JALT 2002, Workshop #271, Extensive Reading in Practice, Ken Schmidt

Implementing Independent Reading
in a Self-Access Program


Our English staff at Tohoku Bunka Gakuen University in Sendai is responsible for providing English instruction to students from six departments in technology, policy management, rehabilitation, and social work. Through the 1999-2000 school year, most of these courses were offered as traditional, teacher fronted classes emphasizing English communication skills.

In some departments, English levels were generally sufficiently similar and motivation levels sufficiently high to make the classes easily manageable for teachers and profitable for students. However, in several departments, huge ranges in motivation and English level, along with interpersonal issues made classes difficult to manage, and of questionable value to many students.

At about that time, we began discussions with the English staff at Sendai University, who had implemented a self-access scheme to address similar issues. Starting with their basic structure, we have developed supported self-access English courses allowing students to study independently at appropriate levels, with immediate access to support from staff. During class periods, students select and complete learning tasks in any of these areas:

Each task successfully completed earns points toward goals set for each course grade (A, B, C).

Independent/Extensive Reading Component

Students can also earn points outside of class time by completing writing tasks and doing independent/extensive reading using graded readers from our school library. Minimum reading requirements are small (50 points, 1 page = 1 point). But the opportunity for extensive reading is there, and students can earn a large number of points—up to half of the minimum required total for the course (500 pages in a year).


During the course orientation, we explain extensive reading, its potential benefits, and how to do it. Students are then given an Extensive Reading-First Steps assignment which directs them to find the readers in the library, locate a few titles that look interesting, and arrange an interview with a staff member. At the interview, several students and a teacher speak briefly about the titles the students selected, and the teacher encourages them to pursue extensive reading as an important and enjoyable path to increasing language skills.

Our collection of graded readers consists of around 800 books, conveniently located in a bookcase immediately inside the library entrance. This keeps them in the students’ eye, and makes it easy for our staff to check on circulation levels. Each book has colored seals on the front cover and spine indicating difficulty level. A number on each seal shows the number of reading pages in the book (minus illustrations, comprehension questions, etc.). A “T” mark on a seal indicates that an audio tape is available at the front desk. Student can listen and read along using media stations in the library. Borrowing is handled through the regular library circulation system.

After reading a book, participants write a short report, including a one to two sentence summary and three to six sentence response. Intended to take around 10 minutes, it can be completed in Japanese or English. Students then schedule a brief interview with an instructor on posted sign-up sheets. At the interview, student and teacher chat (in English or Japanese) about the book and the student’s response to it. The main purpose is to ensure that the student has actually read the book, and give instructors and students a chance for interesting personal contact that can be lost in a self-access scheme. Up to three books can be discussed at a single interview.

Response to Self Access Program

Overall, response to the self access courses has been very positive. Advanced students can push themselves with more challenging tasks for higher points, while even the lowest level students can find appropriate, interesting materials to work with. When we offered our top scorers in an English 1 class a choice of continuing exclusively with self access or a mix of oral communication classes and self access in English 2, 17 of 21 respondents chose exclusive self access. Also attractive is that it is clear to students that they must earn their grades. They can’t just occupy a chair and hope the instructor grades generously. If they miss the minimum target, they have to continue working in the next term till making up the shortfall.

Numerous shortcomings remain, but the program marks a significant step up from our previous situation, and ongoing changes should bring further improvements.

Response to Independent/Extensive Reading

Response to out-of-class, independent reading, on the other hand, has been disappointing. In our first year using self access in an English 1 Course for Applied Information Engineering and Environmental Planning majors, we required no minimum number of points from independent reading, and only 10% of students participated, reading an average of 139 pages over the school year. This year in the same course, with a 50 page minimum in place, again only 10% of students have participated, so far. This figure should increase dramatically over the last three months of the term, but it does indicate, that with our present approach, the “natural” participation level among students is about 10%.

Reasons for Disappointing Response

We have not yet surveyed students on this point, but suspect these are some of the reasons involved:

Ideas for Improving Response

A central theme of our self access courses is “choice.” Students must spread their points among several areas, but are basically free to emphasize areas they value or enjoy most. We hope to expose students to a number of useful ways to improve their English skills, including extensive reading, and we hope that some students adopt extensive reading as a long term part of their English studies. However, our staff is hesitant to demand that these non-English majors read enough to qualify as “extensive readers.”

However, we are considering these ideas for encouraging more students to read, and read more:

We also may eventually modify our position on choice and raise minimum page levels for independent reading. Other reading courses we offer demand at least 100–150 pages per term with little difficulty.

Ken Schmidt
Tohoku Bunka Gakuen University

JALT 2002
Presentation # 271
Extensive Reading in Practice
Shizuoka, Japan