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A couple of weeks ago the hosts of Teacher Talking Time, a podcast for EFL teachers run by three friends based out of Toronto, interviewed the highly-respected linguist Paul Nation, who is based in New Zealand. I’m a huge fan of his work, and so I was thrilled that they chose a question I submitted to be discussed in their conversation with him which was “Why are schools and language academies so reluctant to incorporate extensive reading in teaching English?”

Now Paul Nation’s area of expertise is how languages are learned. And I already knew one of his main recommendations is for teachers to make reading a bigger part of the language learning process. He’s on the record as stating that

“The single most effective change a teacher can make to a language course is to include an extensive reading program” 

What is extensive reading?

It’s an approach to language learning where learners read large quantities of material that are slightly below or at their current level of proficiency. The goal is to improve general language skills such as vocabulary, comprehension and fluency, rather than focusing on specific grammarl structures or tricky vocabulary. It’s usually done for enjoyment and general understanding, and it’s distinct from “intensive reading,” where the objective is to closely examine a shorter text for detailed understanding or specific information.

In extensive reading, learners are often encouraged to choose texts that interest them, which helps maintain motivation. The texts could range from books and articles to websites and comics. Since the material is easier to understand, it allows learners to read for longer periods, thereby offering more contextual exposure to the language.

Over the summer this topic came up in Ethos English Lab, my membership for EFL teachers whose first language isn’t English. One of the members, a director of studies, said that parents would be reluctant to pay to send their kids to “just read books”. And so it was with great interest that I listened to Paul Nation talking about a fascinating example of a successful chain of English schools in Tokyo where students are given three options: they can attend a 2 hour class consisting only of speaking, one in which they sit in silence and read, or finally one in which they can spend half their time reading and half speaking in English. Interestingly, most students opt for the third option. 

This flies in the face of what many teachers and academy owners think students are willing to pay for. In other words, it’s the opposite of what most people think is reasonable, sensible or normal. 

When asked why they’re willing to pay to spend half their time reading, their answer is simple: they wouldn’t make the time otherwise. That is, they wouldn’t be reading in English if they didn’t have that container, that time slot set aside for reading. What’s more, this approach has earned its reputation. Students who attend this school do very well in English in the national university entrance exams. So, while it might seem odd that students are getting top results in English when less teaching is happening, the proof is in the pudding. The proof is in the pudding means that the value, quality, or truth of something must be judged based on direct experience with it—or on its results. 

Paul Nation also insisted that a teacher who encouraged their students to sit and read in silence for 40 minutes “would be a brave teacher and a well-educated and well-informed teacher”.

This may sound like a minor point. It isn’t. The single most effective way to boost our learners’ outcomes requires nothing more than a quiet room and a reasonably well-stocked library. And yet we remain fascinated by costly, unproven gimmicks when there’s a tried and true method that doesn’t even require any actual teaching take place.

Now this is where things get really interesting. Paul Nation points out that teachers are so conscientious, we’re so worried about doing our best to help our students that we’re unable to accept that learning can happen without any teaching happening. I’m convinced we’ll look back one day on this period in history and ask why teachers were expected to teach more and work harder even when this was not the most effective approach. It’s kind of like pedagogical feudalism, us teachers having to prove our worth like peasants desperate to earn their keep.

This summer I was reading The Socratic Method, on, surprise surprise, Socrates. The author, Ward Farnsworth, pointed out that Socrates had an unusual take on knowledge and virtue. He claimed that they were the same, and that if you knew something was good and yet refused to behave in accordance with your knowledge, whatever you thought you’d learned wasn’t really knowledge. 

So, if you’re either a teacher, a student, or both, and you accept that extensive reading is key to language development and yet still don’t make it part of your teaching or learning, well, you need to give this more thought.

Extensive reading is not just about language acquisition. It’s people learning about the world around them, being able to understand themselves better. We’ve all experienced the delight that is being engrossed in a book, and yet such an experience hardly ever takes place within the four walls of a classroom. We talk about it like something salutary and necessary, like brushing your teeth. Reading should not be a chore carried out dutifully and joylessly, but rather an experience of time slowing down as our focus turns inward to our mind’s eye.

So apart from setting aside time for extensive reading to be done either in class or at home, make books a conspicuous part of your classroom or at least of your conversation. Talk enthusiastically, passionately about the latest book you’ve been reading, pull it out in class and read a passage out loud. Tell them about the time a novel helped you heal your broken heart, or how an economist helped you gain a new perspective on the structures of injustice. Most of all show them that books bring you to life in whatever way feels natural to you.

Speaking of which, I’m halfway through a fantastic book called The Courage to Teach by Parker J. Palmer. I’ve never read a book that captures the emotional inner life of teachers and students so well. Here’s a line from the beginning: “This book is for teachers who have good days and bad — and whose bad days bring the suffering that comes only from something one loves. It is for teachers who refuse to harden their hearts, because they love learners, learning, and the teaching life.” This is the next book we´ll be discussing starting in November in EthosEnglishLab. If you’d like to be a part of a supportive, dynamic community go to EthosEnglish.com for more information.

Before I conclude today’s episode, here’s a quotation from Stanovich and Cunningham’s paper Where does knowledge come from? They write:

“For college students, print exposure (reading for pleasure) defeats all rivals, including high school grades, in predicting wide range of knowledge of a variety of subjects.”

The world famous linguist Stephen Krashen tweeted this last year, and when I read it it went off in my head like a silent bombshell. A huge proportion of the world’s most meaningful education is happening without a teacher in sight. Does that mean us teachers are irrelevant? Hardly. We just need to keep sharing the quiet joy of reading and give the time and the space for our learners to look inwards.  

Now, here’s today’s vocabulary with definitions and examples.

fly in the face of something: to be the opposite of what most people think is reasonable, sensible, or normal

This is an argument that seems to fly in the face of common sense.

the proof is in the pudding: an idiom that means the value, quality, or truth of something must be judged based on direct experience with it—or on its results. 

He claimed his fitness regimen could get anyone in shape in three months; now that I’ve lost 10 kilos, I guess the proof is in the pudding.

a gimmick: a trick or something unusual that you do to make people notice someone or something – used to show disapproval

They give away free gifts with children’s meals as a sales/marketing gimmick.

tried and true: used many times in the past and proven to work well

A cup of warm milk is my tried-and-true remedy for insomnia.

earn your keep: do jobs in return for being given a home and food

We older children were expected to earn our keep by helping out on the farm.

be engrossed in something: be so interested in something that you don’t notice anything else

Take your mind off things by engrossing yourself in a good book.

a chore: something you have to do that is very boring and unpleasant

Too many students find reading a real chore.

in your mind’s eye: if you see something in your mind’s eye, you imagine or remember clearly what it looks like

 She paused, imagining the scene in her mind’s eye.

conspicuous: very easy to notice

I felt very conspicuous in my red coat.