Extensive reading: Way to learn about the world

Not everyone has to have the same amount of interest or passion for reading although it is cardinal that they do at least what may be minimally required to develop their literacy skills

Following an ‘Extensive reading’ symposium held at Kathmandu University, a friend and a fellow participant quipped, ‘Why put so much premium on reading and writing? How can ER help anyway when it discourages assessment of reading?’

Extensive reading (ER) is a type of reading where learners read relatively large quantities of material for enjoyment and is believed to have long-term benefits in terms of learners’ overall reading abilities and even other linguistic proficiencies.

The efficacy of this belief is being tested at the school where this writer teaches, and with the ER’s fruits believed to ripe late, these are very early days to say anything at all.

The friend’s first question as to why academics has such a sacrosanct place in humanity was impossible to answer, the question being a rather philosophical one. The second question on whether ER can help was possible to answer remaining within the framework of researches carried out over the years and their corresponding findings.

Having been a practitioner teacher of ER prior to the symposium, the writer was aware of its practical challenges, so he began answering with a caveat straightaway:  ER can work if and only if the learners have access to a variety of reading materials on a wide range of topics. Day and Bamford, two key figures of ER, state this as the second principle of ER. This was met with an instant dismissal of its utility from his friend alongside others who had huddled up to take part in this discourse, citing its unfeasibility in under resourced public schools.

Having seen this coming, this author gave them a touché while airing a cautious hope that programmes like Early grade reading programme (EGRP) underway currently and the likes of such in the future might bright some change in that regard, which was taken by his interlocutors largely with a pinch of salt. ‘What about the ones that have the wherewithal?’ he proposed, which steered the conversation back to whether ER can be useful if it can indeed be practised.

In contrast to intensive reading, which is reading usually shorter texts closely to perform specific learning tasks, extensive reading is reading longer texts that are relatively easy for readers to understand, with its immediate purpose being pleasure, information and general understanding. All these form part of the 10 principles of extensive reading by Day and Bamford again, who also contend that ER is not a new practice, tracing it as far back as the 1920s. A vital tenet of extensive reading, as per the duo, is that learners choose what they want to read, and this is precisely why the availability of reading materials in large quantity is a non-negotiable criterion for this.

Reading bores students because the vocabulary they come across the text is beyond their comprehension. Reading also turns them off because the book is shoved down upon them. Extensive reading allows them to have that autonomy in the selection of books.

ER doesn’t cringe or condescend at students when they pick up magazines, simple graphic novels or comic books like Manga comic books.

As regards its benefits, the writer shall have to patiently wait for confirmation of the results ER is expected to give on his students who have been doing it.

Meanwhile, the hope is that the learners get such benefits as is discussed in the ‘Cambridge Papers in ELT, 2018’ on extensive reading. Citing a host of researchers and scholars who have carried out the relevant studies on the practice of ER, the paper enumerates a wide range of benefits associated with it. Apart from the ones that are more academic like improving reading fluency, development of vocabulary and increment of overall linguistic proficiency, ER is also said to increase the learners’ knowledge of the world and other cultures.

With all its known benefits, what if the students simply don’t want to read? Do we force them to read? Prior to dwelling upon the second question, let us examine the first one. It is possible that students get occupied with six strings or the likes, games indoors or outdoors, television, social media and what not in this day and age rather than with a sedentary act of perusing. Not everyone has to have the same amount of interest or passion for reading although it is cardinal that they do at least what may be minimally required to develop their literacy skills.

However, is it also not possible that disinterests of many of them could have been engendered by a really bad reading experience? Even regular and self-motivated readers get turned off every now and then by books they’ve picked up for a variety of reasons. They give up on books though, not on reading.

However, school-going children’s reluctance towards reading is largely attributed to them forcibly being made to read the materials which are either too difficult for them or purely uninteresting. Akin to an encounter in mathematics in our school days, which the writer has a feeling a lot of us can relate, whereby the inability to solve a third or a fourth math problem in a series would have led many of us to abandon the whole exercise, a bad reading experience could also lead students to lose faith on reading altogether. Against this backdrop and with a lot of researches on ER indicating positive results for reading, why not give it a chance? It might get them to read.