Tue, Nov 14, 2006 - Page 8 News List

The power of extensive reading

By Kao Shih-Fan 高士凡

Studies indicate that the reading difficulties experienced by EFL (English as a foreign language) learners in Taiwan stem from a lack of vocabulary and adequate understanding about grammar, added to a dearth of background knowledge and cultural understanding.

Due to a traditional reading approach which mainly focuses on words, grammar and translations almost entirely from the aggregate meaning of the words, many EFL learners are not used to reading longer texts such as novels and magazines because they can't keep on reading without resorting to dictionaries. What's worse, the frequent necessity of having to use a dictionary often discourages readers' interest in English.

Studies, however, also show that even when they have reading difficulties, good English readers have one thing in common: They are risk takers who attempt to interpret language in a manner that goes a little beyond absolute certainty. In other words, instead of getting stuck while reading, good readers can live with uncertainty and read on by making intelligent guesses based on contextual cues.

How can these findings help Taiwanese EFL learners become good readers? Practise of extensive reading (ER) has proven to be the most effective way. Thus, this article discusses the concept of ER, and argues that any English learning programs should give strong consideration to the teaching of ER in order to help EFL learners not only enhance their reading abilities and general English proficiency but also make it easier for them to find pleasure in reading.

Simply put, to read extensively is to read widely and in quantity for general comprehension. EFL learners will not become fluent readers until they read a lot. The characteristics of ER vary from academic to academic. Some Japanese academics advocate three golden rules for ER -- no dictionaries while reading; skip over difficult words; and stop reading when it is boring or too difficult.

Moreover, they strongly recommended that EFL learners start to read with simple and fascinating stories. ER is usually done outside the classroom, without teacher's assistance and the text is always to be read for its general content, not for every word and grammatical detail.

ER is the most essential factor for EFL learners to gain not only a reading ability but also linguistic competency including vocabulary, grammar, spelling and writing. Moreover, ER helps EFL learners get away from their tendency to be obsessed with linguistic concerns and motivate them to read more.

The technique has numerous advantages. It can provide English learners with a considerable amount of English input and increase their exposure to the language, help them tolerate textual uncertainties, increase knowledge of vocabulary and grammar, lead to improvement in English writing, motivate learners to read, reinforce previously learned English, help to build confidence with extended texts and so on.

Traditionally, English teachers teach students how to read by focusing on the linguistic details of a short but difficult passage. This method doesn't encourage students to make intelligent "guesses" while reading; rather, it encourages right answers and withholds guesses until one is sure to be correct.

Based on a classroom observation, I found that even higher-proficiency EFL learners may not be used to reading longer texts and bearing uncertainty in the texts.

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