The Internet TESL Journal

An Extensive Reading Program for Your ESL Classroom

Mary Clarity
Victoria University of Wellington (Wellington, New Zealand)


Frank Smith may have thought he was stating the obvious in 1975 when he uttered a statement almost prophetic in its simplicity: “We do learn to read by reading”. (cited in Smith & Elley 1997) Certainly, research has confirmed that extensive reading is beneficial to the learners in terms of increasing print exposure (West and Stanovich; 1989), writing ability (Tsang: 1996), receptive and productive skills (Elley and Mangubhai: 1983) and vocabulary acquisition (though numbers vary widely; see Krashen 1993; Horst 1998; Laufer 2003 for some very different and interesting discussions). A strong empirical base has formed around extensive reading, but from personal experience (both my own and other teachers) it is not utilised as a standard part of general ESL curriculum.  Below lies an implementation plan that teachers can use to kick start the reading in their classroom.

What is Extensive Reading?

Simply, extensive reading is reading a lot. It is also reading for pleasure. Extensive reading should be at a comfortable “easy” level for the student and the main goal is to read. They should not be reaching for a dictionary every sentence or even every paragraph. The goal is to create fluency and enjoyment in the reading process. Finally, extensive reading is something that should take place over a sustained period. Studies which have shown very impressive results are studies which have devoted a serious amount of time to an extensive reading programme. (Elley  & Mangubhai: 1981)

This last point leads into issues associated with the implementation of extensive reading. Extensive reading is not a quick fix. It is not a band-aid over something unforeseen which crops up in class. Instead, it is something which will reveal its benefits slowly, and in a variety of ways.

The Context

The learners in my experience who would strongly benefit from an extensive reading programme are adult immigrant learners in an ESL context. Despite living in an English speaking country, they primarily interact within their ethnic and cultural communities. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the time spent in community classes is the majority of time they spend speaking English. An extensive reading programme appeals to me as their teacher for a variety of reasons.

Implementation Plan

Orientation to Extensive Reading

Students, teachers and the administration need to be introduced to what you plan to do in class. If other teachers are to be involved they must be positive about the program. Having the administration of your school / class on board is also important. If books are needed they administration could help supply the need, and if this isn’t possible investigating local libraries or literacy societies is always useful.

Find Learner Level

Choose a series of graded readers which will match all the levels in your class. Ensure enough interesting books match each level.

Teacher / Learner / Text Interaction

The teacher must be positive about books and their own experience with reading; books should be introduced to the learners and displayed attractively; learner choice should always be guided by level and learner interest.

Read in Class

The teacher models and reads with students in class. This time should be relaxing, and the focus is on reading (not vocabulary or answering questions about the book.)

Ensure Purpose

Is the reading time enjoyable? Are there other activities in class which promote reading i.e. having a ‘one book a week’ goal, putting opinion slips in books for students to fill out, having linked discussion activities related to their reading material, announcing student voted book awards etc.


In class introduce strategies which will help with their reading such as fluency and vocabulary techniques. A library orientation at the school or community library would be a valuable lesson and finally, ensuring that the students progress through the graded reader levels is always motivating.

Success, Confidence and Increased Proficiency

The result of a good implementation plan for extensive reading should be greater student autonomy. They should have the skills, knowledge and resources to strike out on their own.

Dilemmas, Attitudes and Resolutions

It is important to be conscious of issues that may arise when implementing an extensive reading programme. While every context varies, the following are important considerations which are necessary for any teacher, or proponent of extensive reading, to be aware of.

1.  Problem: Reading Books Is “Too Hard”

Firstly, teachers may avoid asking students to read books because the learner’s vocabulary is low. This, however, leads to a vicious cycle whereby learners do not have enough vocabulary to read, but there is not enough reading in order for learners to learn more words. As a consequence, students rarely associate reading with an enjoyable activity. Reading is viewed as ‘too difficult’, and texts they are given are often unimaginative and not conducive to enticing learners to read for pleasure (take a look at any low level course book and the reading passages there).


By using graded readers that have been chosen to match the reader’s level, reading will no longer be viewed as a difficult task, and will help in building the reader’s confidence. Graded come in multiple levels readers (Oxford and Cambridge have excellent choices and levels), with many different books at each level. This gives the students a lot of choice, and importantly, the ability to engage in English at the level perfect to them as individuals. The book can match the learner rather than the class, and for learners on either extreme of the reading ability in the class, this has got to be good news. Those who are bored with ‘easy’ class material can stretch themselves, and those who struggle can finally read without relying exclusively on translations. The reading material should consist of 98% known vocabulary (Nation & Hu: 2000), and focus is on meaning rather than language. This means that only 2 out of 100 words should be unknown to the reader. More than that and the reading can become work and not pleasure.

2.  Problem: Reading Is Not Valued

If reading is not valued in the learner’s own culture, if they don’t have they skills to read in their own language, or if they simply don’t enjoy reading, then these are major problems which are going to effect the successful implementation of a reading programme.


Number one of Ray Williams (1986) ‘Top ten’ principles for teaching reading is that “In the absence of interesting texts, very little is possible.” In saying that, just buying books is not enough either. The books should be attractive, interesting, within the learners capabilities, displayed prominently, and discussed. Some students, especially those who feel as though time spent on extensive reading is ‘doing nothing’, will also need some outcome-based reasons for participating actively. With a class of immigrant adult learners in mind, I have a list of potential persuasions below, with both reference to research and my learners’ specific situation.

3.  Problem: Time

The final issue I see as being a stumbling block to the implementation of extensive reading is that of time, or the illusion of time. By ‘illusion of time’ I mean that I believe there is an assumption that learners can read at home, so it is unnecessary to take up classroom time with this type of activity. By prioritising time in the classroom, something that all teachers must do, it is likely that reading will be assigned as homework. This is not bad, but neither is it a good idea, especially in the initial stages of a reading programme. In order for students to value reading, and commit their personal time to reading, they must see that the teacher is willing to commit their class time to it. As Green (2005) noted upon analysing the Hong Kong Extensive Reading Scheme, reasons for unsuccessful implementation were:


Obviously, spending time in class, particularly when introducing extensive reading to the students, is important. Students will need assistance in deciding their initial reading level should graded readers be used, pre-reading discussion is very important (Tsang 1996), and linking other in class activities with reading such as pair, group or class discussions on books that have been read will all help increase the importance of reading in the eyes of the student. The idea that students will simply start taking books home to read, and actually read them without sufficient orientation to the objectives, is a hopeful but probably unrealistic, fallacy.

4.  Ongoing Motivation

Some students will need a motivating goal beyond just ‘reading’ and this can be difficult to balance with the idea that reading should be for pleasure. Some great ideas could be:


Based upon a teaching situation I am familiar with, I have aimed to show how an extensive reading programme could be introduced and implemented into an adult community education classroom. As someone who has always believed in the value of reading personally, it is interesting to note that I was a sceptic when it came to the idea of extensive reading in an ESL classroom. However; if the programme is managed in an effective, positive, and ongoing manner, extensive reading may be one of the most valuable lessons in learning you will ever teach.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XIII, No. 8, August 2007