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Extensive reading

In the United States the second language acquisition academic Stephen Krashen has many supporters. I wrote a dissertation about his work back in the 1980s. His main contention, laid out in his book Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning, was that people best acquire second language through exposure to large amounts of "comprehensible input". Krashen argued, and still does, that traditional "skill-building" approaches which see a language as a complex system to be gradually mastered, bit by bit, from simplest to more complex, through analysis and controlled practice, are less successful.

He now calls his idea the Comprehension Hypothesis. It is superficially attractive since it effectively says that second language acquisition is like first language acquisition and that all you need to do is provide students with large amounts of understandable listening and reading for successful acquisition to take place.

Krashen goes further, however, by claiming that the language we practise consciously by means of drills, structured question-answer or grammar-translation, does not really count as comprehensible input since the focus is on form, not meaning. He claims that such controlled practice just allows you to monitor your accuracy as a you speak or write. (My hunch is that this is a false dichotomy and that all practice in the target language, whether focused on form or content, can be good. In other words, conscious learning can leak into natural acquisition.)

None of this is verifiable, despite the many attempts to show by experiment that one approach is better than another, but it seems to chime with common sense and experience that large amounts of contact with comprehensible language is what you need to make most progress. In this regard Krashen has done us a great service.

So, extensive listening and reading must be a good thing. Trouble is, modern language teachers find it hard to supply listening and reading materials which really motivate students.

From the 1980s the Bibliobus series for French was a good example of a set of graded readers which could motivate. They were written in accessible French alongside professional cartoon pictures, including some by the Guardian's Steve Bell. Pupils started at the bottom level, selected books themselves depending on their interests and worked their way through. I used to devote a lesson a week over several weeks to extensive reading with Bibliobus. Bibliobus went out of print after a few years (expensive to produce, expensive to buy and schools had insufficient time to devote to extensive reading) and since the nineties I have failed to find anything as good.

Extensive reading has, alas, been a bit neglected therefore. At A-level, where it it is easier to access material at the right level, we include an internet reading task once a week whereby students choose an article, copy and paste it on to A4, then add a vocab list and short summary in English to prove they have actually done the reading. This has worked well, but you have to monitor whether any Google translating goes on. I recommend this kind of reading task.

In general I am sure we neglect extensive reading for a number of reasons: lack of good materials, lack of time, feeling guilty that we are not being active as teachers in the classroom and, lastly, crucially, a failure to realise the importance of comprehension. There is a gap in the market for a publisher to produce a series of graded readers, either in book form (expensive, but preferable) or online.


  1. Great point Steve! Thank you but again and you mentioned it in a previous post: the school timetable is inadequate! For extensive reading, students should practice everyday and not just a few hours a week!


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