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Five Factors to Consider in Implementing a University Extensive Reading Program
(Expanded version)

Ken Schmidt--Tohoku Fukushi University, Sendai

Among the many factors affecting the shape and success of an extensive reading (ER) program, five featured prominently in interviews with eight ER practitioners at universities in Japan: 1) Convictions regarding language learning, especially in regards to amounts of comprehended input needed and the role of independent reading (and listening) in relation to other learning activities. 2) Defining desired learning and attitudinal outcomes and setting reading targets and tasks appropriately. 3) Adapting the approach to ER for student attitudes, interests, abilities, and goals. 4) Effective introduction of an easily understood ER program, with ongoing support and personal follow-up.
5) Developing reading communities, in- and out-of-class.

Abstract (Japanese)


Over the last 20+ years, extensive reading (ER) in English has become increasingly popular at universities in Japan as EFL instructors have discovered its benefits in the areas of...

  • language acquisition & fluency development
  • reading speed & comprehension,
  • motivation
  • sustainability as an enjoyable route to learning and personal growth
    (see Day & Bamford, 1998, 2000; Jacobs et al., 2006; Krashen, 2004; Waring, 2006).

This spread has been facilitated by the freedom enjoyed by many university faculty in Japan. Whether teaching "General English" for non-English majors or specific courses within a structured language curriculum, instructors often have considerable latitude in course design and frequently have access to discretionary research/library funds for purchasing reading materials. As individual instructors have caught the ER bug and begun offering ER opportunities to their own students, the benefits and favorable responses have often led to other colleagues joining in, special departmental/school support becoming available, and, in some cases, ER being formalized as a department- or program-wide initiative.

*Note: Those new to ER may, at this point, want to take a quick look at these Appendices (below):
1 - Suggested References
2 - Common Components of an ER Program.

Hoping to gain insight into effective ER implementation, I interviewed eight experienced practitioners about their work with ER. Although many factors affect the shape and success of an ER program (Day & Bamford, 1998), five that featured prominently in the interviews are introduced here.

1. Convictions regarding language learning
Convictions regarding language learning can greatly affect the role of ER in a course. Most ER practitioners would agree on the necessity of massive amounts of comprehended input for timely progress toward significant language gains and fluent use, and that interesting, level-appropriate, context-rich materials--such as graded readers--are enjoyable, sustainable ways to get this input.

Some (Krashen, 2003; Mason & Krashen, 1997) hold that ER and EL (extensive listening) are optimal activities for timely acquisition and suggest that once they are able to read and listen to the simplest of materials, there is little sense in elementary to intermediate level students spending large amounts of time on anything but ER & EL.

Two interviewees have largely taken this approach. Beniko Mason's English course for pre-elementary education majors at Shitennoji International Buddhist University consists mostly of in-class story-listening (EL) with out-of-class ER. Originally assigned to teach a conversation course, she persuaded the department that what these low level learners most needed was massive comprehended input (personal communication, July 26, 2006). Kunihide Sakai (personal communication, July 1, 2006), at Denki-Tsushin University was also so impressed with the effects of ER that he has, for years, devoted his general English courses almost entirely to self-selected reading, in- and out-of-class. Both instructors have been pleased with student response and progress (see Mason, 2006; (Sakai & Kanda, 2005).

Others (Coady, 1997; R. Waring & Nation, 2004)hold that although incidental learning through ER and EL is very important, it can be a slow process, particularly when meeting unfamiliar language. They suggest that direct attention to high frequency language features, such as lexis, syntax, and discourse, as well as work with reading, listening, and learning strategies, in combination with the repeated exposure and practice provided by ER and EL, can yield more efficient progress. Many, in fact, see ER and EL as ideal complements to almost any kind of language study, as they potentially provide the breadth of exposure and depth of knowledge necessary to integrate studied material into the learner's growing sense of the language (Waring, 2006).

Two examples of this approach are Tracy Cramer's reading/writing course at Kansai Gaidai University (personal communication, July 2, 2006), and Mathew White's reading course at Nanzan University (personal communication, June 29, 2006). In both courses, in-class intensive study and communication, and out-of-class ER are mutually reinforcing. ER notebooks also provide Cramer's students with practice in summary and response writing, as well as opportunities to communicate with him through on-going written dialog. Both instructors also observe enthusiastic interaction in their students' Reading Circles (see Furr, 2007) and the motivating effect this, in turn, has on attitudes toward books and ER.

A large factor in the debate regarding extensive input only vs. focused attention plus extensive input is efficiency. Waring and Nation (2004) would argue that it can be more efficient to quickly build an initial understanding of unfamiliar lexis, syntax, etc. through direct attention, which can then be deepened and expanded through repeated meetings in the course of extensive ER and EL. Mason and Krashen (2004), however, might claim that such focused study can be far more cumbersome, less enjoyable, and, in the end, less efficient than a more purely input-centered approach.

In practice however, these approaches do not exist as distinct endpoints. Differences are more a matter of varying emphases on different aspects of language and different learning activities at different points in a learner's development. Rather than trying to resolve this issue, the point here is that as we plan a course and ER's place in it, an informed set of convictions on language learning and the interplay between types of learning and learning activities can help guide our attempts to meet our students' needs through the most appropriate mix of ER/EL, intensive study, and output-oriented activities. And our perceptions can change as we gain experience, conduct research and follow the literature.

2. Desired learning and attitudinal outcomes
Desired outcomes also influence program design. Instructors targeting observable gains within a school year typically ask students to read at least a book per week (Nation & Wang, 1999), and most interviewees set goals in the range of 500-1000 pages or 15-30 books per semester. This can be particularly appropriate for (but not limited to) English majors or students in elective English courses, whose enrollment indicates a desire to improve their English. Julian Bamford (personal communication, June 30, 2006), at Bunkyo University Shonan, for example, requires students in his How to learn a language seminar to read and discuss two books each week.

The potential for gains is especially exciting when students can continue ER with course support over multiple years (Hill, 2001). Marc Helgesen (personal communication, July 25, 2006) at Miyagi Gakuin Women's University and Kunihide Sakai both see over 50% of their students in first-year, required courses sign up for further ER electives. Department-wide programs at Chukyo and Tezukayama Gakuin Universities require two years of ER, with the option of a third at Chukyo (Morrison & White, 2003).

Some instructors teaching required courses for non-language majors reduce reading targets to what they believe they can reasonably ask of students (e.g., 100-300 pages per semester)--possibly calling this graded reading (GR) rather than ER because of the lower quantities. "Positive" outcomes may range from students...

  • overcoming initial resistance and reading more, with greater enjoyment than expected, to...
  • identifying ER as a useful strategy for current or future independent learning, or even...
  • getting hooked on ER, reading well beyond targets, and continuing beyond course end.

For example, in a required one-semester speaking course at Tokai University, Tina Ferrato (personal communication, June 27, 2006) asked students to read at least five books. Offering a clear rationale and procedure for GR, classroom access to easy, engaging books, and a supportive, low pressure environment, she hoped to provide at least a reasonable chance for students to get hooked on easy reading in English, participate in a vital reading community and move on to truly extensive reading. To her pleasure, most students voluntarily read 10-20 books, well beyond requirements.

This type of GR (vs. ER) approach can also be a workable compromise for a variety of language courses in which theme-related homework makes aggressive ER requirements impractical, or when another, concurrent course is focused on ER. Beyond providing general input and a significant taste of easy reading, GR can support the course theme--for example, as a springboard to writing, a source of stories for sharing in conversation class, or as background to course content (e.g., British life & culture).

Targeted outcomes for ER/GR should not be limited to the course term. For example, consider again the case of non-English majors. At universities in Japan, many of these students have English class once or twice a week for 1-2 years. This can yield some gains, but typically not major steps toward fluency. Students who do eventually make such gains largely get there on their own, by taking advantage of outside/independent learning opportunities. Alerting our students to powerful strategies and opportunities (e.g., ER & EL), helping them get a significant taste of these, and giving them a clear idea of how to proceed can contribute to a sense of self-empowerment and yield benefits far beyond anything accomplished in class. Facilitating independent student learning in this way can be an instructor's most important contribution (Deckert, 2006).

As a final note in this section, several instructors expressed a desire that their students could come to think of picking up and reading an English book as simply another option for learning and enjoyment--no more strange or exceptional than reading a Japanese book: "This looks interesting. Think I'll read it."

3. Understanding and adapting for students
As is apparent in the preceding sections, many interviewee comments highlighted the need to consider and adjust for student attitudes, interests, abilities, and goals. Another example is that, unlike his seminar course, Bamford's general English courses in the Information Systems Dept. do not include a formal ER component. These students generally display little interest in English or in reading, even in Japanese. Bamford finds English music and DVDs more involving for students in class, and popular for borrowing from his multimedia library (Bamford, 1998). However, he tries to stay alert to student attitudes, and gladly guides interested students to his graded reader library.

Also focusing on student attitudes, both Sakai and Mason, in introducing their courses, acknowledge the feelings of failure and alienation that many students associate with language study. They then offer a different path--input-oriented ER and EL--that should help many to leave failure behind and move forward with greater enjoyment and success. Symbolic of this new start, Sakai's students all begin with wordless picture books before progressing. Accepting their reluctance to study English, he maximizes in-class reading opportunities, while encouraging voluntary out-of-class reading. Mason, on the other hand, targets 1,000 pages of out-of-class reading per semester (with general success), and employs a mix of in-depth orientation (including rationale, research results and student testimonials) (Mason, 1999), ongoing encouragement, and evidence of their own improvement to persuade students that ER is in their best interests and worth the effort.

So we have seen several ways in which instructors take their students into account in implementing ER. In some cases, instructors depend on students' existing motivation and interest, offering ER as a way forward consistent with their interests and goals. In others, students with varying interests and agendas may be required to read just enough to get their feet wet and raise awareness of this learning strategy, with the hope that some will latch onto it as a key part of their own journey with English. Finally, understanding students' learning histories and failures/frustrations can lead to presenting ER as a new, rewarding way forward, free of some of the old baggage.

4. Introduction & follow-up
All eight practitioners stressed the importance of clearly introducing ER's key characteristics (a lot of easy, enjoyable reading with little or no dictionary use), how it differs from intensive reading or grammar-translation, and its potential benefits (possibly including research results and student testimonials). Assuming that students will get it is impractical because ER is unlikely to have been a key part of the students' L2 or (increasingly) L1 backgrounds, and will rarely match their idea of serious study. On the other hand, the newness of ER may be turned to advantage by offering it as a missing link in students' past study, or a new way forward. Such an introduction recognizes students as thinking adults and provides them the opportunity to independently choose for the strategy--to make it their own.

Several instructors emphasized presenting a simple system and avoiding excessive reading-associated tasks which may detract from the main thrust of lots of enjoyable reading. Tasks can be limited to those that contribute sufficiently to course goals to be worth the load (e.g., preparing responses to share with a reading circle) and the minimum record-keeping and proofs (reports, quizzes) necessary to track student reading and award credit.

Quickly getting books into students' hands also contributes to a good start. Cramer's students begin with an in-class, timed reading of the Elephant Man (Vicary, 2000) and viewing of scenes from the film. This offers students a first taste of the pleasures of ER, establishes it as an important activity worth class time, and helps them gauge an appropriate starting level for independent reading. White similarly uses Love Story (Segal, 2000) to give students a first taste of graded reading, help them gauge an appropriate starting level and introduce Reading Circles. See (Bamford & Day, 2004) for other "getting started" ideas and activities.

Beyond the program introduction, Clive Lovelock (personal communication, September 14, 2006) at Tezukayama Gakuin University, Osaka spoke for many in emphasizing ongoing, individual consultation and guidance:

  • discussing what students have read and reported
  • looking at progress and goals
  • identifying possibilities for future reading.

This can be critical in helping students maintain momentum and a sense of purpose in their reading. Measuring progress through periodic assessment (e.g., a pre-test followed by tests at the end of each semester or as students feel ready) can also affirm the practical value of their ER efforts and contribute to feelings of success and motivation.

5. Developing a reading community
While some students quickly latch onto ER as their strategy, others warm to it more gradually, with the support of community. This begins with the instructor playing the dual roles of facilitator and fellow reader. Ideally, instructors regularly talks about their own reading, speak with students about theirs (showing genuine interest), and facilitates student exchange through Reading Circles, sharing recommendations, or chatting during browsing time. See (Bamford & Day, 2004) for many classroom activities. Although all the interviewees have GR collections in their school libraries, most also make books available in the classroom. This eases access for busy or forgetful students and affirms reading as a big part of what we do here together. These shared reading experiences, the rewarding interaction they allow, and the sense of doing something together with real, meaningful benefit contribute greatly to developing a positive reading community.

Having a library in one's own office can also be a boon. Students can drop by to borrow and talk about books, and a weekly lunchtime book hour provides an especially good chance for community building. A great advantage of this community is its open-ended nature--students do not have to leave at course end. They can continue enjoying the reading and companionship throughout their time at university, enhancing the chances for impressive language gains. This also allows instructors to encourage students and monitor progress over a longer period. Developing such a community may take time (Ferrato's lunch-time book community took about three years to gel), but can pay large dividends.

Final remarks
Helping students access the large amounts of engaging, level-appropriate input needed for timely, impressive language gains should be on the agenda of all language educators. Fortunately, many university EFL instructors in Japan have the freedom and resources available to begin offering ER opportunities to their own students, with the potential for future, cooperative development on a larger-scale. An informed, evolving understanding of language learning, learning activities and students is crucial when planning an ER program and the role it will take in a course or curriculum. Consideration of the five points discussed here should be part of any such endeavor.

Several points deserve brief comment:

  • ER nomenclature can be confusing. Some would say that ER should only be applied to cases where students read a lot (typically more than 4-500 pages per semester), and that less than that should be more properly called graded reading (GR), if graded readers are being used. Others feel that as long as the opportunity for extensive reading  is exists, ER is acceptable. Another term, Free Voluntary Reading (FVR), has been popularized by Krashen (2004) and suggests completely self-selected reading with voluntary participation.

  • Paying for books can be a considerable issue, particularly for adjunct faculty. Many full-time faculty begin with research funds. Then, after gaining experience, adjusting program design and sharing ideas with colleagues, they may request library or departmental/institutional funds. Another approach is to set readers as the course text. Students pay a materials fee which the instructor uses to purchase readers; or students buy readers directly, then share amongst themselves. At year-end the instructor may then give students the option of contributing books to a growing library.

  • Several practitioners suggested starting small, while thinking big. They began with their own classes, let people know what they were doing, and shared the results they observed. Then as they gained experience, word spread and interest developed, cooperation with other staff, coordinated training and development of wider-ranging facilities and/or programs became possible. On the other hand, some large programs have been developed in top-down fashion, as well--Let's start an ER program in our department.

Bamford, J. (1998). Setting up a library of English-language movies. The Language Teacher, 22(8), 17-20.

Bamford, J., & Day, R. (Eds.). (2004). Extensive reading activities for language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge Unversity Press.

Coady, J. (1997). L2 vocabulary acquisition: A synthesis of the research. In J. Coady & T. Huckin (Eds.), Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition (pp. 273-290). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

Day, R., & Bamford, J. (2000). Reaching reluctant readers. English Teaching Forum, 38(3), 12-17.

Deckert, G. (2006). What helped highly proficient EFL learners the most? TESL Reporter, 39(2),

Furr, M. (2007). Reading circles: Moving great stories from the periphery of the language classroom to its centre. The Language Teacher, 31(5), 15-18.

Furukawa, A. (2006). SSS extensive reading method proves effective way to learn English. Retrieved April 24, 2006, from

Hill, D. R. (2001). Survey: Graded readers. ELT Journal, 55(3), 300-324.

Jacobs, G. M., Renandya, W. A., Bamford, J., Robb, T. N., Chau, M. H., & Waring, R. (2006). Annotated bibliography of works on extensive reading in a second language. Retrieved September 7, 2006, from

Krashen, S. D. (2003). Explorations in language acquisition and use: The Taipei lectures. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Krashen, S. D. (2004). The power of reading: Insights from the research (2nd ed.): Libraries Unlimited.

Mason, B. (2006). Articles. Retrieved September 23, 2006, from

Mason, B. (2005, June). Extensive Reading; Why do it, how to do it, how not to do it. ELT NEWS, June.

Mason, B. (1999). Before starting an extensive reading course. Retrieved September 29, 2006, from

Mason, B., & Krashen, S. (2004). Is form-focused vocabulary instruction worth while? RELC Journal, 35(2), 179-185.

Mason, B., & Krashen, S. (1997). Extensive reading in English as a foreign language. System, 25(1), 91-102.

Morrison, R., & White, M. (2003, November 22). Extensive reading in practice: Building a reading community at Chukyo University. Paper presented at the JALT2003, Shizuoka, Japan.

Nation, P., & Wang, K. M. (1999). Graded readers and vocabulary. Reading in a Foreign Language, 12(2), 355-380.

Sakai, K., & Kanda, M. (2005). Reading one million words in the classroom. Tokyo: Taishukan Shoten.

Segal, E. (retold by Border, R.) (2000). Love Story. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Vicary, T. (2000). The Elephant Man. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Waring, R. (2000). Guide to the 'why' and 'how' of using graded readers. Tokyo: Oxford University Press.

Waring, R. (2005). Extensive reading resources page. Retrieved September 7, 2006, from

Waring, R. (2006). Why extensive reading should be an indispensable part of all language programs. The Language Teacher, 30(7), 44-47.

Waring, R., & Nation, P. (2004). Second language reading and incidental vocabulary learning. In D. Albrechtsen, K. Haastrup & B. Henriksen (Eds.), ANGLES on the English Speaking World, Volume IV: Writing and Vocabulary in Foreign Language Acquisition (pp. 97-110). Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press.

Waring, R. e. (1997). Special issue: Extensive reading. The Language Teacher, 21(5).

Appendix 1--Suggested References
Whether starting a new program or reviewing/evaluating an existing one, an important step is finding out what other people are doing and how their approaches and reasoning resonate with one's own situation. Here a few highlights from the wealth of sources on structuring and running extensive reading programs that are available:

  • A good place to start is Rob Waring's (2000) Guide to the 'why' and 'how' of using graded readers. Also see his recent article in The Language Teacher (Waring, 2006) and his online Extensive reading resources page (Waring, 2005).
  • The original, 1997 TLT special issue on ER offers articles by leaders in the field, several giving specific examples and recommendations for structuring a program (Waring, 1997).
  • Add these invaluable resources to your library: Extensive reading in the second language classroom (Day & Bamford, 1998) and Extensive reading activities for language teaching (Bamford & Day, 2004).
  • Stop by The Extensive Reading Pages website <>. Browse through Starting an ER program, Model Programs, Presentation Handouts, Online Articles, and especially the Annotated Bibliography's "How to" category.
  • Also be sure to get needed perspectives from Beniko Mason (Mason, 2005) and Akio Furukawa (Furukawa, 2006), and visit their respective websites:
    <> & <>
  • Also see the list of references for this article.

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Appendix 2--Common Components of an ER Program
Anyone going reading through these sources quickly sees that the design, scope and even goals of ER/GR programs can vary widely--as one would expect from a diverse group of educators applying their own convictions about learning to widely varying groups of students and teaching contexts. Despite the variation, many programs include these basic elements in some form:

Graded reader collection

Available in library, resource room, teacher's office, classroom, or combination. Colored seals or chart to indicate "difficulty" levels. May include companion audio materials. Some programs also/alternately include children's and/or juvenile literature for an L1 audience.

System/ procedure

Includes borrowing procedure, reading targets (# of books/pages/words read), record of books completed and ancillary data (publisher, "points," time, difficulty/enjoyment rating, etc.), post-reading task(s) to demonstrate completion and/or pursue related learning goals (short report, response notebook, quiz, interview). Many instructors prefer to minimize post-reading tasks whenever possible.

Student orientation

Introduction includes explaining why & how of ER/GR, assessing appropriate starting level, introducing students to books, explaining system/procedure, etc.

In-class activities

Include organized reading circles, sharing recommendations and stories, chatting about reading during browsing time, consulting with instructor, etc.

Action research

Including questionnaires on student response, likes/dislikes, suggestions. Possibly includes "before & after" or ongoing assessment to measure gains and help students gauge progress.

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