A routine search on the Internet these days with the keywords “how to learn English” brings up 2,620,000,000 results. Methods range from practising for 5-minutes a day on a language app to taking an online course – and make a quick and mind-blowing detour around the suggestions of using hypnosis or sleep therapy – to learn English effortlessly. Without focusing on one particular method, or casting aspersions on any of these theories (hypnosis and sleep therapy…kill me now), the most important thing when learning a language is the following:
“The only reliable way to learn a language is through massive and repeated exposure to it in context.”
This is something we all agree upon. To learn a language, you have to experience it. Again and again and again. Learning a language effortlessly is right up there with learning to ice-skate in 5 minutes a day or while sleeping.
It can’t be done.
While I believe that there are many reliable and effective methods of learning English, and that the best programmes blend them, I am a staunch and firm advocate for adding an extensive reading component to a good programme to make it a great one. Here’s why.
Reading easy English books 20 minutes a day will keep the grammar police away
Let’s look at the case of three students…
|Student A...||Student B...||Student C...|
|reads 20 minutes a day||reads 5 minutes a day||reads 1 minute a day|
|which is 3600 minutes a school year||which is 900 minutes a school year||which is 180 minutes a school year|
|which is 1 800 000 words a year.||which is 282 000 words a year.||which is 8000 words a year.|
|By the time student A is 11, she will have read for the equivalent of 60 school days and...||By the time student B is 11, she will have read for the equivalent of 12 school days and...||By the time student C is 11, she will have read for the equivalent of 3 school days and...|
|will score in the 90th percentile of standardised tests.||will score in the 50th percentile of standardised tests.||will score in the 10th percentile of standardised tests.|
What’re 20 minutes a day? Or even 10 if it can produce these results? As the table suggests, reading every day exposes learners to language-learning opportunities that are multiplied the more they read. It’s almost as if the only reliable way to learn a language is through massive and repeated exposure to it in context…
Extensive reading and easy English books provide comprehensible input
Comprehensible input is language input your students can understand even if they don’t understand all the words and structures. And yes, reading is the most easily accessible form of comprehensible input in countries where English is not spoken. Where else will they find it?
If you choose the level of your students’ graded readers carefully, they will come across repeated encounters with language structures and vocabulary again and again and again. This will help them revise, reinforce and consolidate what they know and extend it.
There is no other way any student will meet new language enough times to learn it in the limited number of hours in class. The only reliable way to learn a language is through massive and repeated exposure to it in context.
Extensive reading helps students to speak English
How many times have you rent your hair in frustration whilst wailing, “Why aren’t my students speaking English?”. Cue angst and existential questions on your ability to teach.
The fact is that learners speak when they’re ready to speak. And they’re ready to speak when they know they can use a word, phrase or grammatical structure without making a mistake and having everyone laugh at them. This level of confidence comes from experience with the language. The more times your students come across different components of language again and again and again, the greater the chance these components will be readily available for them to use when they want to speak. I am repeating myself, but I feel the need to say again that the only reliable way to learn a language is through massive and repeated exposure to it in context.
There are so many reasons why you should include extensive reading in your English classroom that I’ve decided to write a series of posts summarising them all. This is the first one. Next week, I’ll add the second one, but in the meantime:
Do you agree that extensive reading is important? Do you run an extensive reading programme for your language class? If not, why not?