Implementing Extensive Reading in the Classroom
South Korea has become a hub for EFL in the past 20 or so years. Despite recent indications that this pulsating industry is on the verge of a steep decline, it remains one of the more attractive destinations for teachers in the early stages of their careers. There are, however, some glaring issues with English education in Korea that need to be addressed. This article will highlight one such issue and offer a solution that teachers in Korea, both present and future, may wish to consider.
Having taught at high school and university level in Korea for 4 years, I have witnessed first-hand the struggles most students face when attempting to express their thoughts in English. This surprised me at first, given that they had been learning English for close to 10 years. What were the reasons for this? I wondered.
After beginning a graduate course in TESOL, I quickly realized that a sizeable chunk of the blame lay with the teaching methodology, specifically in its overemphasis on the line-by-line translation of difficult texts, a practice known in the literature as Intensive Reading (IR). No wonder so many students came to resent these texts. Levels of comprehension were low, levels of interest even lower and the freedom to choose their own reading materials lower still. The approach to English education in Korea runs counter to the tenets of the Input Hypothesis, which calls for the dissemination of interesting, comprehensible input, delivered most effectively through the vessel of Extensive Reading (ER).
What is Extensive Reading?
ER, in the words of Davis (1995: p.329), can be defined as giving students the “time, encouragement, and materials to read pleasurably, at their own level, as many books as they can, without the pressures of testing or marks.” In their seminal work on this topic, Day and Bamford (1998) devised the following list of ER principles for teachers to follow:
Students read as much as possible.
A variety of material on a wide range of topics is available.
Students select what they want to read.
The purposes of reading are usually related to pleasure, information, and general understanding.
Reading is its own reward.
Reading materials are well within the linguistic competence of the students.
Reading is individual and silent.
Reading speed is usually faster rather than slower.
Teachers orient and guide the students.
The teacher is a role model of a reader for students.
Extensive Reading in Korea
As an approach to reading in Korea, ER is rarely implemented, thus denying students the wealth of input needed to reach higher levels of proficiency. When working with short and difficult texts, as Korean students do, they encounter lots of low-frequency words, but this means that the chances of meeting those words again is unlikely. As a result, much of the vocabulary found in IR texts is met, translated, and normally forgotten about before the next intimidating passage is laid down in front of them. One of the best methods of incorporating ER is by using graded readers – short and simplified books, typically based on a well-known source novel like “The Count of Monte Cristo” or “A Christmas Carol”. Graded readers recycle large portions of high-frequency vocabulary, thereby helping students to recognize words automatically. When this happens, gains in overall proficiency are remarkable. Reading improvement is perhaps the first such gain, but the benefits of ER extend to writing, listening, and speaking, as well as increased motivation to continue reading in English (see Krashen’s book from 2011, Free Voluntary Reading). For a country accused of suffering from “English fever”, it is perhaps surprising that ER has not been given a more substantial role in the Korean English curriculum.
Why ER has not been implemented in Korea
Many reasons have been put forward for this – among them, the scepticism shown by parents and principals towards ER as a practice – but I suspect that the main reason lies behind teachers’ fear of being judged for doing something so apparently novel. ER, in emphasising reading for the sheer pleasure of it, would be considered antithetical to the more arduous approach to learning that characterises Korean education. A key element of ER is its in-class version, Sustained Silent Reading (SSR), but you may doubt whether learning can take place when all students do during SSR is sit down and read.
Doubt no longer.
Having 10-15 minutes of SSR time during class has been found to have enormous benefits for language learning, provided of course that the material is highly comprehensible and interesting (again, see Krashen, 2011). To be fully effective, teachers should make themselves comfortable and participate in SSR, too.
Dealing with Scepticism
But what happens when a looming principal casts a disapproving glance through the classroom window? This is perhaps where teachers need to be a little bit brave. If questioned, they should politely inform the principal of the benefits of SSR time; tell him or her that the curriculum is not being ignored, but rather supplemented; remind him or her that those who develop an interest in reading tend to be more successful academically, and that as teachers, what they are trying to do is instil in students a lifelong interest in reading. If the teachers stick to their guns and the students succeed, the doubting principal might just thank them for it. But how, you may ask, can SSR be carried out if the requisite materials just aren’t there?
Selecting the Right Materials
The absence of materials is, in fact, another reason given by Korean teachers for not trying SSR in class. While this is certainly a problem, it is by no means insurmountable. Websites devoted exclusively to ER are beginning to make their presence felt, one of which is the excellent Bee Oasis. Compatible with students’ Smartphones and Tablets, Bee Oasis closely follows Day and Bamford’s criteria by making thousands of stories available to its readers. What’s more, the stories have been graded across 5 levels of proficiency and 8 different genres. As a means of introducing SSR, Bee Oasis ticks the right boxes, even if a well-stocked library of graded readers would still be preferable.
In an earlier article that appeared in EFL Magazine, Andrew Weiler identified listening as the “heart” of language learning. Without wishing to disagree, I feel that the same argument could be made for reading. Writing in 1982, Christine Nuttall stated that the best way to improve one’s language skills is to “go and live amongst its speakers”, but “the next best way is to read extensively in it.” ER provides students with the kind of input that can be hard to find, especially in EFL countries like Korea. By allowing time for in-class ER, the teacher can provide students with the foundation to become independent readers outside of class. In the IR-dominated Korean English classroom, SSR ought to be adopted, so that students may be given a better chance at reaching higher levels of proficiency. If you have yet to try ER with your own classes, what, if anything, is stopping you? Feel free to leave a comment below.
BeeOasis.com – Read Big. Bee Oasis.com | Read Big. [online] Available at: http://beeoasis.com/.
Davis, C. (1995) Extensive reading: an expensive extravaganza? ELT Journal 49(4): 329-336.
Day, R.R., and Bamford, J. (1998) Extensive Reading in the Second Language Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Krashen, S.D. (2011) Free Voluntary Reading. Santa Barbara: Libraries Unlimited.
Nuttall, C.E. (1982) Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language. London: Heinemann.