A Case for Extensive Reading

Napoleon Bonaparte’s Library, Fontainbleau

In the Spring of 2005, I received a treasure chest of knowledge that opened up a new world to me; the French language.  A retired French Professor for West Texas A&M gave me four boxes full of classic French literature from her personal library.  These wonderful novels included works from the great writers  Balzac, Camus, Hugo, Moliere,  Baudelaire, Zola, Voltaire, Flaubert as well as grammar instruction texts from the early 1900’s.

Through extensive reading, using these tools, I began to learn the French language. Richards and Renandya in their book Teaching Reading state that, “Many foreign language students often have reading as one of their most important goals. They want to be able to read for information and pleasure, for their career, and for study purposes” (Section 12).  These extensive readings helped lay the foundation for my learning of the French language.

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My French Treasure!

What is extensive reading? It is defined as reading in relatively large amount of texts compared with what is called intensive reading, which usually involves a slower reading of a small amount of materials and often with translation exercises. Extensive reading program is administered “to develop good reading habits, to build up knowledge of vocabulary and structure, and to encourage a liking for reading” (Richard & Schmidt, 2002: 193-194).

Extensive reading encourages learners to read self-selected, large amounts of meaningful texts.  In the journal article “Extensive Reading: Why Aren’t We All Doing It”, Renandya and Jacobs argue strongly for using extensive reading in the classroom claiming that, “Not only can it improve reading ability, it can also enhance learners’ overall language proficiency (e.g. spelling, writing, vocabulary, and writing)” (296).  I found this to be true in my own experience of reading these short stories and novels in a second language.

Overall, I attempted to read for meaning but while doing this, I would look up unfamiliar vocabulary and learn these new words in context.  A number of studies have shown that extensive reading leads to substantial vocabulary learning and increase in spelling proficiency.  I also kept a journal of my reflections of these stories and therefore had much practice in spelling, sentence structure, grammar usage, and writing.  This exercise helped me in giving more emphasis on fluency than to accuracy.

Students who are highly motivated will often choose the material that they want to read.  On the other hand, it is harder to find materials that “less motivated” learners will read.   When my four daughters were young, I created my own “Summer Reading List” for them to practice extensive reading.  They had to read at least 10 books from this list of varied genres such as: historical fiction, biographies, general fiction, and non-fiction.  If they achieved this goal, they were rewarded with a VHS/DVD of their choosing.  Even though they were not very enthusiastic in the beginning, this activity helped them to develop a love for reading and in turn opened up a world of great literature,  expanded their vocabulary, and improved their academic reading and writing skills in the classroom.   As young adults, they continue to enjoy extensive reading and  have even formed a “Sister Book Club” to discuss their latest novels over tea and croissants!

Many educators believe that intensive reading alone will produce good, fluent readers (299).  Students spend lots of time analyzing and dissecting short, difficult texts under the close supervision of the teacher.  However, Day and Bamford argue that “this may produce skilled readers but not skilled readers”. (47) I believe for the optimal reading strategy, educators  should combine both intensive reading and extensive reading inside and outside of the classroom.

Reading these novels over the past 10 years has not only motivated and helped me to learn the French language but also to develop an appreciation of French culture, history and the joie de vivre. It also gives me an excuse to browse the bouquinistes and  libraries when I am in Paris and fill my suitcase with French classics!

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Extensive Reading Shakespeare and Co, Paris

Works Cited

Renandya, Willy.A. & Jacobs, G.M.  Annotated bibliography of works on extensive reading in a second language. http://www.kyoto-su.ac.jp/information/er

Richards, Jack C. & Renandya, Willy.A. “Extensive Reading: Why Aren’t We     All  Doing It?”.  Methodology in Language Teaching. Cambridge Press. (2006)

Copyright 2012 by Robyn Lowrie.  May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)