Extensive Reading, Goals, and Benevolent Tyranny

I received an email from Tom Robb this morning, creator of the Moodle Reader (a fantastic free resource to track and verify student reading within an ER program), very kindly answering some questions I asked him.

Among them he mentioned that I seem to be setting quite ambitious goals for my students in terms of the amount of reading I expect them to do. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard that comment, so I thought this would be a good chance to expand on the topic, as well as discuss a couple of peripheral issues that are pertinent to it.

First of all, in my extensive reading classes at Tohoku University, I require students to read at least 100,000 words in one semester. That is the amount of reading they have to do to pass the course and receive a credit. Beyond that, if they want to get an A or AA grade (the top grade), they have to read much more. Generally to have a chance of getting an AA, students would have to read around half a million words.

Talking to other teachers, I seem to have set the bar rather high.

The thing is, extensive reading (and language learning in general) is a numbers game. It’s not so much about what you do (although doing things that work for you does speed the process up) as it is about how much you do. How much reading do you do. How many words, books, hours? The more you do, the easier it becomes and the more you learn. There is a critical mass involved, too. According to Nishizawa et al. the turning point for their students came after they had read 300,000 words: after that, they found it much easier to read in English.

The flipside of this is that if you don’t read enough, you probably won’t reach this breakthrough moment.

I push my students hard. They are academically gifted, often motivated, and understand the reasons why they have to work so hard. The most committed report spending more than ten hours a week reading for my class.

None of my students failed to reach the 100,000 word level, and most of them did much better. I’m very proud of them.

There are several reasons I push them so hard. One is that they have a lot of catching up to do: very few of them have done much in the way of extensive reading or listening in their English learning so far. They have a great deal of knowledge about English (in the form of grammar patterns and knowing a Japanese translation for a lot of English words), but not as much familiarity with it (reading or listening fluency, knowledge of collocations, sense of register). They need a lot of input to catch up to their peers in other countries.

I’m also hoping to get them started on a habit of English. Creating a habit is often just a matter of gradually integrating it into your daily routine, so that it becomes ingrained, like brushing your teeth or reading a newspaper in the morning. If my students are going to have a shot at becoming proficient English users, they are going to have to make it a part of their lives. A semester is not a very long time, but I hope that at least some of my students will catch the reading bug and continue reading in English for an hour or two each week after the course is over.

Finally, I set ambitious goals for my students because they are very bright and very busy.

Busy people naturally try to optimise their time, spending it on more urgent or important things, while sometimes neglecting the less urgent but more important goals (getting mired in quadrant three from the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) . I am the same -I know that I should be spending an hour or so a day learning Thai, but instead find myself catching up on grading because it is due tomorrow morning. By having high expectations of my students and setting them concrete goals I hope to push them a little closer towards the goal of English proficiency.

Not all of them will continue reading, of course. But some will. And even the ones that don’t will find themselves reading a little bit more quickly and easily.

Do you agree with setting ambitious targets? Can it sometimes be harmful? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

Nice and thought provoking, Ben.

In my opinion, there is only one answer to this question from any teacher: how much homework to assign always depends on knowing what the students can handle in relation to their other courses and what they need in order to reach your/their own goals. I would always welcome others opinions but only to gauge them against my own assessment of the situation.

I try to give homework that is meaningful, doable and confidence building. I also try to make it very clear to the students what my own goals are for them (often it is raising their fluency levels at the beginning of the year).

It seems pretty clear that you have clear opinions about why you assign the homework, and I’ll bet that you share those ideas about catching up and habit building with your students, as well as get some feedback from the students at the end of the course.

The only suggestion I would have would be to tweak your expectations based on their feedback, and try not to make assumptions from year to year before assessing each individual class.

Otherwise, what you are accomplishing sounds very inspiring. Do you have any quotes from students who have reached your goals, or gone beyond them?

Hi Steve

Thanks for stopping by 🙂

I think you have gotten right to the crux of the matter, and as you seem to have sensed, it is something I want to pay more attention to. Students provide feedback every week through their reading journals, and at the end of the course in a longer piece of writing. This has been good, and always results in minor tweaks (this year, several students suggested reading for less time in class and spending more time on extensive listening, so we’ll try that next semester), but there is always room for improvement and I am going to try talking to students in small groups during the class to try and gauge how they are doing.

One big problem for me is that I only have students for one semester (14-15 sessions) which means that often I get great feedback and no chance to implement it for those students!

2 Oct 2011, 7:39pm
by Charles Adamson


When I taught part time at Tohoku U, I sometimes taught a reading class (2nd year?, my memory fails me) in which I had the students read the novel, Tsugumi, by Banana Yoshimoto. There are 186 pages and assuming 500 words a page that is about 22,000 words a semester. I assigned about 15 pages a week and gave a test on those pages the next week. In class we worked intensively on a few pages and the rest was homework. The test was equally divided between the in-class and the homework portions of the section. I got very good evaluations from the students and there were no complaints about too much homework. If I had been able to continue teaching there, I would have considered a longer book or maybe two books for the reading course. As a part-timer I did not have the materials or the bookkeeping capacity so I did not consider extensive reading. But I have used it in another school, where I assigned twice as much to the lowest class as compared to what the other teachers were assigning to the upper classes. Again good feedback and no complaints.

Hi Charles

Yes, ER as a part-timer is miserable. I did it for a year at Miyagi University of Education, lugging hundreds of books back and forth every week, but it really isn’t feasible without support from the institution.

On a more positive note, the library at Tohoku now has a small but respectable English corner: they’re really positive about ER and have been working quite closely with me.

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