The Language Teacher
November 2002

Jogging to Language Competence

Nick Dawson

Longman ELT

This article is dedicated to the memory of Louis Alexander [1932-2002] who, amongst his many contributions to English language teaching, wrote many successful graded readers and laid down some of the fundamental principles of extensive graded reading.

Understanding extensive reading: Most teachers accept that extensive reading brings enormous benefits to language learners but few have analyzed the process in order to understand why this should be true.

Intensive and extensive exercise: Some of us have built exercise into our lives. We go to the gym for weight training. We also jog, swim, cycle, or do aerobics.

Intensive and extensive reading: Intensive reading is like guided weight training. It requires great effort from the reader along with the advice and supervision of a personal trainer who teaches the correct procedures for different tasks and exercises.

Extensive reading is gentler and requires less guidance and supervision. Extensive reading, like jogging, is largely controlled by the reader. Joggers decide where, when, how far, and how fast they jog. Joggers vary their routes, avoiding steep hills on some days, or reduce their distance in bad weather. Most joggers follow a program, gradually increasing the difficulty or distance of their routes as their capacity develops.

Similarly, extensive readers choose what they read, when, and how long they read. If they currently read at Level 3, they still might occasionally choose a book at Level 2 or attempt a book at Level 4. Many readers value this freedom and independence. Other readers prefer the companionship of others, reading in pairs or small groups, stopping to discuss their reactions and feelings. At the end, they may exchange ideas and make plans for their next reading excursion. Their motivation to continue reading is sustained by the partner or group.

Graded reading: Graded reading was largely invented by Michael West in Bengal in the 1920s. He was particularly concerned with the density of unknown vocabulary in reading texts. He developed a principle of readability based on lexical distribution. The texts used in schools at that time contained too many difficult words packed too closely together. Almost every sentence contained an unknown word. West adapted the texts, sometimes substituting familiar words and extending the overall length of the texts to provide a greater context of comprehensible language, which pupils could use to understand the unknown words. This reduced the density of unknown vocabulary from 1:7.4 in the old texts to 1:44.7 in his New Method texts.

West's New Method Readers, published by Longman in Calcutta starting in 1927, began the principle of vocabulary control in extensive reading materials. Structural grading was introduced with the Longman Structural Readers series devised in 1968 by W. Stannard Allen, D. K. Swan, and G. Walsh. The same principles have been refined by Andy Hopkins and Joc Potter for the Penguin Readers series.

Krashen and comprehensible input: Stephen Krashen has argued that humans acquire language by receiving "comprehensible input." He defined comprehensible input as being language which is a bit beyond our current level of competence. We are able to understand language containing unacquired grammar and vocabulary with the help of context, which includes extra-linguistic information (such as illustrations), our knowledge of the world, and previously acquired linguistic competence.

The authenticity debate: Some argue that because of the "processed" nature of the language in graded readers, they do not represent authentic language. This is a very limited view. We all "grade" our language according to the person we are speaking with. Failure to grade is seen as arrogant and rude. Richard Day and Julian Bamford have described graded readers as "language learner literature." The language is "processed" and simplified.

The teacher's role in extensive reading: Returning to our jogging metaphor, the teacher's role in extensive reading is not the role of a personal trainer in the gymnasium. The teacher's role is to inspire, suggest, sustain, guide, and enthuse.

The teacher needs to stand back and appreciate what is happening inside the students' brains when they are reading. They are turning black marks on a white page into ideas, pictures, and events. Reading is sometimes dismissed as a "passive" skill, but students are "making" sense of the language in a very active way. They are constructing a comprehension by combining what they can decode from the language with their imagination and knowledge of the world. In conclusion, my jogging metaphor weakens somewhat when we consider motivation. People jog partly because they enjoy jogging but mostly for health benefits. Students' motivation to read comes from their interest in the content of what they read. Graded readers allow students to understand and to enjoy what they read.

If you are interested in finding out more about Longman's Penguin Readers, is an excellent website. You can also contact Longman ELT directly at 03-3365-9002 or email us with questions or requests at

Nick Dawson


Dawson, N. (1992). Longman guide to graded reading (2nd ed.). Longman.

Dawson, N. (1998). Penguin readers teacher's guide to using graded readers. Pearson.

Day, R. & Bamford, J. (1998). Extensive reading in the second language classroom. CUP.

Harmer, J. (2001). The practice of English language teaching (3rd ed.). Pearson Education Ltd.

Krashen, S. D. (1985). The input hypothesis. Longman 1985.

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