‘ER and the Foreign Language Learner’ by Alan Maley

So what are we to understand by Extensive Reading (ER)?  There seems to be a broad consensus that the following criteria have to be met, though not everyone would subscribe to every single one of them:

1.  Students read a lot and read often.

2. There is a wide variety of text types and topics to choose from.

3. The texts are not just interesting: they are engaging/ compelling.

4. Students choose what to read.

5. Reading purposes focus on: pleasure, information and general understanding.

6. Reading is its own reward.

7. There are no tests, no exercises, no questions and no dictionaries.

8. Materials are within the language competence of the students.

9. Reading is individual, and silent.

10. Speed is faster, not deliberate and slow.

11. The teacher explains the goals and procedures clearly, then monitors and guides the students.

12. The teacher is a role model…a reader, who participates along with the students.

The benefits of ER have been extensively described by a number of researchers (Day and Bamford  1998, Krashen 2004 ,Nation 1997, Waring 2006)  The research evidence also points overwhelmingly to the power of ER to foster language learning, especially vocabulary acquisition.  There seems little doubt that ER is the single most effective way or acquiring, extending and re-cycling the foreign language.

It is ironic therefore that most programmes of language instruction make little or no room for it, or deform it in some way.  On the one hand we have a proven resource for promoting language learning.  On the other,  a passive indifference or even an active resistance to it.  How do we explain this paradox?

The reasons most often given are as follows:

a) Insufficient time.  While it is true that timetables are all too often crammed, and programmes of study require massive expenditure of time, it is untrue to say that there is no time.  There is as much time as we care to make. It is the priorities which need to be readjusted, not the time.

b) Too costly.  Books do cost money.  However, the way money is spent is at issue, not its absence.  Funds are routinely allocated to items which are of dubious utility.  For a relatively modest outlay, it is possible to set up robust and varied class library sets which can be augmented over time.

c) Reading materials not available.  This is true in some contexts.  A determined teacher or administrator can however usually overcome this limitation.  There are many book-supply charities.  Reading materials can also be accessed from the www.

d) ER not linked to the syllabus and the examination.  This is undoubtedly true.  However, it has been shown that students who undertake ER programmes routinely outperform those who have undergone a regular programme of instruction. ( Krashen 2008)

e) Texts are culturally remote.  This too is often true, though cultural remoteness is no reason for not reading.  If anything, it is a reason to read more in order to extend one’s cultural and educational range.  Some publishers have, of course, tried, with varying degrees of success, to mitigate this problem by publishing titles with non-Western settings. (see for example, the sub-series of Stories from around the world, and Stories from South Asia in the Oxford Bookworms series.)   Another, and arguably preferable, way to deal with this problem is for teachers to write fiction for their own students to read, or even to generate student-writing which can serve as input to reading for other students.  There is relatively little of either teacher or student fiction to date but there are one or two straws in the wind worth mentioning.

Pearson Malaysia has supported the efforts of a small group of Asian teacher-writers who have, since 2003, met once a year in a different Asian country with the express purpose of writing original stories (and poems) which could be used in an Asian setting.  So far four collections of short stories and three volumes of poems have been published (Maley and Mukundan 2005, Maley, 2007a, 2007b)  The stories are written at a level intuitively decided by the teacher-writers in the light of their experience.  One advantage of this type of reading material is that it is likely to be more accessible culturally to the intended audience.  Significantly, there is no exercise material!

Whereas initiatives like these, including reading materials written by students for their peers (for instance also ‘Children’s Own Stories’ USM 2005) are unlikely ever to take over from the better-resourced and more lavishly-produced series of the major publishers, they are nonetheless significant.  Small can be, not only beautiful, but also effective.

f) Lack of understanding of ER and its benefits.  Teacher education programmes devote too little attention to ER issues.  It is therefore hardly surprising if teachers are often ignorant of the benefits it can confer.  This is an issue for continuing re-education both of teacher trainees and those who train them!

g) Downward pressure on teachers to conform to syllabi and textbooks.  Institutions (Ministries of Education, Universities, Schools etc.) develop their own ‘cultures’, best summarised as ‘the way we do things here’.  Central to such cultures is the need to standardise and to measure inputs and outputs.  Curricula, syllabi, textbooks and examinations are all central to this process.  Unfortunately, ER does not fit comfortably into this mind-set.  It is an essentially free, individual and non-competitive activity.  Even where ER is inscribed into the syllabus, it tends to be subsumed into the institutional culture, and becomes a ‘subject’, which is ‘taught’, and even examined, all of which are inimical to free voluntary reading.  Most published series of graded readers are complicit with institutions, providing them with the pedagogical baggage they require. The documented instances of successful ER programmes tend to have been the result of individual initiatives by enterprising teachers who have, usually for a brief time only, been able to by-pass the institutional culture.

h) Apprehension on the part of teachers, who find it impossible to stop teaching and to allow learning to take place. 

This is summed up by Cunningham (1991 : 675),

‘Teachers in Zanzibar like the visible results of vocabulary list learning, words pronounced correctly, answers rightly given and skills accurately performed.  In comparison, the more indirect and slower skill building of the reading programme carries less classroom credibility.’

For as long as this institutional mindset is maintained, all the effort and ingenuity expended on developing ER materials, and all the research evidence accumulated to support their use will have been in vain.  Until administrators and teachers are willing to take ‘the leap into the abyss’ they will never discover the joys of flying!

© Alan Maley 2009


Cunningham, Roger.  (1991)   ‘The Zanzibar English Reading Programme.’  Reading in a Foreign Language.  8 (1)

Day, Richard, R  and Bamford, Julian.(1998)  Extensive Reading in the Second Language Classroom.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Krashen, Stephen  (2nd edition. 2004 )  The Power of Reading: insights from the research.   Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Krashen, Stephen   (2008 )  ‘Hypotheses about Free Voluntary Reading’. 

in Mukundan, Jayakaran (ed)  Readings on ELT Materials III.  Petaling Jaya: Pearson Malaysia

Maley, Alan (ed) (2007)  Asian Short Stories for Young Readers  Vol. 4..  Petaling Jaya: Pearson Malaysia.

Maley, Alan and Mukundan, Jayakaran (2005)  Asian Stories for Young Readers Vol. 1  Petaling Jaya: Pearson Malaysia.

Maley, Alan and Mukundan, Jayakaran. (2005)  Asian Stories for Young Readers  Vol. 2.  Petaling Jaya: Pearson Malaysia.

Nation, Paul  (1997)  ‘The language teaching benefits of extensive reading.’  The Language Teacher.  21 (5)

Waring, Rob  (2006)  ‘Why Extensive Reading should be an indispensable part of all language programmes’.  The Language Teacher  30 (7): 44-47


Some Useful Websites


A must for access to the widest range  of published articles and books. Accessible as abstracts by topic,  author or date.


A useful compilation of many articles on ER by Rob Waring in Japan


A rich collection of materials related to ER.  See in particular: 88 generalisations, Free Voluntary Reading; new research (2005), The Case for Narrow Reading.

http://ijflt.com  On-line articles from the International Journal of Foreign Language Teaching, many of which relate to ER  (for details see above  References)

www.getintoreading.org   A site for  encouraging reading activity.

www.nflrc.hawaii.edu/rfl/   Complete run of numbers from Reading in a Foreign Language. (see References, above, for specific articles.)

http://www.extensivereading.net   Full of useful practical information about implementing ER programmes.

www.erfoundation.org    The website of the Extensive Reading Foundation.

http://www.emb.gov.hk/index.aspx?langno=1%nodeid=2773    Hong Kong Education Department. See V guidelines and lists of recommended titles.


Reading Online electronic journal of the International Reading Association.

www1.harenet.ne.jp/~waring/er/series.htm   Rob Waring  ‘Graded readers series and other reading materials’  It lists most current publishers of graded readers.

http://www.ials.ed.ac.uk/eper.html  EPER. Complete list of graded readers with evaluation on 5 star scale.

http://www.ials.ed.ac.uk/eper/eperpubs.html   David R. Hill. The EPER Guide to Organizing programmes of Extensive Reading.

www.oupjapan.co.jp/cluboup   Seven personal accounts of using ER in Japanese schools and universities.

http://www.geocities.com/kjschjp/eng_learn_res/   Ken Schmidt website   

http://www.ncte.org/about/over/positions/category/read/118620.htm  NCTE Guidelines. 

http://www.learningmedia.co.nz/nz/online/authorsartists/seriesguidelines/schooljournal School Journal (New Zealand)

(This article was first published in the ERF website on 7 January 2009)

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