‘ER and the Language Teacher’ by Alan Maley

As teachers, we often urge’ them’, our students, to engage in Extensive Reading(ER) as an effective way to develop and sustain their progress in the language.  But how about ‘us’?  Surely what is sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander?  There is little point in exhorting students to do what we ourselves do not do.

There are a number of reasons why teachers too should engage in ER:

The teacher is a role model.  Students take their cue from what we do, not only what we say.  Teachers who are seen to be avid readers offer a positive model for students to emulate.

A great deal of the reading teachers do as part of their professional lives is either narrowly professional (journal articles, books on applied linguistics, textbooks etc.), or student texts which are undemanding except in the load of correction they impose.  Neither of these is particularly helpful in sustaining or developing the teacher’s own control of the target language. (And this is as true for ‘native speakers’ as it is for ‘non-native speakers.’)  A varied and copious diet of reading helps keep our language fresh.

An exclusive diet of professional reading does little for our personal development. The professional literature we read is always in some sense convergent.  The pressure on professional writers is to conform to the norms of the group or ‘discourse community’.  It is internally self-referencing.   This leads us into a reading ghetto.  What is more, we do not learn everything explicitly through conscious awareness.  Indeed, some would claim the reverse: ‘To equate what we know with what we learn through conscious awareness is a cardinal error.  The life of the mind is like that of the body.  If it depended on conscious awareness or control, it would fail entirely.’  (Gray.  2002)  So much of what we learn is at best learned sub-consciously, more by osmosis than by skin graft; more by infection than injection.  Books (outside of study or research programmes) are not a quick fix: they operate by slow burn…This is indirect and the effects are unpredictable.   Very often we are influenced by the books we read in ways we are not aware of – ‘By indirections find directions out’  (Shakespeare – Hamlet)  If we read little, there is precious little chance of letting this process work on us.

‘Reading maketh a full man (sic)’ as Bacon reminds us.  A teacher able to relate to a wide range of different kinds of texts is likely to be a more interesting person too – the kind of person students enjoy being with and interacting with.  For our own sanity we need to be ‘full’.  For the sake of our students too.

So, happy reading teachers!

© Alan Maley

(This article was first published on the ERF website on 26 January 2009)

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