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Think Tank

This Month's Think Tank Panel

June 2005

Topic: How does one set up a reading class, especially in situations where extensive reading is not an option?

Curtis Kelly

Awe. Envy. For me, a paradigm shift.

Marc's comment at the JALT Think Tank Forum last year, "Reading is the magic skill" is still echoing through my mind. At that time, I knew little about teaching reading, but thanks to Marc and Stephen Krashen, I decided to find out more.

It is eight months later now, and I have learned a lot about reading. I have had lots of comprehensible input on comprehensible input. I have done extensive reading on extensive reading. And I tanked out thinking about the Think Tank on reading, even though there were only two contributors.

“Reading for pleasure? Not my kids, and I know a lot of you out there know what I am talking about.”

Once, at breakfast with Peter Viney and Charlie Adamson, I heard how year after year at Charlie's college, students doing extensive reading outscored students using other approaches in almost every measure. Better yet, I have had the good fortune to engage in long conversations on reading with the reading experts: Junko Yamanaka, Rob Waring, Howard Siegelman, and especially Beniko Mason, a dedicated researcher and one of Stephen Krashen's associates. Other journal pieces on the Internet have informed me of the research done by Carrell, Swales, Wallace, Mason, Bamford, Day, Grabe, and many others.

As for the SLA research, I have come to two conclusions:

* Explicit grammar instruction is not effective in causing language acquisition; opinions vary in regard to implicit instruction.
* Comprehensible input is the golden key to language acquisition.

Once again, the research shines a big light on extensive reading with graded readers as the premier approach to teaching reading. I concur. And as Marc told us in his 2002 Thank Tank piece (link above), you can get all the information you need on how to set up an extensive reading program at:

However, there are still a couple things I cannot understand, and I am calling for my fellow panelists' help. It seems that the theories only look at language acquisition in the ideal student. It seems that the research suggests that teachers can do whatever they want with willing, compliant students in any kind of institutional format. This is not the case. There is more to acquire than language. Not all students are compliant. Most of us are relegated to once-a-week classes where every student must use the same book.

I don't know what kind of students Marc and Peter taught, but the vast majority of mine have never even read a book in Japanese, and almost all of them say they "hate" reading. Reading for pleasure? Not my kids, and I know a lot of you out there know what I am talking about. The vast majority of my students work at night and the smattering of homework they are willing to do gets done just before and after the class bell rings. I cannot imagine an extensive home reading program working with these students, and I have done a few experiments that have confirmed my doubts. I have taken four of my more motivated students, who came to me with a request to learn more English, and I bought them a set of graded readers to delve into over the spring break. One did superbly, reading three books. One read one book and quit, and the other never even cracked the covers. Obviously extensive reading works for those willing to do it, but what about the rest?

Then, too, the research does not really tell us how to set up a reading class in the traditional classroom situation. Even if we assume outside extensive reading will be a boon for some students, for others, the only reading they will do will be in class. So how does a teacher handle reading in the classroom arena? Many of my Japanese colleagues do this terrible thing with Time Magazine or Shakespeare, where they have students plod through sentences word by word, looking them all up. I suspect they know that this kind of approach is ineffective, but maybe we have not given them a palatable alternative yet.

Okay, we know that comprehensible input is the key, and that other focus-on-form activities, such as grammar or vocabulary study, are a waste of time, but where does the comprehensible input come from? To what degree should we use listening and to what degree reading? If we do set up reading in class with one text for everyone, what kind of texts should we choose, especially for low level learners? Are certain kinds of pre-reading and post-reading activities useful, or are they all a waste of time? For example, some researchers say that activating background knowledge (schemata) before reading might help, while others disagree. Some say that helping students develop reading strategies might help, but to what degree? If we do such skills training, how much time should we allocate: minutes or hours?

Then too, in regard to post-reading, I suspect that teaching grammar and vocabulary is not very useful, and yet most people do this. Are my suspicions wrong? Worse, what about comprehension questions? I love using heartwarming stories in class, but I cannot think of a more effective way to kill their magic than following them up with a script of mechanical questions: "Junko, where did the boy find the puppy? Hiroshi, which of its legs was broken?"

So, my fellow Think Tankers, fire up your ingenuity, light up your creativity, tap into your vast store of knowledge and help me solve these problems. How do we set up a reading class that lures students into reading and makes the input more comprehensible? What kinds of activities do you propose for readings done in class by the whole class? I await your inspiration.

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Peter Viney

Phew! Ask an easier one!

I refer back to my original piece on reading as I don't want to simply restate it.

First off, I don't believe that Krashen is right in his Comprehension Hypothesis. Krashen has one genuine insight on acquisition, and he overplays it. Moreover, when he sets out how students will progress from graded readers and TPR through light reading and the "classics" to the ultimate goal of "comparative literature," I believe he is guilty of intellectual arrogance and fails to recognize that his goals are not those of most students. You can't argue from fabulous Hungarian polyglots or the experience of a Mexican waiter who acquired perfect Hebrew by working in a Kosher restaurant to a theory of language teaching / learning / acquisition. Well, I guess you can and do if you have the charisma to carry it off, but it's not possible for us mere mortals.

“Extensive reading is hugely beneficial to students IF you can persuade them to do it. I don't come in with the belief that this is always possible, nor that it's desirable for everyone.”

There is some hoary tale about an 18th century Englishman who taught himself German entirely from a German copy of The Bible without even comparing the texts. Usefully, he knew the English version by heart first (What?). Even so, I doubt that he made many German friends if he wandered the Black Forest shouting 'Thou shalt make no graven image' at the woodcarvers or blundered around yelling 'Thou shalt not commit adultery' in Hamburg docks. There's also Flashman in George MacDonald Fraser's series of historical novels who regularly picks up arcane languages fluently in two weeks. This is a useful semi sci-fi device for novels set in unusual places, allowing him to communicate without Douglas Adams's google-fish (In A Hitch-Hiker's Guide to The Galaxy), but it's neither reality nor the basis for a theory.

If you subscribe to the idea that we all have multiple intelligences, you will not seek a single unified theory of language acquisition. Extensive reading is hugely beneficial to students if you can persuade them to do it. I don't come in with the belief that this is always possible, nor that it's desirable for everyone. I have taught classes of Swiss women who would happily read an entire graded reader every evening, seven days a week, and made astonishing progress as a result. I also recognize that many people are 'non-readers' through choice, and like Curtis I've taught plenty of them. I've taught many students who were struggling to puzzle their way through Roman letters, let alone read for pleasure. Extensive reading would be of no use to them.

In my recent material, I start with reading for pleasure. Snippets of facts. Short jokes. Lists. Cartoons. Word puzzles. This is reading, 'Reading in Snippets' if you like. It needs illustration, too. In the past I've tried bits of subliminal reading in textbook units - strips of facts or figures which are not supposed to be exploited in class. You have to get the students feeling that looking at a page in English might be fun before you get them to try and read anything as daunting as a graded reader. One major step is that we encourage them to read these snippets outside the classroom in any order they like (though they do appear in a very roughly graded sequence).

I'd also avoid 'the reading lesson' as such like the plague. It's tiny bits of reading in other lessons that gets interest started. Where I agree with Krashen is that the primary goal of reading is comprehending what's on the page, not performing a comprehension exercise. Can I quote from my earlier article?

We started off issuing graded readers in class and checking back on them in some detail. Then we graduated to having graded readers available from an administrative secretary, rather than the teacher. We did minimal checking in class with short feedback sheets (What was it about? Did you enjoy it?). Finally we had totally free access to readers with NO classroom checking. The number of graded readers borrowed multiplied fivefold. We avoided any kind of checking. To our astonishment students began reading more in English than in their own language. This fed back on all areas of their performance in class. More importantly students said they'd even begun to read more in their mother tongue as a result.

Now that won't work without preparing the ground, which more than anything means getting them to trust your advice. Nor will it work with every student. If you get half of them interested, you're winning. Or rather,they're winning.

I agree with Curtis that many tasks destroy the magic of a story. I always used the example of a parent soothing a child to sleep with Snow White, then slamming the book shut and asking 'How many dwarves were there?' or 'What colour was the apple?' Comprehension work is useful, but I don't call that a reading lesson. I call that active language practice based on a text. Eliciting a grammar point, or lexical chunks, or vocabulary from a given text is also useful. But it's not a "reading lesson" either. I actually don't believe in "reading" lessons any more than I believe in "listening lessons" or "speaking lessons." I vary the input, I vary my goals. I don't like dividing the skills, because they all complement one another.

Extensive reading for acquisition is a solitary task. You can build to it. You can encourage it by doing reading skill exercises in class that show them what they can glean from a text without understanding every word. Develop individual reading skills of skimming, scanning, matching headlines to text, finding the facts in unfamiliar texts. Emphasize limited tasks over total comprehension, and you can build the confidence to approach texts on their own.

When I used to do reading development with teachers in the UK, I used authentic extracts from texts in Japanese, Hungarian and Welsh. One was a plan of a Japanese hotel. It had floor numbers in Arab numerals, and amidst the Japanese text you could see the words JAL and Trattoria. The questions were 'Which floor is the restaurant on?' and 'Where is the Japan Airlines desk?' It was amazing how many teachers threw their hands up in despair and said they couldn't find the information from the realia. Another exercise was 'What's the Welsh for television?' They found it surprisingly difficult to guess that it was 'telefision' from a text. The third was find the football result and the scorers from a Hungarian text. The match involved an English team with well-known players. It was all dead easy, but if teachers found themselves unable to guess and deduce when confronted with a sea of unfamiliar text, what hope did they have of persuading students to move from the unknown to the known?

When it comes to graded readers, there are two opposite but equally valid views. One is that they work best when students understand 95% of the text, so they can be taught to read the whole page without stopping over unfamiliar words. They should simply mark them and only come back if they've failed to get the gist of the passage. The other is that students can read "up a level" if they are interested in the subject matter. Both methods can operate in tandem. On grading schemes, I'm always surprised at how careless some of the schemes are over minor structural points. You have to grade for structure, sentence length, number of clauses and so on as well as vocabulary. See also an ancient article by me on Preparing a Reading Scheme.

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Marc Helgesen

This is a great question. I know it is one a lot of teachers face. It also helps keep Extensive Reading (ER) cheerleaders/missionaries (myself included) honest. The research is clear ­ reading a lot of easy, interesting material really is the key. But how do we make it work in regular classrooms, with regular students taught by regular teachers (all of us mere mortals that Peter refers to)?

I saw a newspaper headline the other day ­ this was a weekend edition that had an "arts" section. The headline said: "The frame is just as important as the content." They were talking about picture frames, but I think it fits most of life: the way we frame a question can decide whether or not we can solve it. If we start by saying "situations where extensive reading is not possible", we've already made a decision (It's not possible). So can we reframe the question? (1st sentence optional): I know extensive reading is useful. But ER doesn't seem to work with my students' interests or with my program. Should I bother with it?

“Japan reads. Our students read. And if we can focus that energy into reading English, we have a powerful tool.”

With this question, we have the possibility of finding an answer that works.

Curtis said: "…the vast majority of (my students) have never even read a book in Japanese, and almost all of them say they "hate" reading. Reading for pleasure? Not my kids."

Really? Sure, most don't read Shakespeare, Hemingway or Natsume Soseki or Yoshimoto Banana. (Do you? I'm fond of sleazy detective novels.) But at my schools' co-op, the magazine racks are maybe 10 meters long. Somebody is buying those magazines. Best I can figure, they are my kids, the same as Curtis'. And how about the zillions of manga that Japan devours every month? And the book stores are filled with every thing from romances and trashy detective novels to essays and high literature. Japan reads. Our students read.

And if we can focus that energy into reading English, we have a powerful tool.

The key, I think, is having them read (a) things they are interested in, and (b) it has to be easy. "Easy is good" is almost a mantra in my classes. I do "listen and repeat" with the phrase.

Things they are interested in. Yeah, manga counts. My school library subscribes to Shonen Jump in English. It is very popular. So is anything I can find on fashion, music, pop culture. And once students get that they can read for pleasure, it is hard to find enough detective stories and adventures on the shelves. And we have hundreds of graded readers from Penguin, Cambridge, Oxford and McMillan. The point is to have enough options so everyone can find something that is interesting to them.

They get that reading English can be the same as reading Japanese (when it is not required).

erf_award_logo.gifI know a lot of teachers have seen readers on the shelves in bookshops but have never actually read one. So that you understand how good they can be, can I encourage you to have a look? One of my favorites is Jojo's Story. It won the Extensive Reading Foundation's Language Learner Literature Award for Beginners' Level last year. You can download the first eight pages of the book if you click here (a 125KB PDF file). It is at "Level 2." It will only take you a few minutes and I think you'll understand what I am talking about. (For a list of the other winners and finalists in the ER Foundation awards, see

Jojo's Story is from Cambridge University Press Readers. The other major publishers of readers include Longman/Penguin, Macmillan, and Oxford. I'm mentioning them here not to plug any particular publisher. They all have some great books and some that are dogs (or at least don't work well with my students). I put a form on the inside cover of each book for students to evaluate the books as "Good", "Average" or "Poor." That way, the learners are telling each other which they like. The best books get read a lot and the poor ones die a quick, silent death on the shelf.

So why do Curtis' students hate reading. I'd suggest because "the system" has taught them to. Reading, for them, isn't for fun. It is a test. It is something to be evaluated with useless, trivial comprehension questions. I like Peter's Seven Dwarfs example. My own favorite (in a warped sort of way) is from a reading about Helen Keller that was standard in a major Japanese high school textbook for years.

Helen Keller was actually a fascinating person. She overcame blindness and deafness to become a major writer, thinker, pacifist and feminist. The book had a story of her life. And here is the comprehension question:

Q: Was Helen sitting in the front seat or the back seat of the car.
Correct answer: Who cares?

OK, that is my correct answer, not the book's. But it points out the stupidity of most comprehension questions. They rarely test anything worthwhile (for an article on how to check comprehension at a deeper level - including a bunch of questions based on the nonsense sentence "The glorfs drebbled quarfly" - click here.

Some people suggest no test of comprehension. Nice idea, but I don't find it realistic in the Japanese classroom (at least in my Japanese classroom). My students are required to read 500 pages per term. I need to know that they have read that much. My students write short reports. I give them four options (download here), each of which appeals to a different type of intelligence:

  1. Standard: summarize, react (linguistic intelligence/that which is expected)
  2. Draw a picture (from your imagination, not the book). Explain the picture (artistic and kinesthetic intelligence)
  3. Skim the book. Write a question each about different pictures. As you read, answer them (analytic intelligence, previewing skills).
  4. The book and you ­ summarize and explain what is the same or different than your life (intrapersonal intelligence, personalization).

The point is you can check understanding in ways that are a lot more valid and interesting than trivia questions.

OK, nuts and bolts. I teach "reading classes." We require reading the first year (thinking that we have to totally reorient students to what reading is). It certainly isn't the yakudoku (grammar translation) they were punished with in high school. Second year reading is elective. Again, they have to read over 1000 pages a year. The fact that more than 50% of the students elect to take it speaks to its popularity. They do learn to love reading.

But maybe you are teaching conversation or some other non-reading course.

Consider adding extensive reading as homework (optional or not - I like doing both). I used to teach a class where students were required to get five "reading points". One point was 30 pages, so students had to read 150 pages of easy books. Anything above five points was extra credit. My favorite: one student got 23 points. On her own, she chose to read nearly 700 pages.

“We have a maxim in reading that says: Reading isn't taught. It's caught.”

So, yeah, Curtis (who I love like a brother), your students can get excited about reading too.

Three final thoughts.

  1. I know my writing here sounds a bit like the Extensive Reading Missionary I copped to being at the beginning.

    We have a maxim in reading that says: Reading isn't taught. It's caught.

    So that is where the missionary zeal comes from. My students just trust my energy on this and they get it.

  2. No, I'm not going to "save every soul." Not everyone gets excited, but many, many do. In the past decade, I've had more than 1000 reading students and less than 10 failed to read 1000 pages. Most get it. It really does work like that.

    These are regular Japanese kids ­ not magic polyglots. Just people who learn a skill and learn they can enjoy it.

  3. Students in my department study two languages, English and something else. They have choices ranging from Chinese, Korean and Thai to European languages like French, Spanish and German. They even have options like Arabic, Swahili and Hindi. Recently, several students requested the library get easy books in other languages, "so we can read them the way we read English." When learners experience success, they choose success.

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Chuck Sandy

For those of us who not only make our living with words but also take great pleasure in them, it's hard to imagine non-readers. Before we go too far, though, take a moment and do exactly that. If you are a reader, you are probably imagining someone who does not enjoy reading the same kind of things you do. Now, stop right there, because we're at the very root of the problem. In fact, by using the terms readers and non-readers we're creating a divide and very likely a problem that would not exist if we'd only adjust the frame.

“We're then taught that literature is something so difficult to understand that we need a teacher to guide us through it. Unfortunately, that sort of thinking is as pervasive as it is ludicrous.”

Still, given that schools and scholars have so solidly constructed this frame, it's a difficult one to adjust. We're usually taught in schools that reading means reading literature. We're then taught that literature is something so difficult to understand that we need a teacher to guide us through it. Unfortunately, that sort of thinking is as pervasive as it is ludicrous.

As one 9th grader I know quite well put it, while struggling to diagram the plot structure of a classic novel, "teachers sure know how to take all the fun out of reading, don't they?" This same boy, who regularly devours soccer magazines and manga, is well on his way to becoming a non-reader -- as defined within the traditional frame. So is his elementary school brother, who loves reading information books about animals and planets, rocks and insects, but who hasn't much interest at all in stories. Will they become like my father, a man who reads two newspapers and a handful of financial reports every day, yet still says about himself, "I'm not much of a reader"?

Or will they become like some of my university students who cringe at the word literature and look almost ill at the prospect of having to read even a graded-reader ­ no matter how good a book it might be. These students call themselves non-readers, yet many of them read online and stuff their bags with manga and magazines. They're not non-readers. They're people who either have tired of school reading or who were taught in school that reading is something it isn't: beyond them.

While I share the missionary zeal of Marc and others, I've broadened my focus over the years. I now see that it's my job to get the right reading material into the hands of the right people ­ no matter what that reading material is. If you're a soccer fan, I'll find you soccer magazines. If you're interested in fashion, I'll lead you to some appropriate and accessible websites. If you like shopping, I'll bring you some catalogues. If you like manga, I'll find some in English for you to read. Then, if you're in one of my classes, I'll not only give you some time to do that very real reading in class, but also the chance to tell others about it. In this way, we not only do away with that equally divisive term extensive reading, but also let non-readers know that they are in fact readers and that the sort of reading they enjoy doing most is included and valuable.

Then, there are those few chances I have to help students unlearn everything they learned about literature. In my poetry seminar, I have twelve students who have chosen to be there. Each week, each student chooses a poem in English to share with the others. Their only job is to read the poem and explain why they chose it and what they like about it. Others listen and comment. We don't talk about rhythm or meter. We don't analyze. I don't tell them anything about the poets or the poem ­ unless they specifically ask. We most often end up talking about ideas or feelings in the poem that resonate with them: alienation or frustration, new love, lost love, the various and usual joys and heartbreaks. They'll read a poem and then say something like, "this is how I felt when I broke up with my girlfriend" or "last week I went to five job interviews and failed them all. Then I read this poem, and it made sense to me." Is that enough? Yes, yes, and yes. There could be no better response than the ones they have.

Still, in one of the first sessions this year, one student asked me, "Aren't you going to tell us what the poem means?" I explained that I wasn't going to do that because my reading of a poem is no more valuable than theirs, that they have to learn to trust their own reading and interpretation. It's taken them weeks and weeks to get to the point where they are able to do this, but now that they are, it's a real joy to see the pleasure they get from telling others, who will listen carefully, what something they've chosen to read means to them. As they unlearn what school has taught them about literature, they become more confident about themselves. They begin to see themselves as readers, and so cross the artificial divide their schooling and our usual frame of reference has set up for them.

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