Lois Scott-Conley
School for Int'l Training IEP
At Tokyo Jogakkan Jr. College

Starting an Extensive Reading Program

Extensive Reading (ER) is reading a lot at a fairly easy level so that what is read is comprehended without the use of a dictionary. The purpose of an ER program is to increase language proficiency, with particular increases in reading level and speed. This paper will first present the components of an established ER program and then describe preparation needed to begin such a program: setting up the library; preparing teachers and teaching materials; preparing assessment tools.


Components of an established program

The following table provides an overview of an established ER program. With a clear understanding of what a program will eventually look like, it is possible to make effective choices even in the beginning stages of development.


  • Includes a variety of high interest graded readers (and possibly magazines and not EFL materials) organized by level.
  • A clear check out system exists.

Expectations for students

  • Read 500 pages each semester at the appropriate level.
  • Demonstrate that they have read.
  • Record the number of pages read, keeping a running total

Expectations for teachers

  • Address student motivation
  • Begin ER using a class set
  • Teach reading strategies
  • Check reports of student reading
  • Support students in self-selecting titles
  • Do follow up activities in class to expand reading


  • Pre and Post tests of level, speed, and enjoyment.

ER Coordinator

  • In charge of books, curriculum, and teacher support


  • Posters, cartoons, book reviews, student comments to promote reading.


Setting up an ER Program

The process of starting an ER program can be broken into three areas of preparation.

The library



Setting up the library involves ordering and organizing the books. Teaching preparation refers to steps that teachers will make to 1) learn about ER, and 2) to implement ER in the classroom using class sets and self-selected titles. Assessment tools include pre and post tests of reading level and speed, and students' affective responses.

Library Preparation

Support for the ER library may come from the institution, but if it does not, there are ways to cover the cost of the books. First, students can be charged a "book fee." Alternatively, teachers could pool their research funding (Helgesen 1997) to purchase books. Finally, it may be possible to solicit sponsorship from local businesses.

When ordering graded readers, student interest should be one of the strongest considerations, so that student motivation is high. At the Japanese women's college where this author works, the most popular genres are Romances (especially with young, contemporary characters), Mysteries, and Action stories.

Non-fiction and short stories are not recommended for most ER programs. The benefits of ER occur when reading is done quickly and smoothly. Stories inherently speed the reader along as the plot develops. Non-fiction requires a close attention that can result in a stop-and-start style of reading. Careful attention is also required when reading the beginning exposition of stories. A book of short stories, requires that exposition be read several times in order to cover the same number of pages as a novel, resulting in a slower average reading speed (Davies, 2000:14).

Graded readers are available through several major publishers whose series' often use different systems to indicate level. Consistency within a program using different series can be maintained by developing a standard based on the number of headwords in the readers. The table below details a sample system. Correlating TOEIC scores are adapted from Hill (1997:25).


Number of headwords

Approximation of

Students' TOEIC score

Level 1



Level 2



Level 3



Level 4



Level 5



Level 6


730 and up


Books should be organized by level in the ER library. An economical system has the books in boxes with the levels marked outside the boxes. On the inside of the back cover of each book, a B5 envelope can be cut and taped. The book's card is kept in this envelope, or in a standup file when the book is checked out. The cards include basic information at the top: title, author, book level, copy number; and columns for the student's name, teacher's initials, and the dates checked out and returned. Cards can be made using photocopied stock paper.

The majority of books in the first year of a program will be at, and just above, the level of most of the students. A total number of books equal to four times the number of students is a useful guide (Davies, 2000:20). Multiple copies of interesting titles at each level are more beneficial than one copy of numerous titles at each level. Hill (1997:20) suggests roughly 15 titles per level as a way of encouraging readers to move on. His institute, the well-known Edinburgh Project on Extensive Reading, has up to 9 levels, however, so if a program has fewer levels, with a larger spread of headwords, 15 titles per level may not be sufficient.

Each program will want to establish clear guidelines for checking out books. First, decisions will need to be made about when the library will be open. Options include regular work hours (i.e. 8:00 -- 5:00), or more limited times when a teacher is available. A pre-determined check-out period may be used, and replacement costs may be charged if books are lost.

Teaching Preparation

Wanting to learn.

Knowing how to learn.

Having a chance to learn.

These are the three factors are the basic "ingredients" for learning (Murphey, 1998:84). This next section will discuss preparation for teaching needed to foster each of these factors within an ER program. First, ways to address student motivation will be discussed (Wanting to learn). Next, reading strategies will be presented. Finally, systems used when students are actively reading will be described (Having a chance to learn).

Addressing motivation

The first step in approaching the classroom is to sell the students on ER. To do this teachers will want to learn about the benefits of ER. A excellent source for a wide variety of ER information is the internet ER Main Page <http://www.kyoto-su.ac.jp/information/er/>. In addition to reading about ER, teachers will want to read as many graded readers as possible at their students' levels. With this background, teachers will be able to present ER in class and share how it can be useful and fun. They can also recommend ER books with enthusiasm and knowledge.

When introducing ER, teachers may want to take advantage of peer and near peer role models (Murphey, 1996:20). Videotapes of interviews with students talking about the program are an especially powerful source of motivation. Handouts or posters with comments from students can also be made.

Teaching Reading Strategies

Students participating in an ER program are expected to read quickly and smoothly. By explicitly teaching reading strategies to students, teachers can help them read more effectively and thus with more enjoyment. Reading strategies can be divided into the three phases described below. These phases are repeated each time the student reads a section from her book. For more on Guessing, Speed Card, and Chunking, see the Appendix.

Pre-reading Stage


  • Relax and get comfortable.
  • Use positive self-talk to build confidence and encouragement.
  • Predict what will happen.
  • Make questions to you want answered in the section your will read.
  • Create clear mental images of characters and setting.
  • Imagine that you are one of the characters in the story and take on her/his thoughts and feelings.
  • Mental review of what was read before (when continuing a book.)

During Reading Stage

  • Guess when you don't know for sure.
  • Use a Speed Card to focus attention and foster speed.
  • Use Chunking: marking digestible chunks of words to improve reading in thought groups instead of word by word.
  • Visualize the story as it happens.
  • Assign voices to the characters and hear them clearly when they speak.

After Reading Stage

  • Share your reaction to the section read with someone--in L1 or L2.
  • Summarize, or retell in L1 or L2.
  • Write down new characters and their relationships to others if it is getting complicated to remember.
  • Listen to a tape or a fluent speaker read a familiar section while following along at the same speed.

Reading class sets

It's useful to begin the ER program with everyone in the class reading the same book together. Teachers can use this time to generate excitement about reading by having fun with the stories and by slowly introducing reading strategies to help students read efficiently. The class set should be easy enough for everyone in class.

Teachers will need to prepare in-class activities to help students understand the text and practice language skills other than reading. These will include ways…

In planning activities, teachers can make use of numerous complimentary materials available from publishers of graded readers. Recommended activities can also be found on the ER website cited above and in Andersen (1999), Day (1993, 1999), Helgesen (1997), Nuttal (1996), and other books on ER.

From the beginning of their ER experience, students should read 8-10 pages a night, so teachers will want to plan the of class set schedule to accommodate this. One to three class sets should provide students with the skills and confidence to move into reading independently (Davies, 2000: 9).

Reading self-selected titles

Preparation for incorporating independent reading into class can be divided into a focus on activities (for building motivation and expanding the reading experience) and a focus on logistics (mainly of assessing and keeping track of reading).

One important goal of an ER program is that the students will enjoy reading. Much initial planning focuses on ways to foster student motivation. When planning for students' independent reading, the teacher will want to continue this focus and even revisit some of activities used at the beginning of the program. The teacher should prepare oral "book pitches," and encourage students to make them too. Student book pitches can be given orally or in written form. The program at this author's institution has started semesters with a Book Festival which has returning students compete to "sell" their favorite book to other students.

Expansion activities for independent reading will be partially determined by the type of course that includes the ER. Discussion skills, debate, and conversation strategy training lend themselves easily to the creation of in-class activities that draw upon student independent reading. Language foci found in a conversation or writing course text can be expanded by using students independent reading as content or for retelling, describing, or discussion. See references listed above for a variety of further activities.

Students are expected to read a minimum of 20 minutes a day. Final grades for ER can be assigned by averaging a weekly grade with a grade for the final number of pages read. The table below outlines a grading system for a 13-week semester.


End of the Semester


38 pages


500 pages


28 pages


370 pages


20 pages


260 pages


10 pages


130 pages


Helgesen (1997:32) proposes weighting the pages of the books by level in order to encourage students to move up, and to read at appropriate levels. Helgesen's system follows.

Level 1: 1 page = .5 page

Level 2: 1 page = .75 page

Level 3: 1 page = 1 page

Levels 4 - 6: 1 page = 1.25 pages

Though students need to demonstrate that they have read their books, they should not be asked to complete taxing forms in order to do so. Reading fluently and with enjoyment is key, so reading reports should be easy to fill out and should be referred to in a positive way. (i.e. Pleasure Reading, Independent Reading, and Fluency Reading reports.) A written report could include:

Reports should be kept together and all turned in each time they are collected. Teacher's comments on the reports can be quite brief, but upbeat. As an option to written reports, students could give oral reports to the class, or one-on-one (with the teacher or audiotaped with another student). They could choose from a variety of creative projects: movie style poster; original visual with captions; a written review published in a book or on a website; a cartoon strip, to name a few.

Preparing testing

Testing in an ER program is used at the beginning and end of the year to assess the students' reading speed and level. Reading speed can be tested using a 250-word passage from a graded reader (a little above the suspected class average). Time the reading and give ten relatively easy True/False questions. Students should read fast enough to get about 70% of the questions right. If they get all the questions right they are reading too slowly--word by word. Tell them this. (If time permits, teachers may wish to schedule in regular speed tests to help students pace themselves and provide them with an indicator of their progress.) For more details on making and giving speed tests, see Nuttal (1996:57).

Level Assessment can be done in several ways. The simplest is for students to read sample passages from graded readers at various levels until they find a level that has an average of two to three new words on a page. Another easily made test involves taking the first 200 words from a reader at each level and deleting every seventh word. Students fill in the blanks and placed in one (or two) levels below where they "ceased to show adequate understanding" (Nuttal 1996:215).

Pre and post assessment of students' sense of confidence, enjoyment, and motivation is recommended in addition to the above skills tests. Statements such as I enjoy reading; I feel confident reading; I want to read in English can be followed by a five point scale ranging from I agree strongly to I disagree strongly. Student comments could also be solicited.


In this paper, processes have been described for setting up an ER library and for teaching and testing preparation needed to start an ER program. Throughout the paper, the importance of addressing student motivation has been highlighted. A successful ER program will foster motivation, teach students how to learn through ER, and give them plenty of supported practice at reading.


Andersen, N. (1999). Exploring Second Language Reading: Issues and strategies. Boston: Heinle and Heinle.

Davies, K. (2000). The ER Book: A teachers' manual. Unpublished.

Day, R., ed. (1993). New ways in teaching reading. Alexandria: TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages).

Day, R. & J. Bamford. (1998). Extensive reading in the second language classroom. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Helgesen, M.(1997). Bring those books back into the classroom: Tasks for extensive reading. The Language Teacher, 21(5), 53-54.

Hill, D. (1997). Setting up an extensive reading programme: Practical tips. The Language Teacher, 21(5), 17-20.

Murphey, T. (1998).Language hungry. Tokyo: Macmillan Language House.

Murphey, Tim (1996) Near peer role models. In Teacher talking to teacher 4(3), 21.

Nuttal, C. 1996. Teaching reading skills in a foreign language. Hong Kong: Macmillan Heinemann.

Waring, R. 1997. Graded and extensive reading--questions and answers. The Langauge Teacher, 21(5), 9-12.



Reading Strategies



A strategy for building comfort with low amounts ambiguity.

Activity A: Gapped text.

Step 1: Using a graded reader passage, leave a number of words blank so that it still makes sense. Students 1) choose the best title for the text, 2) answer some simple comprehension questions, 3) guess the missing words, and 4) check with a dictation.

Step 2: Give the next section of the text without blanks, but either substitute difficult words for easier ones or leave in more difficult words so that the gist of the story is not lost even if the words are not understood. Students answer comprehension questions. (Adapted from Nuttal, 1996:65)

Activity B: Inferring from context and schema Students guess parts of speech and meaning from nonsense words in context. Ex: The sploony urdle departed. See Nuttal (1996:69-72) for further activities to help with inferring.

Activity C: Training on when to look up words - When students meet an unknown word in a graded reader, the best practice is to keep reading. See if the meaning becomes clear by the end of the chapter. Or, is it possible to understand the story without knowing that word? If both answers are negative, or the student really wants to know that word, then look it up.


A strategy for consciously reading in "chunks" rather than word by word.

Activity: Chunking training

Step 1: Using a text familiar to the students, arrange a short sample in vertical chunks.

Once upon a time

there was

a woman

who lived alone.

Students read silently while pulling their finger down the middle of the text.

Step 2: Students read again silently, but stop after each line, look up and say the phrase to a partner (Look up and say technique.)

Step 3: Show sentences chunked horizontally so that thought groups and phrases are not separated (Our mother/has gone/to visit you.), and so that they are (Your grandmother has/caught a/cold.). Students notice the differences.

Step 4: Students mark the chunks in new sentences, compare their answers, and get feedback. (There should be no more than 7 words in a chunk.)

Step 5: Students mark chunks lightly in pencil in their readers. (They can erase later.)

Step 6: Repeat the Look up and say technique. 100% accuracy is not required when speaking as the goal of chunking is to get the gist of the thought group.

Using a Speed card

A strategy for increasing reading speed by pulling an index style card down the page of the book at a smooth speed. This encourages smooth, continuous movement of the eyes.