Sunday, February 19, 2017

What is Extensive Reading?

I’m utterly thrilled that Mark Bartholomew agreed to write a series of guest posts for us on extensive reading. I met Mark last year and had a great pleasure in discussing the benefits of extensive reading with him.
Mark Bartholomew has worked in education as a teacher, manager, and consultant for thirty years, in secondary, tertiary and vocational education, and in many parts of the world. He is currently in Istanbul. Mark is also the co-founder of the free website to encourage (young or not so young) adult students to enjoy reading in English. It's
A lot has been written in recent years about extensive reading but it's still worthwhile trying to define what this actually means. First and foremost, it's giving kids and young adults the opportunity and guidance to read what they like. Next, it's using reading as an end in itself, not as a series of texts to be picked apart to practise a grammatical point or introduce difficult vocabulary. And, finally, there's the important premise that reading outside the curriculum should not be assessed or graded. In other words, reading should be an end in itself.

Now, let's look at each of these in turn. 
Teachers often encourage - and sometimes even force - students to read specific works by great authors. I sympathise with these teachers as I, personally, enjoy Dickens and Flaubert, for example, and can't imagine ever picking up a book about zombies. But the fact is that that's me. I cannot dictate to others what they should enjoy reading. If we want our students to read outside the curriculum, we need to let them choose their own reading preferences, whether these are science fantasy or romance or sport, to name but a few. So, away with making them read literature with a capital L! Besides, it's the quantity of what's read, rather than the quality, which determines the effectiveness of reading as an aide to learning a second language.
This also means letting kids read at whatever linguistic level they feel comfortable with. Sometimes, they just don't have the confidence to tackle more challenging writers to begin with. All the evidence suggests though that they quickly get bored with reading below their level and move onto more difficult texts. 

Next, there is a time and place to analyse grammar and use texts for the exploration of difficult terms. But using books (whether Internet-based or the printed page) that we want students to appreciate as tools for teaching grammar and vocab is wrong. Using a fovourite book as a means of refining their use of relative clauses (to paraphrase Stephen Krashen) is unlikely to motivate them to approach reading with joy or excitement. How often do we as teachers ask our classes to answer questions, like "What does 'those' in line 19 refer to?"
Finally, we have to get used to the idea that not all reading needs to be graded. Parents - and, indeed, many students - do not see the value of reading if it does not have a percentage score attached as the end result. However, if we want students to see reading as a means to lifelong learning, something that is vital in this fast-changing world where our talents continually require honing, then we need to do away with the idea of reading as fodder for MCQs.

 Hopefully, all teachers see reading as good. Books can become our companions in difficult times. They can help us escape into new and strange worlds. They can uplift our spirits and show us the best in others and in ourselves. Nevertheless, for all this to happen, we must change the ways we approach reading and treat it as a goal - not as a means to an end, like good exam results or a way to teach grammar.
In my next post, I will look at ways in which teachers can get students to start reading for pleasure. In the meantime, please do check out my website, which offers reading texts on everything from meat-eating plants to voodoo, the history of science to adapted stories by Tolstoy.
The ideas in this post are not mine alone but have been garnered primarily from:
Stephen Krashen's 'The Power of Reading' (2nd ed. 2006)
Julian Bamford and Richard Day: 'Extensive Reading in the 2nd Language Classroom' (1998)
For evidence for some of my ideas, please refer to these seminal works.


  1. Hi Everyone!

    First, thanks to Mahmoud for the effusive introduction.

    If anyone wants more information on the website features - such as monitoring student reading at home - please let me know. My email is

    Hope you like the article. I will post next week again.



    1. Thanks Mark for your valuable contribution to the blog.