I asked Mat to start with a brief summary/overview of an ER program he’s involved with.
I employ ER in reading classes for 1st and 2nd year English majors and use graded readers in a mixture of ways. Initially, a class reader (recently Love Story) are used for discussion and assessment of appropriate starting levels. Students then independently select readers based on their self-assessment and check that they are truly comfortable at that level.
We then form reading discussion circles based on students’ self-selected levels. Graded readers for these group discussions are selected and purchased by students. Class time is usually divided something like this: 20 minutes for reading discussion circles, 45 minutes for SRA or other intensive reading, and 20-25 minutes for mini-lessons or review activities on vocabulary/predicting or other reading strategies, etc. Students usually read a graded reader or half of a graded reader each week, and then discuss the reader with their groups. Most extensive reading is done outside of class, although students do start reading in class if they’ve finished their intensive reading tasks or have some free time.
I do have a cart that I wheel into class for those who want to read more, and the cart stays outside my office. Many other teachers have asked if their students can borrow my books, which I allow. I haven’t kept track of how many books I’ve lost, but I get a lot of traffic outside my office. The books are getting lots of mileage. Some books are also available from the school library.
After receiving Mat’s summary, we progressed with a follow-up interview.
You mentioned that students select and purchase the graded readers for group discussion and read a graded reader or half of a graded reader each week to prepare for discussion. So your students are buying maybe 7-12 books per term or 14-24 books per year?
The books students purchase are the ones they read as a group. Often groups want to read the same readers, so I arrange for them to swap before I place an order. Usually students have to purchase 3 books each (including Love Story) the first semester, and about the same number the second semester. They read 1 book over 2 weeks, discussing the first half after the first week, and the second half after the second. When they read individual books, they borrow them from the library or my personal collection. I usually have them complete individual books in 1 week, as they don't need to spend as much time completing their role sheets or preparing to discuss them.
Can you tell me a bit more about these courses and how you ended up teaching them? Were you assigned to teach a reading course, or did you decide to teach “General English" courses as reading courses? Are they required courses? Year-long? Once-a-week?
I teach at two universities, Univ. A (2nd year English majors) and Univ. B (1st year English majors). They are officially reading courses and are required. I also had the option to teach oral communication courses in these time slots, but chose the reading courses. At both institutions, the course is a year-long course, but grades are posted each semester, and a few students who weren’t in class the first semester may appear in the second semester as “repeaters” from last year. The classes meet once a week for 90 minutes.
Do other students take the same course (same title, at least) from other instructors without an ER component, or do they all pass through your classroom?
I teach one section at Univ. B and two sections at Univ. A. Other students take the same course with other teachers. At Univ. A, the courses are much more tightly coordinated. Thanks to the program supervisor, everyone is on board about the need to teach extensive reading and is well versed in what extensive reading is. At Univ. B, all teachers are using both SRA labs and graded readers. However, some of the teachers at Univ. B are not using graded readers for extensive reading. Instead, these teachers assign or allow students to select from a list of Oxford Level 5 and 6 books, and the students read one book over the semester.
Could you go further into how you work with your first class reader? What reader(s)/level(s) do you usually choose? Is it the set "text" for the course, so everyone walks in with it the first day? Do you take a couple of weeks to read (at home) and discuss it (in class)? Do you use this to model your approach to reading circles?
This year I decided to go with Love Story (OUP Level 3) as the “set text” for the class (along with the SRA 3a students booklet), so everyone should come to class with those materials ready. It’s been my experience that the majority of incoming English majors at Univ. B. are at around this reading level, and in the past almost all the students have rated the book highly. At Univ. B, where I teach 2nd year students, I had the chance to meet with teachers who worked with these students in their first year, and ask about reading levels, interests, etc. A few students will find this level of book a bit difficult for ER purposes and will choose to read OUP level 2 or equivalents from other publishers. A few others will find the level too easy, and choose an OUP level 4, etc. (I do provide them with a chart, from Tina Ferrato, indicating how level systems from various publishers match, but I do not use her color coding system.)
In the syllabus students are informed that the set text will be used to gauge their initial reading level and introduce reading circles. On the first day, in addition to a letter of introduction and an orientation to the SRA lab, students read pages 1 and 2“Satoko’s Reading Problem”from The ‘Why’ and ‘How’ of Using Graded Readers, by Rob Waring, as well as the “What is Extensive Reading?” section. I also introduce Roberta Welch’s chart on the differences between Intensive and Extensive Reading and point out that the SRA lab will be the main source of intensive reading for the class, while the graded readers, including a huge library cart containing my own personal mobile library, will be the extensive reading.
In class, I give them 10 minutes to begin silently reading Love Story. After 10 minutes, I ask them if they were finding more than 2-3 unknown words per page, whether they could read without using a dictionary, really understand what they were reading, etc. We also quickly calculate reading rate. If they weren’t reading at least 80 wpm, I suggest they might want to try reading at a lower level initially. I assign the remainder of the book for reading as homework to be completed by the following week, along with a book response sheet. The response sheet asks whether or not they enjoyed the book, what questions they had while reading the book, what their favorite scene from the book was, how long it took to read altogether, if they could read it comfortably without stopping to look up words, etc.
In the following class, students sit in groups and discuss the book and their answers to the questions. (I also play a scene or two from the movie). After students have discussed the book in small groups, I ask for hands as to how many enjoyed the book. I point out that we all have different tastes, and that’s why it’s good to have choices. Their second graded reader they select from my mobile cart or the library, and I remind them that the purpose is fluency and enjoyment. With this book, they further confirm their choice of reading level.
So students then form groups based on their perception of their current reading level?
Yes, once they’ve been introduced to distinctions between extensive and intensive reading and what constitutes the appropriate level, the students arrange themselves in groups according to levels. I limit groups to 4 members, as I want them to be able to actively discuss the books their group selects, and more than 4 makes it challenging, as the book discussions, usually covering half of a book, run for approximately 20 minutes.
How do groups select the books they'll purchase and read together?
I assign them the task of looking at on-line catalogs, however, even when I provide a detailed document for accessing on-line catalogs, few students seem to take the time to access them. Therefore, students end up using the printed catalogs in class to decide. Oxford has some really nice catalogs with the blurbs for each title included. My only issue with this has been the inclusion of books that are still not available. For example, Rabbit-proof Fence was selected by several groups, only to find it was unavailable.
Do reading groups ever get books from the school library, or is that just for extra, free reading?
Well, at Univ. A, they have an excellent support system for extensive reading and reading circles, and the library has 5 copies (or more) of each title, so some groups might be able to get their books from the library. However, I haven’t yet worked out procedures for students reserving books, so in order to assure that group members all have the books when they need them, I’ve had them purchase the books for the circles. Now, if the group reads the first half of a book and tells me they don’t like it, they have the option of trying to find 4 copies of another book in the library, dividing into pairs and reading another book together, or each selecting an individual reader to report back about. In this way, the library provides an important resource for the reading circles.
Are students pretty good about getting the reading circle tasks done? Do many groups struggle with laggard members?
In general, the students are really good about the circles. One or two circles might have a member who is absent or who has not put any effort into their role sheet, and this can be disappointing for them. However, students assess the members of their group, and the accountability is much higher as they realize it is up to them whether their circles are meaningful experiences or not.
Do groups stay together throughout course, or do they change periodically?
I’ve kept the groups together for a semester. In some cases, I’ve had personality clashes, and so I’ve allowed members to join other groups. This sometimes means 5 members in one group and three in another, which is okay because the connector passage roles can be covered by more than one person.
Do many students read beyond what's required for their group discussions? Any idea how much?
Well, some students report reading the same book 3 or 4 times so that they really know it well for discussion. Others read additional books simply because they like to read, and I bring a cart full of books that they can borrow from without any hassles.
You mentioned that you leave you book cart outside your office door. Do book cart users tend to be mostly your current or former students? Do you get a sense that some students latch onto this as a key, ongoing strategy for learning/enjoyment?
Many of my former students definitely have an affinity towards reading, and they do borrow books. My current students, whether they are in my reading class or oral communication classes come by to borrow materials. I do bring my cart of books to my oral communication classes at the beginning of the year, just before Golden Week, and at other times to remind them that they have this as an option, and that they need to be “stirring” their English (thanks to Tim Murphey for the great “stirring your English/7 year old scientist” story).
How did you purchase the books? Research funds? Book budget? Students contribute books they've bought for class?
For my own personal lending library, I started out buying back books at half-price from students at the end of the year. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to research funds, so it’s mainly been straight out of my pocket. When publishers have giveways/contests, etc., I jump in and try to get my students involved. I’ve even had other teachers who do have research budgets contribute.
The library has a fund, and I order books for the library. At Univ. B, the library currently has 5 copies of each of the OUP levels 4, 5, and 6. It also has individual copies of Penguin and Cambridge readers. However, what it really needs is a massive ordering of the lower levels. I also need to see about students being able to reserve books so they’ll be there when their groups need to check them out if I want to eliminate the need for students to purchase books.
A few more general questions:
What are the central results (types of language gains, student attitudes, awareness raising, etc.) you're hoping for from your ER program?
First and foremost, I really want my students to enjoy reading in English. From surveys at the beginning of the year, many come in with a negative attitude about reading. Fortunately, at the end of the first semester, students have very positive attitudes about the reading circles and reading in general. I feel it’s really important for them to recognize the value of both extensive and intensive reading. They complete SRA work as well, so they can see progress in their reading speed and comprehension, but I haven’t had time to research gains according to the amount of time students spend on each component. Students report that they’ve made gains in reading speed on graded readers because they’re able to finish them in less time. Discussing the books also allows them to get a much deeper understanding of the stories and their underlying themes and messages, as well as a chance to check pronunciation of words and names.
How does ER balance or fit in with the other English work the students are doing in your course and/or in other courses?
At Univ. B, students are exposed to quite a lot of unsimplified texts in their oral communication and content-based courses, so I think that along with the SRA labs, the ER provides an excellent balance. At Univ. A, I’m not sure if the students are getting much of the non-fiction or other genres. I’m also introducing the students to articles at breakingnewsEnglish.com (which come in easy and hard versions), English manga, and as much variety as I can.
Any key points about how you "sell" ER and associated activity to students? Orientation? Explanation of purpose/goals? Getting them into the books, etc.
Beyond what I’ve said earlier, I think starting with a good story is a key point. I sell most of them with Love Story. I really need to work on helping students find good books. Sometimes the way students rate books can be misleading, they might give it a low score even though they really enjoyed it, simply because it had a sad ending. I’m still working on how to provide students with information on the readers they’re most likely to enjoy.
Any more comments on how you explicitly explain the differences between intensive and extensive reading?
As I said, students read a section from Waring’s OUP publication, and we complete a chart on the board together as a class, as well as reading a newspaper article on the subject which we discuss.
Do you have a method for monitoring student work with ER (short reports, reading logs, etc.)?
Students complete role sheets for their book discussion circles or very brief book response sheets for individually read readers.
How much of the homework load for the course is ER?
Homework load is a major concern. Since I have the students completing discussion role sheets, I try not to overload them. They report spending anywhere from 40 minutes to two hour a week reading (sometimes repeated readings) and about 20 to 30 minutes completing the related discussion role sheets.
What's your perception of how things are going? Any more comments on student response, progress/benefits, attitudes, etc.?
Overall, I think things are fantastic. I need to provide a little more variety in genres, such as the articles at breakingnewsenglish.com, and I do find that a class reader every once in a while provides a nice change and helps more students get to know each other. I like to do these with short stories. I do have some students who ask to read books other than graded readers, such as Harry Potter, etc. I haven’t included this yet, but I may use small sections from such books as class readers in the future.
Was there a particular experience, article, presentation, epiphany, etc. that got you started with ER?
I remember attending Rob Waring’s workshop on Extensive reading and the ER colloquiums at JALT. Also, Mark Furr’s article on Reading Circles from TESOL Arabia really had a powerful impact on my implementing the discussion circles.
How long have you been doing ER? What are the main ways your work with ER has evolved? Reasons for those changes?
I started doing ER in 1999, but that was at a very small school with a very small budget. I also introduced ER to some company classes before I started working exclusively at the university level. The major change in my ER program has been the introduction of reading circles, sparked by Mark Furr’s article in TESOL Arabia.
The major evolution is the alternation between individually read books and books read by pairs or groups of four. It’s important for students to learn to dig a little deeper into the motivation of the characters and authors at times, and this is best done when they students have a class reader or common reader among the members of their group. However, students also enjoy the natural information gaps that occur from reading different books and sharing about them, and yes, it’s nice to choose a book solely for yourself sometimes. I guess the variation is part of what seems to make extensive reading go so well for me. Students got a little bored with readers in the past when they never had the opportunity to discuss them in detail. It also helps to model with them on digging a little deeper by using a class reader at times.
Anyone else in your department/school doing ER? Any cooperation there?
At Univ. A, everyone is doing ER. Several colleagues at Univ. B are doing ER, but it’s still not fully appreciated. Some teachers are not implementing extensive reading at all. They simply assign students all to read the same two graded readers over the semester, half the class reading each book and then swapping half way through the semester.
Any comments on response you've had to your approach from other faculty, administration, library staff, etc.?
I’ve had a few teachers begin extensive reading after talking with me. I’ve also had positive reactions from the library staff about an increase in the number of books checked out, which is one of the ways libraries are rated. Literature teachers have been excited that the students have some knowledge of the authors and texts, as graded readers provide nice scaffolding for further studies.
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