The Benefits of Learning to Read

When I was a child, there was no greater pleasure than getting lost in the pages of a good book. But the love of, and even the ability to read has declined to the point where some children rarely if ever open a real book for pleasure.  This links to more difficulty learning to read (1) or ignorance of the pleasures and knowledge that reading can bring.  This article will discuss the power and value of reading as a skill, and as a tool for life.

Extensive versus Intensive Reading:

Children, if given the chance and possibly a library card, read for pleasure.  They choose books that are fun and interesting to read (referred to as extensive reading) whilst students and adults tend to read shorter, and more complex texts in order to get necessary information for the most part (intensive reading) (2)

The characteristics of an extensive reading approach(3):

Reading material: requires a wide selection of books and graded readers. A good school library may be the solution along with a classroom library provided by the teacher.  This website has some excellent online free books to get you started, as well as some tips for setting up and managing an extensive reading program for your students.

Students choose: they must be free to choose to read or not read the books they want. If they do not like a book, they can stop reading it and start a new one. However, a short explanation for why they did so is probably a good idea so that students won’t just be lazy and stop and start books continuously without ever finishing any of them.

Reading for pleasure and information: students should be able to read primarily for enjoyment. They can be evaluated on, or rewarded, for the numbers and/or types of books they read.  Also, book reports, mini presentations or other approaches to evaluating students can be used but ideally they should not get in the way of developing a love of reading.

Language level: It is essential that the books students read are at the appropriate level. The advantage of graded readers is that they are written at a variety of levels but are also adapted from real literature and non-fiction as well, so students are able to find books they want to read at appropriate levels for them. Oxford offers free reading level tests here so students can know  what level of book they should start reading.

Use of dictionaries: Earlier studies have estimated the percentage of vocabulary necessary for second language learners to understand written texts is between 95% (Laufer, 1989) and 98% (Hu & Nation, 2000) (4). So, for an average novel of 70,000 to 120,000 words, 2-5% represents 1400 to 6,000 words.  As any avid reader knows, it is not essential to know every word to enjoy a good book. But for learners, keeping track of such words to look them up later, or stopping when the word is essential to understanding what is written, are strategies to apply that will not significantly impact their ability to read or to enjoy the experience of reading.

Record Keeping: the teacher will both want and need to keep track of who has read what book, so that they can recommend other books for students to read. Further, friendly competitions involving who read the most books, who read the most different genres of books, and so on, can help motivate students to read more extensively. Explaining the purpose and scope of an extensive reading program is also a key step to both teacher and student success. This website offers a variety of reading logs templates

Teacher as Role model: If the teacher is an avid reader, this is a motivator for students. With younger students, the teacher can read some well known children’s books to their class. The teacher should have read all of the books in their library so that they can recommend further reading options for students, but also so that they can quiz students, or review book reports about those books as their students complete them. They should also make sure students see them reading silently in class along with them when classes permit. 

Advantages of Extensive Reading:

Donaghy (2016) (5) offers a number of benefits of Extensive reading including:

1) Students become better readers.

2) Students learn more vocabulary.

3) Students become better writers.

4) Students improve overall language competence.

5) Students become motivated to read.

6) Students become more autonomous.

7) Students become more empathic.

All of which are based on developing a love of reading. 

Intensive Reading:

As the opposite of extensive reading. Intensive reading is often viewed negatively by ELT professionals in recent times, but it is actually the next stage of reading. Once you have read for pleasure, you must then read more deeply in order to fully understand and accomplish more academic or professional tasks.(6)

In the classroom, this can involve skimming, scanning, fill in the gap activities, creating timelines from one or more texts or studying for a test or exam based on a textbook and accompanying readings. Developing a love of reading and the basic skills necessary to reading, are the foundations for applying reading skills in order to deepen and broaden knowledge for personal, academic or professional purposes. See this website for explanations and some basic strategies to enhance reading skills and comprehension:

Ultimately, there seems to be a mistaken idea that teachers should help students to develop a passion and a skillset related to reading by using extensive reading rather than using intensive reading.  In fact, educators should be using both methods in tandem, so as to develop different abilities within their students. Extensive and intensive reading both offer important lessons and outcomes for students, but together they offer students the ability to choose to read extensively or intensively depending on their needs and the task at hand.