The White Elephant in the Room: Extensive Reading in ELT/EAP

Thanks @UEfAP for sharing this with me.



In order to process effectively, read fluently in an L2/L3 and not use up cruicial real time online working memory research seems to indicate that you need to recognise and know 95-98% of the words alone in a reading text (Koda, K 1997).  You also need other automation features such as automated syntatic parsing, orthographic, semantic, and phonologicial decoding.  All of these need to be automated.



Renowned researchers in the field, Grabe, Stoller, Johns, Nation, Koda, the list is endless, line up in favor of extensive reading in the curriculum and in the classroom.  We all know this, but frequently due to restraints such as time pressure, learner resistance to reading, the long term commitment and lack of testability means that while extensive reading is acknowledged as important it is often sidelined or seen as the element of reading instruction that can be left for home and checked for homework.  In the classroom reading activities might focus on strategies, critical discussion of reading texts, analysis of language or various comprehension activities.  How effective are these activities in bringing about the kind of automation needed?  One of my favourite quotes on classroom reading and vocabulary acquisition comes from Nagy, Herman and Anderson (1985: p.252) who were researching vocabulary learnt in context.  Here were the conclusions from their results:


Our results strongly suggest that a most effective way to produce large-scale vocabulary growth is through and activity that is all too often interrupted in the process of reading instruction: Reading.


Every time I read it I weigh up its simple truth.  Our classrooms are not exactly conducive to learners being able to focus and actually read.  We set time limits and the physical environment of the classroom is not usually enticing to settle down for a good read.  How many of us when reading an article, enjoy sitting at a desk under time pressure?  Some of us will but others won’t.


However, by relegating extensive reading only to the homework environment might actually be doing our learners a disservice. Over the course of sixteen years, various needs analysis, interviews, off the record conversations with learners perhaps our assumption that they know how to read extensively is misplaced.  My own work environment is set in an cultural environment where the majority of learners never went to the library or grew up in a print culture or where there is a greater emphasis on oral culture.  Reading from early childhood is still seen by some as the job of the school and there are still many people who cannot read.  The learners I have come across have some of the following dilemas:


1-They don’t know where to begin.  The majority of learners I have met have a desire to read, they just can’t find their way in.

2-They feel anxious and confused by library referencing systems (despite sevral orientations) and panicked by the level of quiet in the library building itself that they want to leave.  One learner told me that if the library was like a popular bookshop he would actually pick up the books.

3-They are demotivated by graded readers.  My learners are 18+ and to them using a graded reader, even though they know it might help, does not feel authentic.

4-They don’t know where they like to read, or how to experiment to find that place.

5-Some learners hate reading or do not really read extensively in their own language.  They have a large affective obstacle to reading.


Faced with the importance of extensive reading, I have been experimenting with extensive reading in and out of the classroom that goes beyond setting up a library system, or a homework only approach but combines extensive reading in classroom time as well as outside.  The outside suggestions actually came from a working group of learners who wanted to explore this problem for themselves and to help their peers become motivated to read.


Some Classroom Solutions:


a-Entice the learners by laying the ground work:  

i-For the first two/three weeks of class, every morning I dump my bags on the desk before class, leave the books I have been reading on the way to work, and say I need to go to my office.  When I come back, the learners are usually flicking through the books.  I also leave ones in Turkish as I am about their level.  Then they start asking me strategy questions such as, how much can I understand?, How much do I look up in a dictionary?, Is it enjoyable?, Is it possible for them in English?  This often becomes a discussion among themselves and over a couple of weeks they ask more and more questions.


This main aim of this technique then allows me to indirectly plant the idea that reading in a foreign language is not only possible but that it might be interesting and enjoyable.  Sometimes, I might even begin the lesson by asking about cultural references or a word I was reading and they teach me something that I didn’t know etc.  Usually, one learner in the class raises the question of whether I think it’s possible for them, and then they ask me to recommend a book.  I read alot so I usually ask them what they are interested in and then lend them one.  This also then gets the other learners curious.  This sometimes has a snowball effect where other learners come to get books or ask for them.


b-Change the classroom environment: I usually begin on the regular textbook readings just to get them used to a different environment)


There are several possibilities I use when we do any kind of reading:


i) Let the leanrers sit in the classroom as they want to.  When we do any kind  reading I have learners sat on the windowsills, the floors, the desk.  They can put their feet up, listen to music through headphones etc.  I do not mind how they do it as long as they are reading.


ii) Let them go outside of the classroom to read in classtime:  One of the biggest problems I have found is that learners do not really know where they like to read.  My learners sometimes have long academic texts that they need to focus on and read.  I will actually give them 50-60 minutes in classtime to go out and read.  Here are some of the places they go to:


a-the coffeeshop

b-their dormroom (we are on campus)

c- the grass

d-sat on a wall outside

e-in the corridor

f-in the seated break area

g-in their car

h-by the lake

i-2/3 leaners stay in the classroom


When I talk about this with fellow teachers they are worried that they might not read but take time out.  Usually this doesn’t happen.  The learners arrive back having read and ready to discuss or to ask questions.  This is one of the most effective strategies I have used to increase reading exposure and uniterrupted interaction with text.


c-A structured approach to extensive reading:


Once we have dealt with their motivation, created a belief that it might be possible to read in a foreign language and identifying where ro read, I slowly introduce an extensive reading programme. Here are a few pointers:


Explaining the importance to learners: It is really important that you discuss why extensive reading is crucial to becoming an effective reader.  I actually tell them what research has found and how it is an essential part of learning.  I also link it to tangible outcomes or problem areas tht theyhave been experiencing.  For example a student might say to me, ‘I memorised the word, but couldn’t retrieve it fast enough’.  I then explain the scientific basis for this and how extensive reading can help fix it.


Reading Material Choice: I do not mind what the learners are reading.  For this to work they have to have choice and more importantly interest in what they are reading.  I begin with short extensive reading sessions in classroom time, and try to lengthen these to an hour throughout the term.  The reason we begin with short bursts is so learners do not panic.  For some learners who are not used to doing this in their L1 this can be a very daunting first step.  I will also accept the material in any medium.  It can be a book, a magazine, a newspaper, the back of a packet!!! It can be electronic or in paper form.  The most important thing is that they read.  They have had some interesting choices that sometimes surprised me:


1-Ayn Rand-Philosophy

2-Wiki Business

3-The New York Times

4-New Scientist

5-The History of Heavy Metal Music


7-John Grisham

8-The Twilight Series

9-A brief History of Time


Once they have started reading, sometimes, they need to rethink the choice as it is too difficult.  I know that this might happen but for learners to discover this themselves and then realise this through experience means they are more receptive to looking at how to make more infomed choices abour reading materials for their own level.


Various Reflection Activities based on Reading:


Learners try out the reading for about a week.  They then feedback to me about their reading.  All I ask them to feedback on is this one request: Tell me how it is for you when you read in English.  There are various ways that they can feedback:


a-write a reflection, but I ask for it like an informal letter as many of them stress out about their writing

b-a chat in my office

c-A comment in our facebook group

d-A facebook message

e-via video


Based on what they say, I then can encourage them to keep reading, identify emotional blocks to reading or frustrations.  One of the most common responses is ‘I am bored’.  Do not be discouraged by this answer.  I have often found that when you ask them about boredom there are important reasons beneath it, such as not being able to follow the story line, or vocabulary overload.


This exercise continues over the term. I also keep following it up with them.


Other activities:


1-Presenting the Book Back To the Class: Depending on the group and how they feel I might ask them to present something to the class about the book.  This could be a written, spoken review on our Facebook group wall, turning a part of the book into a graphic book, a prezi presentation.  However, I do not always do this as I do not want to decrease motivation by turning this into some type of assessed performance componenet.  There are other types of reading activities on our courses that are assessed or product oriented.


2-As part of classroom fillers: If learners start to lose concentration on an activity in the classroom or they finish early on an activity, I get them to read.  Sometimes it might be their own material, sometimes I have added 2-3 options to the facebook wall for them to take a look for 5-10 minutes.  This also increases positive feelings towards reading.  I try to chose for interest because then they will stick with it.


Some Outside Solutions From the Learners:


1-Have a more reader friendly environment in the Library:  We often have quiet areas with formal seating but what the learners pointed out that if their was a noisy area where they could sit on the floor or a couch they might read more.


2-Stealth: For a long time I have been collecting literacy projects used in communities around the world.  The learners have come up with several ideas on this front:


a-A Book crossing style system for the campus: Books or QRC barcodes mysteriously appear all over the campus.  Learners are able to pick up a book randomly, read it and then drop it again randomly on the campus.  The book has a code which links to a website and then the book can be tracked. The website also catalogues books that are available for pick up in the area.  Book Crossing is also active in most major cities around the world, so you even get the learners book hunting.


b-A randon book dropping point around the campus.  People leave books and pick them up.


c-Facebook groups and lists: Learners are doing this already in Turkish on our university campus. Using the same style book list systems for adertising books could also be effective.




Interestingly when extensive reading is active in and out of the classroom learners reading becomes more fluent.  Leaving it out of our learning environments we are actually signalling to our learners that it is optional when it really is not.  Currently writing the curriculum objectives for reading, I am experimenting with how to make this focus on extensive reading a written part of the curriculum document so that it is not overlooked.  With workshops, discussion and training plus a concrete approach, perhaps extensive reading will filter into the classroom and be given its righful place.  Will this work?  I don’t know.  What could the objectives look like?  That is still being worked on.  Any ideas would be gratefully received.  All I  know is that it’s definately worth trying to make the reading classroom more about reading than ongoing interruption.




Grabe, W. & Stoller, F.L. (2002): Teaching and Researching Reading. Great Britain: Pearson Education

pg170-171 has some examples of action research to investigate extensive reading in your institution

Koda, K. (1996): L2 word recognition research: A critical review. A Modern Language Journal, 80:450-60.

Nagy, W., Herman, P.  and Anderson, R.C. (1985): Learning words from Contexts.  Reading Research Quarterly, 20: 233-53


For more articles and ideas on reading please visit The Reading Space section of Sharonzspace.



  1. Julie Moore says:

    This is a really great, inspiring post, Sharon, thanks!

    It makes me wish I had a current class to try some of these ideas out on. Sadly, a lot of them wouldn’t quite work in their present form with the classes I generally teach, but it’s always good to store these sort of ideas away in a corner of your brain to adapt and use at some future time :)

    • Sharon says:

      Hi Julie,

      Thank you for stopping by.)) I would be interested to know in the future how you adapt the ideas. Each situation is different. Take care.) Sharon

  2. It’s taken me a long while to actual get around to reading this post in its entirety, Sharon. I’m glad I finally have. Extensive reading is well-known to us all as important, but for the same reasons you suggest (mostly time constraints and also the reading load they have from their content courses), it just doesn’t seem to happen in class or out. I think grounding it in terms of ‘research shows…’ is a great way to justify cutting out something else and inserting this for class time.

    I like the idea of a book crossing. I’m not sure that’s been instituted here and yes, the library here is MASSIVE and daunting, to me too. We have smaller libraries at our college itself (colleges are entities within my university) but they tend to have books related to the disciplines housed within (e.g. gender studies, buddhism, human biology, etc.) which are just not that entertaining. I’m also not the best model as I don’t read for pleasure aside from blogs–though this, come to think of it, is my extensive reading choice.

    I was aiming to include a quasi-extensive reading program within the ARC activity, in that students source their own articles tangentially related to the topics used in class. I thought this might help get us toward autonomous selection of what to read, though it is still confined to a degree within the scope of the course.

    Slowly, but surely…

  3. Nathan Price says:

    Nice post Sharon. It’s funny how reading in a language arts class and reading in an ESL class can be so different. It’s refreshing (and shouldn’t be shocking) to see that ELLs want to read, and learn best, in the same environment that native speakers do. I also like how you demonstrate your own language learning to your students. I think that’s a great way to model language learning and to show our students that learning is a life long process.
    One thing I’ve noticed my students want to do, is pick up a copy of Time or The Economist. They often last about 5 minutes before extreme discouragement sets in. I find the stuff on Breaking News English has helped out many students bridge the gap between remedial and advanced level reading.
    Once again, I appreciate the tips in your post.

    • Sharon says:

      Dear Nathan,

      Thank you for stopping by. It is so true that ELLs want to read and learn in the same environment as native speakers. I really liked your tip about Breaking News English. ı am going to try this one out with learners.

      All the best


  4. […] Most influential blog post: The White Elephant in the Room: Extensive Reading in ELT/EAP […]

  5. […] The white elephant in the room: Extensive reading in ELT/EAP – [W]hile extensive reading is acknowledged as important it is often sidelined or seen as the element of reading instruction that can be left for home and checked for homework. (Turner) Sharon’s look at and suggestions for extensive reading gives me the motivation to work harder at taking this back to a place that I can best guide my students: the classroom. […]

  6. […] Sharon Turner teaches EAP at Sabanci University in Turkey and has many ideas about "enticing" learners into reading longer, more demanding texts as well as reading for pleasure.  […]

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