the seven or so grades to the highest level, at which point they'll find enough understandable reading material written for native speakers.

Writing for language learners is like any other kind of writing in that the writer tries to communicate in a way the intended audience will understand. It's true that the defining characteristic of an audience of language learners is its limited linguistic ability. Writers and editors therefore have lists of words and grammar patterns to guide them in appropriately "languaging" their meaning. But when writers have communication as the goal, they don't treat this listed language as separate from meaning. And, as a result of their communicative intent, they write authentic, natural, fully-formed discourse.

Richard and I think that books for L2 learners deserve the name "language learner literature," analogous to children's literature and teenage literature. Increasingly skillful writing and enlightened editing have given language learner literature the two characteristics we want: appropriateness and authenticity. Which is a good thing really, because language learner literature is what makes extensive reading possible for all except more advanced learners.

RD: I agree completely with Julian. Historically, a lot of graded readers were poorly written, with attention to making the language simple, rather than communicating with the audience. The situation has improved greatly, and now there are a lot of excellent series by most of the major ELT publishers. At the beginning and intermediate levels, we have to use material that is specially written for students at those levels, that is, "language learner literature." Material for fluent native readers is just too difficult. It's like learning to play the piano: Students don't start off playing Beethoven or Mozart or Bach. They first learn to play music specially written for beginners, and move gradually to more difficult pieces. The end product is Beethoven, not the beginning.

td: Extensive reading gives the student a great amount of freedom and authority: repeatedly choosing what to read, determining whether the level is appropriate, or changing the reading selection at any time. When students are used to the teacher's making these decisions, how can we help them feel comfortable with such learner autonomy?

RD: Orientation and systematic, periodic guidance are essential. Students have to be introduced to the procedures you mention: Self-selection or not finishing a book can be new and radical. Students need to be told why they are asked to do these things and told about the outcomes, the results of such new and unusual practices. During the semester or academic year, teachers should follow up with reminders about the practices and goals of the extensive reading program. We all know that students do not necessarily absorb what we tell them immediately. And guidance in extensive reading procedures might be more meaningful when students are in the midst of doing them.

JB: Richard, recently you passed on something that Alan Maley wrote: "We need to realize how much influence we have with our students. Students do not just (or even) learn the subject matter we teach them; they learn their teachers. Teacher attitude, more than mere technical expertise, is what they will recall when they leave us." It's like your favorite aphorism, from Christine Nuttall: "Reading is caught, not taught." (p. 219)

If the teachers themselves read, and if they know their students individually, it's a beginning. Teachers can read the books their students are reading and can suggest appropriate reading material to fill the desires and needs of particular students. In turn, teachers can read and discuss books that students recommend to them. When teachers make the classroom a reading community, of which the teacher is a part as much as the students, ongoing guidance is a natural element, and foreign language reading may become a real part of students' lives.

td: Where do you feel the research literature is lacking, and at present what kind of questions need answering?

RD: Let me address a preliminary question first: In what ways can teachers who use extensive reading in their classrooms do research? One of the best ways is for teachers to ask questions about what they do. Then they might figure out how to find answers. For example, a teacher might be interested in learning if students in her extensive reading classroom come to enjoy reading over the school year. She could design a questionnaire and ask them about their attitude and motivation at the beginning of the year and at the end. Beniko Mason and I plan to talk about how teachers can research their own teaching in a presentation at JALT this year. We need longitudinal investigations of the impact of extensive reading. Many studies demonstrate that students improve their general language ability, reading ability, and vocabulary, and that they come to enjoy reading in the target language. But what we don't know is the extent to which students continue to read in the target language once the extensive reading class is over.

JB: I'd like to read studies that ask if extensive reading leads to continued L2 reading. Positive results in academic studies like these encourage teachers to try extensive reading in their own classrooms. That's because the key question for teachers is always, "How can I help my students achieve their goals?" and in this case, "Can extensive reading help my students reach their foreign language and foreign-language reading goals?"

Teachers design an extensive reading program or follow one already existing at their school, and they can ask questions in the way Richard described. If they make public what they did and what they found, it can be of great value to other teachers. For example, I learned a lot from the article that Tom Robb has posted on the Internet, describing his extensive reading program at Kyoto Sangyo University. As a teacher, I also want the best possible material for my students to read. Again, Tom Robb is an exemplary model with his Internet-posted popularity lists of the young adult literature read by his students. If more teachers compile and share this kind of information, it'll take the guesswork out of building a library. Our journals and newsletters should also be reviewing new language learner literature titles when they're published, with teachers and students as the reviewers. There should also be awards for the best new books every year. All this would raise standards in publishing, and would help me match my students with the best possible books.

td: In an extensive reading curriculum, when students are working individually, when and how can we teach vocabulary?

RD: Studies clearly show that students learn vocabulary. Indeed, that is one of the strengths of an extensive reading approach. Teachers can supplement this learning in many ways. Have students keep a vocabulary journal, for example. When they come across words that they want to remember, for whatever reason, they could list them in their journals, with date, source, example sentence, and meaning-translation or definition or paraphrase. Or teach students how to find the meaning of words in context. This is not easy, and I would recommend it only for intermediate or higher students. Teachers might also consider teaching how to use dictionaries. However, teachers need to bear in mind that the goal of an extensive reading program is to help the students become readers, not vocabulary learning or grammar learning. And class time taken to study vocabulary is time not spent on reading.

JB: Richard, I think we differ here, in that you see the cup as half full and I see it as half empty. Yes, students at advanced levels know enough of the L2 to learn words incidentally while reading. But for beginning and intermediate students, extensive reading is at best a minor source of new vocabulary. I don't mean they don't learn new vocabulary incidentally while reading. Research clearly shows that they do. But the best research-based estimate so far (Horst, Cobb, and Meara, 1998) is that even the most avid low-intermediate readers of language learner literature pick up just two or three hundred words a year. That said, extensive reading plays a crucial role in vocabulary development at all levels because it reinforces and consolidates prior learning and stops any prior trace from fading away.

Equally important, when students are engaged in reading interesting, easy material, they are developing an implicit sense of when and how words are used. There's a paradox though. We don't want students to be hung up on vocabulary while they're reading. Quite the opposite: we want them to get used to ignoring or guessing at unknown words, and to go for the general meaning of a text. This equally crucial "anti-vocabulary instruction," in which they learn to make do with what they have, is one more reason for students to read extensively.

td: Thank you both for your time. Are there any final thoughts you'd like to add?

RD: Teaching extensive reading, like all teaching, requires hard work and involvement. It just doesn't happen. Teachers who incorporate extensive reading into their classrooms need to offer guidance and support continually. They need to be role models themselves. And the process takes time. Our students will not become L2 readers overnight. But the rewards are definitely worth the time and energy.

JB: Twenty years ago in 37 words, Christopher Brumfit (1979) said it all: "Any efficient English language school or department should have available to students a library of extensive readers so that those who wish to can read at least one book, however short, of an appropriate level, per week" (p. 6).

For further information, see The Language Teacher May 1997 special issue on extensive reading.




Brumfit, C. J. (1979). Readers for foreign language learners of English (ETIC Information Guide 7). London: The British Council.

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

Dupey, B., Tse, L., & Cook, T. (1996). Bringing books into the classroom: First steps in turning college-level ESL students into readers. TESOL Journal, 5(4), 10-15.

Horst, M., Cobb, T. & Meara, P. (1998). Beyond A Clockwork Orange: Acquiring second language vocabulary through reading. Reading in a Foreign Language, 11(2), 207-223.

Nuttall, C. (1996). Teaching reading skills in a foreign language. Oxford: Heinemann.

Robb, T. (1999). Kyoto Sangyo University extensive reading program books in order of popularity. Available at http://www.kyoto-su.ac.jp/~trobb/evalscr.html (April 16, 1999).

Robb, T. (1998, April). Extensive reading for Japanese English Majors (article in progress). Available: <http://www.kyoto-su.ac.jp/~trobb/exten.html>