Reading Programs at BIG BOW

Lesley Ito

In this column, let me welcome Lesley Ito, an award-winning author and one of the most well-known teacher trainers based in Japan, as a contributor. She explains her reading programs at her English school, BIG BOW, that aim to foster her students’ reading skills while developing their love of reading. 


BIG BOW English Lab is an English school in Nagoya, mostly for children, that has a CLIL curriculum and a strong literacy program. The two goals of my school’s literacy program are (1) for students to become strong readers who enjoy reading, and (2) for students to read books, not because it is required of them, but because they want to know how the story ends.

There are three kinds of students at my school: returnees, returnees who attended international school in a non-English speaking country or international pre-school graduates, and typical Japanese EFL students. Returnees usually have good reading skills, a love for reading stories, and are in the habit of reading for pleasure. These students only need to have high quality literature at the appropriate level introduced to them and assistance in selecting books they might enjoy. 

On the other hand, returnees who attended international school in a non-English speaking country or international pre-school graduates usually have strong reading skills, but are often used to reading strictly for academic purposes. Many of them are reluctant readers and prefer non-fiction to fiction. In the past, teachers have always chosen their reading materials for them and they often do not see reading as an enjoyable activity.

Then, there are the more common EFL students who come to my school not knowing how to read. They need to be taught using phonics and sight word instruction. While these students may never develop comparable reading skills to their returnee peers, after a few years of effort they can learn enough to enjoy reading books of their own choosing without audio support.

Success with reading starts in the classroom. Ten minutes of every 90-minute class are devoted to phonics instruction for students who have not yet learned to read. Students take turns reading aloud from a graded reader or a novel as a class. Beginners can read basic graded readers after less than a year of phonics and sight word instruction. Reading aloud with guidance and feedback helps students build confidence, gives them a chance to practice their skills, and can be a way to introduce more advanced students to high quality children’s literature. It can also lead to narrow reading. Narrow reading is when students read books in the same series or genre; once students have read one book in a series or genre as a class with support, it’s easy for them to read more due to their familiarity with it. After finishing a book as a class, students are encouraged to check out another book in the same series or genre to read at home if they wish. 

Many beginning readers need to work on reading fluency. We do what we can in class, but students need time to work on this at home at their own pace, so the “Reading Mission” was created. As soon as students have basic reading skills, they get a pack of six books with an audio CD at their own level and are assigned a few pages to read aloud every other week. They have to practice at home and read it in front of their parents before reading it in front of the teacher. Students who have developed reading fluency graduate to a book of humorous poems (with online audio support). They recite a poem of their choice to the teacher every other week, after practicing at home and in front of their parents. Even students who can read fluently can benefit from reading a poem aloud.

For extensive reading (ER) at home, students are required to check books out from the school library. The books are divided into five sections: graded readers with audio, easy graded readers and authentic materials for young children, graded readers (including chapter books and adaptions of classic literature), easy authentic chapter books, and authentic chapter books for children and young adults. There are many books in the same series or genre, so if students really enjoy a book, there are more in the series or genre available for them. Students know what section of the library holds books that are appropriate for their level and they can choose whichever book they want. Sometimes the teacher’s input is necessary to offer suggestions as to what books they might be interested in, but the final decision is left to the student. Most students choose the book from the cover, but older students with more advanced reading skills are taught to flip the book over and read the summary on the back. Recently, a check out system using a bar code scanner has been implemented, to allow young students to easily check out more than one book at a time.

Once students are in the second grade, they write very short book reports about one of the books they checked out or a chapter or two of that book. There are many different report styles to choose from. The easiest reports require them to write the title, fill in this sentence with an adjective, “This was a ____________ story,” and circle either, “I liked it,” or “I didn’t like it.” There is a book review style report where students write a review and give it from one to five stars. The standard book reports ask for a short summary and student opinion opinion. The book reports are used for accountability and to check comprehension with the chance to express their own opinion as an added benefit. It is more child friendly than asking students to record word counts in a reading log, especially since many authentic materials do not have word counts listed.

Over the years, I’ve heard from other teachers who have an, “If you build it, they will come,” attitude about extensive reading. That might have worked for the ghosts of baseball past in the movie Field of Dreams, but it won’t work for a school library. The teacher must lead the students, suggesting new books, helping students choose the right book for them, and making sure students finish books in a timely fashion. 


Lesley Ito is a well-known teacher, teacher trainer, school owner, and award-winning materials writer based in Nagoya. She has taught in Japan for over twenty years, and has presented professionally at teaching conferences throughout Japan, and at the ER World Congress in Dubai, UAE. Winner of the 2015 LLL Award in the Young Learner Category for Backstage Pass, her ELT writing credits include teacher’s guides, workbooks, and graded readers.