Extensive Reading and its Role in the Future of English Language Teaching in Japanese High Schools

by Stephen John Powell

1. Introduction

The aim of this article is to present the case for making greater use of extensive reading in English in Japanese high schools. It begins with a review of the current literature on extensive reading, exploring its characteristics, the theory behind it and the evidence for its benefits. It then goes on to contrast extensive reading with the traditional grammar translation methodology still prevalent in Japanese high schools. Part 5 includes a profile of an extensive reading programme already operating in one Japanese high school, while Part 6 introduces a survey of the reading habits of the students on this programme. Finally, the results of this survey will be seen to support the conclusion that extensive reading could and should have a significant role to play in the imminent changes facing EFL in Japanese schools.

2. Extensive Reading: Characteristics, Theory and Benefits

  1. Characteristics

    The term "extensive reading" was originally coined by Palmer (1917, quoted by Day and Bamford, 1997) to distinguish it from "intensive reading" - the careful reading of short, complex texts for detailed understanding and skills practice. It has since acquired many other names: Mikulecky (1990, cited in Day and Bamford, 1997) calls it "pleasure reading." Grabe (1991) and others use the term "sustained silent reading", while Mason and Krashen (in press) call it simply "free reading".

    Whatever name is used, the characteristics generally include the relatively fast reading of a large amount of longer, easy-to-understand material, with the reading done mostly outside of the classroom and at each student's own pace and level. There are few, if any, follow-up exercises, because the aim is for overall understanding rather than word-by-word decoding or grammar analysis. For the same reason, there is minimum use of dictionaries. Most importantly, instead of an inflexible curriculum saddling students with texts they neither enjoy nor understand, with extensive reading the material is generally chosen by the students themselves, who can thereby enjoy some small measure of responsibility for decisions affecting their learning, a basic tenet of communicative teaching (see Thompson, 1996, 13).

    The material used is often graded readers, what Day and Bamford (1998) call "language learner literature". Indeed, the terms graded readers and extensive reading are often used almost synonymously. While there is no reason why extensive reading should be limited exclusively to graded readers, these simplified texts have been shown to have a number of benefits (see Day and Bamford 1999, Waring 1997).

    Whatever material is used, debates continue about exactly how much reading has to be done before it can be called "extensive". Susser and Robb (1990) quote suggestions ranging from an hour per evening (Krashen 1985) to at least two books a week (Carroll 1972). Given the huge discrepancies, flexibility seems to be the key, as what constitutes "a lot" depends largely on the teacher's and students' perceptions of "extensive" in relation to the students' overall workload. Given that Japanese high school students are notoriously overburdened with tests, cram school, club activities, Saturday classes and so on, Matsumura's suggestion (1987, quoted in Susser and Robb 1990) of one page per day and three pages per day during summer vacation may serve as a useful guideline for Japan.

    Whatever target number is set, the basic goal of extensive reading is to get students to read as much as can be reasonably expected and, hopefully, to enjoy doing so.

  2. Theory

    In recent years, an impressive body of evidence has appeared in favour of extensive reading as a means of improving not only students' reading level but also of raising their general proficiency. One obvious attraction of the approach is that it combines the universally understood pleasure of reading a good story with the satisfaction inherent in accomplishing a meaningful task in the target language, while still at a relatively low level of fluency.

    This vital pleasure factor effectively prepares the ground in which language acquisition can then germinate. Krashen (1981, cited in Harmer, 1991, 33-34) argues that students can acquire language on their own provided a) they receive enough exposure to comprehensible language and b) it is done in a relaxed, stress-free atmosphere. Extensive reading satisfies both these conditions since, as stated above, it involves reading large amounts of relatively easy material, at home and with little or no follow-up work or testing.

    Furthermore, Krashen (1981, quoted in Harmer, 1991, 33-34)) held that the unconscious process of language acquisition, such as occurs when reading for pleasure, is more successful and longer lasting than conscious learning.

    This is one of the reasons why extensive reading, with its large amounts of roughly-tuned input, is held by many to be more effective than the conscious study of finely-tuned input, as shall seen in detail in the next section. In particular, extensive reading has been shown to be a highly successful way of reinforcing, confirming and deepening knowledge of vocabulary and expressions hitherto only imperfectly known, and of developing an implicit understanding of when and how words are used, by experiencing language in context (see Nation, 1997, and Coady, 1997, cited in Mutoh, Bamford and Helgesen 1998).

    In addition, by allowing students to make their own choices about what they read, they have more scope for following their own interests. This in turn reduces teacher control and further encourages learning to occur outside class.

    Another advantage is that, as each student chooses a book within their own capability range, weaker students need not feel embarrassed about not keeping up with more advanced ones, as can happen with a teacher-chosen class reader that all students must follow. Students are therefore less likely to get frustrated and demotivated, so the overall effect on their attitude will be beneficial. In other words, success in individual reading encourages learner autonomy which leads to "learning success and enhanced motivation" (Dickinson 1995, cited in Mutoh, Bamford and Helgesen 1998).

    Equally importantly, by eliminating follow-up checks and exercises and encouraging students to go for understanding the general meaning rather than detailed comprehension, students are gradually weaned off word-by-word decoding at the sentence level, something Japanese students find very difficult, as shall be seen. As Carrell (1998) said, the goal is to turn "learning to read into reading to learn."

    Day and Bamford (interviewed by Donnes, 1999) offered a simple summary of the theory behind extensive reading, saying that "students who read large quantities of easy, interesting material will become better readers and will enjoy the experience." In other words, to use the ubiquitous catchphrase, "students learn to read by reading" (Grabe 1991, Smith 1985, quoted in Robb and Susser 1989, Bamford, interviewed by Donnes, 1999).

  3. Evidence

    Of course, it might be argued that, like all truisms, this does not say very much. Naturally, people get better at anything by practice and, as Meara (1997, quoted in Waring 2001) says, there is a danger of putting seeds in pots only to confirm that they will grow into flowers.

    Indeed, if extensive reading did nothing more than help students read better, then it would be unlikely to have attracted so much attention. What makes it far more compelling is the sheer weight of evidence indicating that extensive reading not only develops reading skills but that it also benefits a whole range of other language skills, boosts confidence and motivation and improves overall attitude. Reading in this sense has to be seen holistically, as a crucial part of students' total development, not as some separate skill. This evidence will now be examined.

    Gains in vocabulary are among the most commonly cited benefits of extensive reading. Nuttal (1982, reported in Robb and Susser, 1989) maintains that "an extensive reading programmeŠ is the single most effective way of improving both vocabulary and reading skills in general." Mason and Krashen (1997, quoted in Waring 2001) are among the many others who support the gains in vocabulary thesis.

    Nevertheless, this cannot be taken for granted. As previously stated, extensive reading usually means the reading of easy texts with little or no dictionary consultation. Indeed, research by Lauer (1989, cited in Nation 1997) suggests students should be familiar with 95% of the words in a text in order to comprehend it.

    This being the case, it seems contradictory to suggest that students can make huge vocabulary gains from extensive reading, when so little of the vocabulary is new. In fact, Nation (1997), Bamford (in Donnes, 1999) and Waring (2001) all concur that students can only hope to make small, incidental gains in vocabulary knowledge from extensive reading.

    But, if gains in new vocabulary may have been somewhat exaggerated, this does nothing to diminish the importance of extensive reading's role in developing sight vocabulary, or automaticity of word recognition - words and combinations of words students meet so often that they recognize them automatically, without having to stop and think (see Day and Bamford 2000, Grabe 1991, Nation 1997). This in turn means students can increase their reading speed and process language (written or spoken) more quickly, thus boosting their confidence, improving reaction speed and contributing to overall ability.

    In addition, many researchers have found extensive reading to have a positive effect on listening, writing and other areas of language competence. (see Mason and Krashen, 1997 in Mutoh, Bamford and Helgesen 1998, Day and Bamford, interviewed by Donnes 1999, and Nation, 1997). Indeed, Robb and Susser (1989) were surprised at the extent of writing gains made by an extensive reading group. Nation (1997) also claims benefits not just for reading fluency but "in a range of language uses and areas of language knowledge", including, significantly, affective benefits. This view that extensive reading helps improve students' overall attitude toward studying English is supported by many others, including Mason and Krashen (1997, cited in Robb 2001).

    In fact, Mason & Krashen (in press) go even further and, quoting research by Krashen (1993), Elley (1991) and Mason and Krashen (1997), affirm categorically that "it is firmly established that free reading leads to increased second language competence."

    Grabe (1986, quoted in Mutoh, Bamford and Helgesen 1998) called extensive reading a "major way to round out a reading program", and in 1991 went on to sum up simply and forcefully the many benefits of extensive reading by arguing:

    "students need to read extensively. Longer concentrated periods of silent reading build vocabulary and structural awareness, develop automaticity, enhance background knowledge, improve comprehension skills and promote confidence and motivation." (p. 396)

3. EFL in Japanese high schools: an Overview

Given the impressive range of benefits ascribed to extensive reading, it is surprising that so far it has attracted relatively little interest in Japan, particularly when it is generally agreed that as a nation Japan lags behind other Asian countries in English proficiency and that things must change to help them catch up. In February 2000 then Prime Minister Obuchi stated that "achieving world-class excellence demands that all Japanese acquire a working knowledge of English," and a report commissioned by him proposed that English become the country's official second language.

Yet, despite attempts by the Ministry of Education to encourage a more communicative approach, the school system is still very much geared to preparing students for the highly demanding university entrance exams. This situation has favoured the perpetuation of the traditional grammar translation methodology. This in turn has meant that while reading has been highly emphasized in secondary and even tertiary education, it has been almost exclusively of the intensive kind, which as Alderson and Urquhart (1984, reported in Susser and Robb 1990) observe "may be justified as a language lesson butŠ is actually not reading at all."

In practice, students struggle with short, difficult passages, laboriously decoding the meaning and analyzing the grammar. It has nothing to do with reading as such, and very little to do with pleasure either. All too often for students, reading in English merely means doing things they do not enjoy with texts they do not want to read. Clearly this does little to promote interest either in reading or in English in general. Yet so entrenched is this method that Padraic Frehan (1999) quotes Kitao and Kitao (1995) as finding that "most Japanese students read by replacing all English words with Japanese words one by one." Not surprisingly, they feel lost if asked to read without looking up every single new word in the dictionary.

Even if class readers are used, it is invariably as a basis for skills-building exercises, concentrating on understanding and practising sub-skills, with all students forced to read the same text at the same pace to be able to do these activities. This is not necessarily a bad thing in itself. Intensive reading is valuable for learning vocabulary, understanding how text is organized and so on (see Waring, 1997). Certainly, many researchers (such as Hill, 1997, Waring, 1997) find intensive and extensive reading to be complementary.

However, an intensive approach alone cannot hope to have the same benefits as when combined with extensive reading. Rosenshine (1980, cited in Susser and Robb 1990) dismissed the skills-building intensive approach, stating that "there is simply no clear evidence to support the naming of discrete skills in reading comprehension." Similarly, Barnett (1988, also quoted in Susser and Robb 1990) found that teaching reading strategies alone produced no significant improvement in reading comprehension.

As a result of the exclusive reliance on grammar translation/skills building approaches in Japanese high schools, many students display a severe lack of motivation towards learning English, and most will finish their education without ever having read a single page of a foreign language purely for pleasure, and without ever having written a single piece of free, creative writing.

Consequently, it must be assumed that neither will they have had the chance to experience a single one of the multiple benefits universally ascribed to extensive reading.

4. Japan: A Place for Extensive Reading

It is highly ironic that Japan has so far virtually ignored extensive reading, for there is considerable evidence which suggests that it would be particularly well suited, and easily adapted, to Japanese culture. According to Hill (1997), extensive reading programmes would be "particularly helpful" in Japan, where students find it "embarrassing to speak English before they feel confident of their use of lexis and syntax." Extensive reading outside school would provide students with an excellent opportunity to practise in private and improve their lexical-syntactical knowledge, which would have a knock-on effect on their overall ability and understanding, which would in turn help boost their confidence and foment a more positive attitude.

Furthermore, as Kumiko Torikai (2000) has pointed out, "even with their native language, the Japanese tend to value written language much more than spoken languageŠ" The fact that Japanese students are generally avid readers but reluctant speakers would seem to indicate that a reading-for-pleasure approach would be well received. In this light, it is not hard to conclude that extensive reading has the potential to play an important role in improving English teaching in Japan.

This conclusion is further borne out by my own experience as a teacher on the Special English Course at Hijiyama High School, Hiroshima. The next section offers an overview of this course.

5. Extensive Reading in Action

Hijiyama's Special English Course is something of a rarity in Japan in that it offers high school students the chance to choose to specialize in English, alongside their normal high school studies, studying twelve hours of English per week, split evenly between a native English speaker and a Japanese teacher. The course combines a variety of approaches, including grammar translation, class reading of a graded reader (used as a basis for a wide variety of skills practice, including speaking, writing and listening) and an extensive reading programme using graded readers.

Considering that most students begin the course with a relatively low level of fluency in English and have never previously read any English beyond brief texts in grammar books, the minimum free reading requirement in the first year is set at just one book per term. Although this hardly even qualifies as extensive reading (the school also uses the term Home Reading Programme), students are encouraged to read more than this minimum requirement and, as the survey in the next section shows, most students voluntarily get through considerably more. Interestingly therefore, it is the students' own enthusiasm which makes their reading extensive.

From the start of the course it is emphasized that the home readers are to be read in a different way to the class reader. Firstly, students choose the books they want to read and are free to change a book without finishing it if they find it hard or uninteresting. Secondly, they are encouraged not to use dictionaries, but to try to understand and enjoy the overall story. Students are required to write a summary of one book over the summer vacation, but this is the only form of follow-up exercise used. During the rest of the year, whenever they finish with a book, they are simply asked a few questions about it (their opinion, favourite character etc). They then choose their next book (with guidance from the teacher if required) and the process begins again. The aim is for the students to take responsibility for themselves as far as possible.

Small incentives are sometimes introduced, such as offering a token prize for whoever reads the most books (this spurred two students to challenge each other to read 20 books in a year. They both managed it!). The number of books read by each student is recorded on a wall chart in the classroom. Every time a student completes a book, she gets to choose a cartoon character sticker to put next to her name on the chart. This enables both teacher and students to see how the class is doing and acts as an incentive to others, as well as providing a small touch of humour, further removing the concept of home reading from traditional associations of homework, grades etc.

6. The Survey: Aims

It was decided to conduct a survey of students on this course for two main reasons. Firstly, as the number of books read per year varied considerably from student to student, it seemed worthwhile to enquire how far the notion of reading "for pleasure" was merely a teachers' assumption. In other words, more needed to be known about how the students themselves felt (of course reading is more pleasurable than doing grammar exercises, but would they read if they did not have to?).

Secondly, many authors (notably Waring, 2001) lament the lack of conclusive research done into extensive reading. Robb and Susser (1990) call most research "contradictory, inconclusive and generally unhelpful", while Day & Bamford (interviewed by Donnes, 1999) talk of the need for more research into "the extent to which students continue to read in the target language once the extensive reading class is over".

Thus, a questionnaire was devised to shed light on students' attitudes in general and the following questions in particular:

  1. Has their attitude towards reading changed since starting the Special English Course?
  2. Did students feel the extensive reading programme was beneficial?
  3. Was extensive reading enjoyable?
  4. Did students undertake any other English reading voluntarily?
  5. If so, what material did they most enjoy reading outside school? (It is often assumed that reading graded readers is the only way to do extensive reading outside school)
  6. Did they feel motivated to carry on reading in English in the future?

The questionnaire was given to a class of thirty-six students during their third and final year at high school, with the questions therefore directed at their first two years on the Special English Course.

7. The Survey: Findings

The results were generally very encouraging in a number of areas. Firstly, the total number of books read by the class increased from 153 in the first year (an average of 4.25 per student) to 261 in the second year (7.25 per student). This means that, on average, students went from reading just over one book per term (the required minimum) in the first year, to reading more than two per term in the second year (Figure 1).

Equally encouraging were the apparent changes in attitude (Figure 2).

Before starting the course, only three students thought that reading in English would be enjoyable. At the time of the survey, twenty-five stated that sometimes they now read in English purely for pleasure (i.e. other than homework and home readers), and six students said they often did. Of the material they chose to read, English-language pop song lyrics was the most popular material, followed by magazines and books, other than home readers given out by the teacher (Figure 3).

The vital point here is that, despite never having read anything in English before starting the course, more and more students were now seeking out their own authentic reading materials.

However, it must be noted that while twenty two students thought the home reading programme was a good idea, eleven students thought it was too much work. It is a reminder that, given Japanese high school students' heavy workload, flexibility and sensitivity must be used when introducing the idea of "reading for pleasure" so that it is not just taken as homework under another name.

As for the question of whether students would continue to read in English once the course was over, all but four students answered that they probably would (see Appendix, Figure 4). While the question is necessarily vague, it is at least indicative of their current attitudes and future intentions.

Beyond any statistical evidence, perhaps the most encouraging results of all came in the optional comments students were invited to add at the end of the questionnaire. Here is a small selection:

"Reading book in English is difficult but it is enjoyable" (sic).

"I think reading in English is very good way to progress our English ability" (sic).

"I hate reading, even Japanese too! But now I like to read English story better than before. If I didn't come to this course I didn't read any book" (sic).

Indeed, the only negative comment was from a student who felt that "reading class is useless to examination" (sic), confirming what has been said above about traditional high school English classes being too exam-oriented.

8. Conclusions

The overriding impression gained from the survey is that students do come to enjoy and benefit from free reading once given the chance. Hopefully, therefore, the more they read, the more enjoyment will be obtained, attitudes will improve, and learning will increase. After all, learners of all ages learn best when they are enjoying themselves.

Of course, the results of such a small survey cannot be taken as conclusive evidence. It must also be borne in mind that the students in this survey had all chosen to specialize in English, and can therefore be expected to have a higher degree of motivation than other high school students.

Despite these caveats, the survey is still useful as an indicator of general attitudes. Aside from learning to enjoy and benefit from reading, it also seems that once students develop the reading habit, they voluntarily go on to engage in reading tasks of their own choice, according to their interests. Furthermore, in many cases this reading habit will outlast their time at school and accompany students into adult life.

The Japanese education system, including English language teaching, is currently facing a period of inevitable change, reflecting the changes Japanese society as a whole is now embarking on. It is therefore an ideal moment for schools to start introducing extensive reading programmes, not as a substitute for teaching communicative competence but as an invaluable ally on the road to that goal. As Colin Davis (1995, cited in Mutoh, Bamford and Helgesen 1998), said: "Any ESL, EFL or L1 classroom will be poorer for the lack of an extensive reading programme of some kind and will be unable to promote its pupils' language development in all aspects as effectively as if such a programme were present."

Or, as the students in the Hijiyama survey indicated, without extensive reading, they may never have had the chance to discover the joys and benefits, linguistic, intellectual and emotional, that reading can bring.

As teachers, we have a responsibility to see that all our students get that chance.


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