Since so much has been written about extensive reading in the last few years, what we really need from now is well-designed research to get us beyond anecdotes and speculation. This will help us to better understand how varying the conditions under which learners engage in ER affects the kinds and degrees of learning which result.
However, that being said, based on my experiences and research, I’ve been a long-time advocate of integrated or 4-skills ER courses. These have received comparatively little attention – although this has changed a little recently with the appearance of some new publications. What follows is a general description of the design of the class and group reader courses that I have developed.
I have for many years now conducted ER-based conversation classes. Learners typically read one third of a teacher-selected class reader each week, write a short summary, reaction, and question for discussion (all outside of class), and then come to class prepared to discuss the events, characters, and plot, as well as their reactions to them.
As I have written about recently, some ER practitioners feel that teacher-selected titles and follow-up activities violate basic tenets of their version of ER. Although there is little empirical research to support these criticisms, my own research does suggest that self-selection may result in greater learner autonomy (i.e., reading beyond the end of the course). However, despite the titles being teacher-selected, I maintain that the main purpose of the reading remains, as for all ER, to derive new information and enjoyment from reading, and, that depending on the goals of the course, the benefits of a class reader approach can outweigh the disadvantages. In addition, my response to those who may feel that three books per semester is not sufficient is, “Sufficient for what?”
Considering that most learners have never read any longer passages in English, let alone an entire book, the sense of accomplishment that they derive from completing even one book, as well as the significant changes that I see in confidence, reading style, and attitudes towards reading over the course of the semester, I feel that for my purposes three books is sufficient.
I have also used this approach with group readers – which are a nice middle ground between self-selected books and teacher-selected class readers. Learners are presented with 4-5 copies of a number of titles spread over an appropriate range of reading levels, and genres. They are then encouraged to consider their interests and the difficulty level of the books, and to select any title they wish – with the single proviso that they must be able find at least three other students who also want to read the same title, and with whom they can form a discussion group. Even with a limited number of titles, my students regularly comment on how nice it is to have the freedom to choose the titles they read.
It is worth mentioning that with both of these approaches, my students regularly cite, not the reading, but the in-class discussions of the readers as the most enjoyable part of the course, and my feeling (supported to some extent by my research) is that using ER as the base for an integrated class which includes writing, discussion and vocabulary study (as opposed to focusing exclusively on large quantities of reading), results in the development of a wider range of skills, more learning and retention of language, and a more enjoyable course overall.
And finally, to ensure that learners also develop their ability to use everyday conversational expressions (after all, these are often conversation classes!), and as a complement to the learners’ exposure to narrative text, students also work with a conversational textbook. As a result, class time is divided fairly evenly between discussions of the readers and of the more personal and conversationally-oriented topics from the textbook.
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