Back to interview list

Marc Helgesen
Miyagi Gakuin Women's University, Sendai
Department of Intercultural Studies

Note: An interview* with Marc and Rob Waring about ER by Kim Bradford-Watts and Amanda Obrien also appeared in the same special TLT issue. Marc refers to that interview here, and there is probably some duplication of content.
*Bradford-Watts, K., & O'Brien, A. (2007). Interview with Rob Waring and Marc Helgesen on extensive reading. The Language Teacher, 31(5), 3-6.
Summary:

I asked Marc to start with a brief summary/overview of an ER program he’s involved with.
I use ER in a required reading class for 1st year students in our department. In class, we do various skill building tasks, with an emphasis on engaging texts leading students to new knowledge and experiences. We also send about three periods per term with SRAs. ER is done out of class, with a required minimum of 500 pages per term. Students write a short reaction report for each book. A choice of four different report forms provide variety  and hopefully appeal to different intelligences. Course grades are based primarily on how much students read.  Most books are in the school library, bought with my share of institutional library funds. Three teachers (1 Canadian, 1 Japanese, 1 American) teach different sections of the same course, all using basically the same program.

In my second year elective reading course the ER component is identical. In-class reading is mostly Internet-based. Depending on the year (and competing courses offered in the same time slot) 1/3 to 1/2 of eligible students sign up.

 
After receiving Marc’s summary, we progressed with a follow-up interview.

 You coordinate with other instructors in offering a relatively uniform approach to ER in all sections of a course. The others involved are part-time faculty. How did you approach bringing the other instructors on board and orienting them to the system, the reasoning behind it, etc.?
Background. We have 3 sections of 1st year reading offered through the Dept. of General Education, not our Dept. of International Studies (IS). Formerly, I taught two sections, with the third was taught by a full-time Japanese instructor using a traditional reading syllabus. Typically about half of eligible students go on to take the elective second year reading course. We found that 2nd year students who had the traditional curriculum during first year scored, on average, a full grade level (A-B-C) below those who had ER during first year. I was able to use that to get IS control of the syllabus for our students and institute a coordinated curriculum. Since I couldn’t teach all three sections, I invited interested part-time staff to join me in teaching the course. They were already comfortable with the idea of ER and it hasn’t been difficult to coordinate.

 
Would the other instructors be free to seriously alter the approach (e.g., making graded reading a purely optional or extra-credit activity), or is it more of a "This course is done this way" kind of thing?
Perhaps the fact that we are a fairly small department makes it easier. We really try to make sure everyone is listened to and is part of the program. But since just one other instructor, Brenda Hayashi,  and I are responsible for the communication part of the IS program, if we had a teacher who wasn't into ER, we would probably simply have him/her teach something else.

 
ER is probably unfamiliar to most students entering your class. Any key points about how you "sell" ER to students? Orientation? Explanation of purpose/goals? Getting them into the books, etc.?
On the first day of class, I do an orientation. I think it is essential that they understand the why and how of what we are doing. “Yeah, you're going to read >500 pages. No, it ain't like ‘reading’ in high school where you were responsible for every word,” etc. I bring in lots of sample books: love stories, biographies, manga, culture books. I want them to get that they can read the same way they read in Japanese—picking up whatever appeals to their interests and moods.


Is the homework for the course exclusively ER?
Sort of. They have to do >500 weighted pages (weighted for difficulty). They have a "Choose Your Own Grade" chart which shows how many pages they need for a given grade. But we also commit three class periods each term to SRA reading. If students want to, they can do extra SRAs outside of class for more points, but it is entirely their choice.


What results (types of language gains, student attitudes, awareness raising, etc.) are you particularly hoping for from your ER program?
I think attitudinal changes are really important—getting that they really can read English for pleasure. And we do see some (not as many as I would like) using English sources when working on their senior theses so that is important.

 
How has your program changed over the last 10 years?
From the Bradford-Watts interview:
Ten years ago, I was the only one in my department teaching reading. Now we have three teachers, (a Japanese, a Canadian and myself) doing extensive reading. I think the program is “tighter” (more coherent, integrated) now than it was 10 years ago. Since there are three of us, my thinking has to be more organized and I get their feedback, which is real important.

 Like before, we make first year reading required and second year reading elective. The elective, Reading 2, has evolved to include doing ER on the Internet. Among other things, we teach them how to find easy-to-read/understand websites. Students can take Reading 2 in years two through four, but we encourage them to take it in their second year so they get their reading ability up to a level where they can be using English for reading and research through their time in university..

 I mentioned before that students write short reports on books they have read. When I started, I only used the standard “summarize and give your opinion” style of report. I still use that but we now have three other report types—draw a picture and explain it; look though the book and write three questions about the pictures, then answer them as you read; and find parallels between the story and your own life. These are designed to appeal to different learning styles/ intelligences. And they give learners a choice and change of pace, which is always good.  Those forms, by the way, are available at <http://extensivereading.net/er/marcreports.html>.

On the "challenge" side, we do have some students who, frankly, wouldn't have gotten into MGU 10 years ago. So we have to make sure we have good lower-end books (and we have to watch for students copying each others’ reports, etc.) more than before. Not a huge problem but it exists.


Do you get a sense that some students actually latch onto this as a key, ongoing strategy for learning/enjoyment? Do you observe students continuing to do ER beyond the end of your 1st & 2nd year courses?
Some do. My grade chart maxes out at 1500 pages. I always have a few students who keep reading beyond that—they know they can't get above a 99% but they keep going. Just before summer break this year, a student in a 3rd year class brought in a "teen vogue" (or something like that) magazine she had found at Maruzen. So I know some do. I wish more did but at least some do.

You know how we always have certain groups of students who are just a delight to teach.  Some of them are becoming really well rounded English users. So reading is part of it. For example, one group recently asked me to teach them how to use the closed caption machine in the Language Lab, so they could watch videos (including some they brought themselves) with English subtitles. Wish we could clone them.

 
How do you see ER balancing/fitting in with the other English work the students are doing in your course and/or in other courses?
The general "I can actually USE English" attitude is part of it. In Reading 2, we do the Internet. I stress easy English sites on the web (e.g., culture stuff at yahooligans, kidsclick, etc. so they can read a lot and do research in the culture classes. I am still frustrated that so many don't since there is so much available in English but... again, some do.

 
Has the level of your students affected your decisions about whether and/or how to implement ER?
I don't think the level of the learners affects whether or not to do ER as much as it affects the books we buy. I do find myself getting more lower level books than I used to.


Your library has cooperated pretty well. Were there any keys to getting the collection into the library and supported by library staff? Did you start out bringing books to class, then changed to the library?
I was lucky that, from the start, the librarians were supportive. Initially, they wouldn't let me put the
"G-A-P" (good/average/poor) reader evaluation form in the books because, in the day when they used paper check out cards, you could figure out who had given a book a particular rating (so it was a privacy issue). I waited a few months and asked again, pointing out that after a book had been checked out multiple times, you could no longer figure out who wrote what. They agreed.

I've heard about librarians who treat the books as their personal property and really don't want students messing with them. At one university, librarians  would won't allow readers in the library because, “What would people think if they saw those easy books in a university library?” Our people aren't like that at all. I've been told they like our program "because IS students actually USE the library."

One factor that should be obvious to professors, but may not always be, is treating library staff with respect. That mutual respect is very true of my relationship with our librarians. They are real professionals, and I think the fact that they know I feel that way helps. For example, on the "privacy" issue I mentioned, my response was “Wow. That's great that someone is worried about the kids' privacy.” So, although I didn't initially get what I wanted, I totally respected their thinking.


As time has gone on, what have become your main criteria in selecting books for inclusion?
Again, I'm lucky since I don't have a budget problem (all IS teachers get ¥200,000/year for library books). The first couple of years, two or three of us pooled library budgets to stock the initial collection of readers in the library.

So now I buy some of almost everything that comes out. The books all get a G-A-P stamp on the inside cover. If a book fails to impress, it doesn't get checked out more than a couple times.


Any comments on the response you've had to your approach from other faculty, administration, library staff, etc.?
Initially, folks needed convincing and explaining. I recall, early on, being in the elevator with my dept. chair. I mentioned that the students were required to read 500 pages but the class average was something like 650. She replied, "Sugoi. 650 page yoyakushita?"  “No, they didn't translate anything. They just read” (and understood what they read.)


Was there a particular experience, article, presentation, epiphany, etc. that got you started with ER?
Back in 1984, Julian Bamford do a major piece (I think it was spread over 3 months) on ER in TLT. We had him come up and do a Sendai JALT gig as well. Sounded good. I was at a private English conversation school at the time, so we got the school to start a library.

Back to interview list