Helping Japanese EFL Learners to Read English Novels

Stephen J. Davies, Toyama College of Foreign Languages



  • Key Words: Reading, Literature
  • Learner English Level: Intermediate to Advanced
  • Learner Maturity Level: Junior College and above
  • Preparation Time: Many hours
  • Activity Time: Depends on length of novel

Japanese learners of English frequently lack confidence in their reading skills and so they are reluctant to try reading unabridged novels. As EFL learners they do not have the same cultural background information as native speaker readers do, and this inevitably makes top-down processing more difficult; bottom-up processing may also be slowed down because they are still in the process of acquiring vocabulary and grammar. However, provided they are given enough support and assistance, I believe they can read a full length novel and may even surprise themselves with how much progress they can make. It is important to select suitable material because obscure words, large amounts of dialect, and difficult idioms will cause many problems for students. Something written in clear, contemporary English is the best choice: this year I'm teaching A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro.

General Pre-reading

First I explain to the students why I have chosen the novel and why I think it is worth reading. I try to convince them that they will enjoy reading it and that the harder they try to understand it, the more they will learn. Following this I give out a list of all the characters that appear in the story and explain who they are, how they are related to each other and which characters are the most important. The students should try to memorize the characters' names as soon as possible.

The next thing to be explained is the geography of the novel. I usually describe where the key events take place, where the main characters live, and mention all the important places that are relevant to the story. It is a good idea to draw maps on the board and have the students note them down for future reference.

Many contemporary novels do not use a conventional linear time order but instead employ flashback or even flash forward sequencing. These kinds of techniques can confuse students and so an explanation of the novel's time structure is worthwhile. A good way of illustrating the flashback technique is to talk about any well-known movie that uses a similar style, such as Forrest Gump.

Specific Pre-reading

After giving a general explanation of characters, geography, and time structure, it is necessary to help the students with difficult vocabulary and passages that are especially complicated. I have found it helpful to treat each chapter as a separate unit. I first carefully read each chapter making lists of difficult words and noting passages that will need some explanation. At this stage I also write a short chapter summary.
This information should then be given to the students before they begin reading. It helps if they locate and underline the pre-taught vocabulary and familiarize themselves with the short summary. Then, while they are reading, the teacher should be on hand to deal with any difficulties individual students might have.

Post Reading

After the students have finished reading the chapter, I check that they have understood it by giving them a question sheet, and by asking them to write a chapter summary. It is also helpful if they make their own list of characters, noting down the page number where the character first appears in the story. They can also add any important additional information about the characters.


Getting through a complete novel takes time and the students will have to work hard. EFL learners tend to use text-centered, bottom-up processing focusing on word-by-word understanding: if they are given help with vocabulary and difficult sentences beforehand, reading will be much easier for them. In addition, the short pre-reading summaries that I have described will give them knowledge of chapter content and will help to develop the conceptual frameworks that are required for top-down processing. Our biggest challenge as reading teachers is to help students develop their top-down processing skills. Although we usually rely on textbooks that are specifically designed to do this, I believe reading full-length novels can be just as effective and far more stimulating for students and teachers.