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Reflecting on Using Extensive Reading as Part of a Classroom Management Strategy


Charlie Taylor
English Department, National Taitung Senior High School

This is a brief reflection on a teaching strategy that was developed to address challenges encountered in EFL classes at a public high school in Taiwan. The large class sizes meant it was difficult to use Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) methods, and the busy schedules of the students left little time for an extracurricular Extensive Reading (ER) program. It was decided to incorporate ER within the class as part of a classroom-management strategy. The students were divided in half, and one group engaged in ER while the others worked with the teacher before switching. ER successfully occupied half the class allowing the teacher to work with one smaller sized class at a time. This allowed for better communication and differentiated learning. Furthermore, some students were inspired to continue reading extensively outside of class time.

KEYWORDS: extensive reading, communicative language teaching, classroom management

When I moved from teaching at a private to a public high school in Taiwan, I was struck by two things: crowded classrooms and a crowded curriculum. To make matters worse, there was tremendous diversity in English proficiencies within each class; the pretest I administered yielded up to a 70% range in grades in some classes. These circumstances brought with them new challenges. The first was how to effectively implement Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) in large classes of up to forty (not always highly motivated) students. The other was how to introduce an Extensive Reading (ER) program when the students spent all day at school and all night attending cram schools or doing homework for other classes. A brief scan of the literature revealed I was not alone in facing these two apparently unrelated challenges; they seem to be widespread in many teaching contexts around the world. In this article I briefly outline and reflect on the method I developed to implement the two activities in a complementary way where each diminished the problems associated with the other.

ER is the practice of reading large amounts of relatively easy material. With a strong emphasis on student choice and enjoyment (Day and Bamford, 2002); it is a method that contrasts sharply with intensive reading—the sort of challenging, analytical reading that students in language classes are often assigned. Research spanning four decades has found ER to be an effective tool for acquiring vocabulary (Cho and Krashen, 1994; Nation, 1997; Shen, Hong, Huang, and Lin, 2020; Webb and Chang, 2015), grammatical patterns (Elley, 1991; Elley and Mangubhai, 1983; Tudor and Hafiz, 1989), writing skills (Hafiz and Tudor, 1989; Mason and Krashen, 1997; Tsang, 1996), and reading comprehension (Hafiz and Tudor, 1989; Leung, 2002; Sun, 2020). Nishizawa, Yoshioka, and Fukada (2010) quantified the benefits of ER with a finding that reading 1,000,000 English words brought about the same language acquisition benefits as studying in an English-speaking country for 10 months. They further found that for every 100,000 words read, students experienced an improvement of between four and 18 points on a TOEIC test. A meta-analysis of ER research (Nakanishi, 2015) found that using ER showed a medium positive effect (d=0.46) over groups using other methods. Only four of the 22 studies found negative effects for the reading groups.

However, previous studies have found that implementing an ER program is not without its challenges. One of these is lack of time. Students in many learning contexts have little time outside of class to engage in additive ER, and lack of time has been found to be a demotivating factor for ER programs (Ro, 2016; Takase, 2003). This problem could be tackled by dedicating class time to ER. In fact, Robb and Kano (2013) coined the terms additive and replacement ER to distinguish between ER which is done in class, as opposed to that which is done in a student’s free time. However, teachers who replace other, more ‘serious’, classroom activities with silent pleasure reading might find themselves at odds with expectations from students, parents, and administrators alike. Avoiding ER altogether, though, would be a shame, given the tremendous language-acquisition benefits that arise enjoyably and relatively effortlessly from the process.

The students in these classes were second year students at a senior high school in Taiwan. They were between 16 and 17 years of age and were learning English as a foreign language. The students got the majority of their English instruction from their Taiwanese English teachers, and each class saw me for one hour per week. (I am the first and only foreign English teacher at the school. My qualifications include a master’s degree in education and many years teaching EFL at high schools and universities around Taiwan.) Most of the core curricular requirements were covered by the Taiwanese English teachers, so I set my priorities as building their communicative competence, fluency, and general proficiency. This was agreed on by my co-workers, and within those parameters, I had the freedom to design my own curriculum and create my own materials, providing they were approved by the school committee.

There were several hundred students in the classes I taught, and—as mentioned above— there was a huge discrepancy in their proficiency levels, even within each individual class. This could be partly attributed to their widely varying levels of motivation. For those who were highly motivated English learners, a common driving factor was the high-stakes university entrance exam which was just one year away.

I wanted to implement a double-pronged strategy to address these teaching goals, using ER to improve the students’ general proficiency and reading fluency, and Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) to improve their communicative competence and oral fluency. However, the lack of time outside of class precluded a significant additive ER program, and the fact that I only saw each student for an hour each week meant I did not want to monopolize large portions of class time with silent reading. Among other concerns was the optics of being a new teacher at a school spending a significant amount of time sitting quietly in the classroom, apparently doing nothing.

The large class sizes and varying motivation levels of the students also presented challenges for using CLT methods. CLT is grounded in the principle that interaction leads to acquisition. This theory is supported by empirical evidence (for an overview see Gass, 2003). In contrast to traditional instruction, which could theoretically be a lecture delivered to a passive audience of unlimited size, CLT requires active learner participation. Since the instructor’s finite class time must be divided among students, the size of the class has a significant impact on the number of interactions that each individual student can be an active participant in. One solution is to allow simultaneous interactions by having students do group work. However, in crowded classrooms where all students share an L1, they can effortlessly revert to their mother tongues whenever they are not under direct supervision. Such ‘difficult to manage classroom situations’ might be responsible for a high failure rate of CLT in EFL contexts (Holliday, 1994, p.6). One frustrated Vietnamese teacher who attempted to run a communicative classroom is cited in Hiep (2007, p.199) as saying: ‘I wish I have a chance to see how group work could be done successfully with large classes, with low-motivated students. Maybe there is some way to do it, but I don’t know.’

As a result of these circumstances no ER was done, and at any given time, in the classroom, seven out of eight groups were having no productive English interactions. This was hardly tenable, but rather than abandon ER and CLT and revert to lecture-style instruction, I introduced ER into the class as part of a classroom management strategy. The hypothesis was that ER could act as a sort of inanimate teaching assistant, keeping half the class gainfully occupied while the remaining students engaged directly with the instructor in the CLT portion of the class. By reducing the number of students engaged in oral communication at any given time, the instructor could be actively involved in a single, manageable class discussion, prompting students to participate and use the target language.

Obviously, reading materials were a prerequisite for this system. There are many resources available online, some of which are free; however, using electronic reading material was not a viable option in this case. I had run an ER program using tablets at another school in the past and had found that the internet connection proved too tempting for most students. Reading in a foreign language did not have the appeal necessary to keep average or low-motivated students away from Instagram, Youtube, or online games. Since the current ER program was intended to gainfully occupy students thereby freeing me up to focus on CLT, creating a scenario where I would realistically have to devote most of my time and attention to policing the ER students was far from desirable. As such, creating a physical reading library of paper books was essential.

Most teachers are not fortunate enough to have a physical library in their classrooms, and I was no exception. I found some boxes of unused books gathering dust in storage closets around the school which I pressed into service, but I was also able to convince my school to let me spend my textbook budget for the year on graded readers to start the library. I chose graded readers because they cover a variety of genres and subjects and are written for a wide range of abilities. This made them ideal for classes of high school students, most of whom lacked the ability to read ‘authentic’ texts written for native speakers their age, but who would likely consider the content of children’s books to be below their maturity level. With graded readers, students were able to select books that were the right level and suited their interests.

In addition to setting up the library corner, I arranged the desks to create a large table in the middle of the classroom with enough seats for half the students and the instructor. The rest of the desks and seats I arranged around the periphery of the classroom to accommodate the ER students. All the seats were set up in such a way as to allow a clear view of both the CLT and the ER students from the instructor’s seat.

The students were divided into two groups. For half the class, one group joined the instructor around the large table in the middle of the classroom for CLT. The rest of the students all chose interesting, level-appropriate books from the library and read silently. The reading group was asked to leave any electronic devices with the instructor to minimize distractions. Halfway through the class, the students who were reading returned their books to the shelves and switched places with the CLT group, who now became the reading group. This way each student had the opportunity to do both ER and CLT in every class.

Because of the wide range of English proficiencies within my classes, dividing the students according to proficiency had two benefits. First, it allowed for differentiated learning with the CLT groups, and second, it meant that the students in each respective ER group were all reading books with similar difficulty levels. This gave students the opportunity to discuss and recommend books to one another during the CLT portion of the class, helping to ‘make reading a shared experience’, as recommended by Day and Bamford (2002, p.138).

Whether or not to award grades for ER is a contentious issue. One of the principles of ER is that reading should be its own reward (ibid.). In other words, teachers should not dispense extrinsic motivators, as this could have the negative psychological effect of making reading seem like an onerous chore that needs to be rewarded, rather than a pleasurable endeavour. However, some practitioners find that unmotivated students need some extra incentive to participate (Mori, 2015), at least initially. Arguing for or against making ER a graded component of the class is beyond the scope of this paper. I have done both in the past, but in this instance I decided against offering grades, opting instead for a purist approach to pleasure reading. Since the students were given time to read in class, I believed they would have no alternative other than to participate; therefore, whatever benefits might be offered by extrinsic motivators in other, less supervised, contexts would be outweighed by the potential damage done to the students’ perceptions of ER as enjoyment.

Since the students had little else to distract them or vie for their attention, most of them at least appeared to actually read while in the ER section of the class. Of course, it is possible that the CLT activities in the centre of the room caused some level of distraction for the readers, but even in this worst-case scenario, they were still getting comprehensible input in the target language throughout the class, whether from their books or from the class discussion they were eavesdropping on. While I did not formally track the students’ reading — in order to comply with Day and Bamford’s (2002) principle that reading should be its own reward—there was some encouraging anecdotal evidence supporting the use of class time for ER. Most compelling among these was the fact that many students took the option to borrow books. In the words of Day and Bamford (2002: p.137): ‘The success of extensive reading depends largely on enticing students to read’. As such, if the time spent reading in class did indeed entice the students to read, then it can be viewed as time well spent, and that getting students hooked on books was a way of overcoming the demotivational impact of tight schedules identified by Ro (2016) and Takase (2003). In fact, when these same students were asked to provide written feedback about their ER experience the following year, the most common reason given for participating in ER outside of class time was becoming hooked on one particular book. As such, it seems that a small investment of classroom hours dedicated to reading has the potential to yield significant returns in terms of additive ER among students who encounter a gripping story. Given that the benefits of ER come from reading a great deal, reading outside of classroom hours is absolutely essential to maximize the potential of ER. As such, any reading program that inspires students to read in their own time must be viewed as a success.

This success though, should be viewed as modest given that it was only a minority of the students who borrowed books, and even among these it is not entirely clear how many actually read them. Even the following year, when I made additive ER a course requirement for this same cohort of students, only about a third of them participated, suggesting that for two thirds, the time spent in class was not sufficient to transform them into lifelong pleasure readers. However, according to some of the high participators, the experience was transformative. One student who got the highest possible grade on the English portion of his university entrance exam wrote to me after graduation: ‘Reading extensively (…) is really like magic. And that magic seems to work on me. (…) Please keep telling your students the importance of regularly doing extensive reading.’

The other of the two stated goals of this system — facilitating CLT — also met with success. The improvement in classroom management created an environment where I was able to do CLT with one manageable-sized group at a time, while the rest of the class was productively occupied in a non-disruptive endeavour. The silent nature of ER meant that any outbursts from anyone not involved in the main discussion would not go unnoticed by the instructor or peers, but disruptions were rare since the atmosphere of the classroom was no longer one of multiple speakers in competing conversations vying to make themselves heard. The reduced size of the group communicating with the instructor allowed for more meaningful interaction, as well as differentiated learning. In cultures where CLT is not the norm in language classrooms, as is the case in Taiwan, students need more guidance in order to stay on task. When working in groups without supervision, they might not see the value of the activity and revert to their L1, but this was not a problem when the teacher was a participant in the discussion.

While dividing classes and having students cycle between self-study and teacher-led learning is by no means a ground-breaking development, I found this particular combination of ER and CLT to be effective. I believe it has the potential to alleviate problems that are commonly reported in EFL classrooms around the world and as such, merits further study.

Address for correspondence:


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Elley, W. B. 1991. Acquiring literacy in a second language: The effect of book-based programs. Language Learning. 41(3), pp.375-411.

Hafiz, F. M., and Tudor, I. 1989. Extensive reading and the development of language skills. ELT Journal. 43, pp.4-13.

Gass, S. 2003. Input and interaction. In:  Doughty, C.J. and Long, M.H. eds. The handbook of second language acquisition. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, pp.224-255.

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Mori, S. 2015. If you build it, they will come. From a ‘Field of Dreams’ to a more realistic view of extensive reading in an EFL context. Reading in a Foreign Language. 27(1), pp.129-135.

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Nation, P. 1997. The language learning benefits of extensive reading. The Language Teacher. 21, pp.13-16.

Nishizawa, H., Yoshioka, T., and Fukada, M. 2010. The impact of a 4-year extensive reading program. In: Stoke, A.M. ed. JALT 2009 Conference Proceedings. Tokyo: JALT, pp.632-640.

Ro, E. 2016. Exploring teachers’ practices and students’ perceptions of the extensive reading approach in EAP reading classes. Journal of English for Academic Purposes. 22, pp.32-41.

Robb, T., and Kano, M. 2013. Effective extensive reading outside the classroom: A large-scale experiment. Reading in a Foreign Language. 25(2), pp.234-247.

Shen, W.W., Hong, Z.W., Huang, C.P., and Lin, J.M. 2020. Developing a mobile-assisted software application to observe university students’ vocabulary growth through extensive reading. Journal of Internet Technology. 21(3), pp.681-687.

Sun, X. 2020. An exploration of students’ and teachers’ perceptions of a two-year extensive reading program in a Chinese secondary school. The Reading Matrix: An International Online Journal. 20(1), pp.201-219.

Takase, A. 2003. Effects of eliminating some demotivating factors in reading English extensively. In: JALT 2003 Conference Proceedings. Shizuoka, Japan: JALT, pp.95-103.

Tsang, W.-K. 1996. Comparing the effects of reading and writing on writing performance. Applied Linguistics. 17(2), pp.210-233.

Tudor, I., and Hafiz, F. 1989. Extensive reading as a means of input of L2 learning. Journal of Research in Reading. 12, pp.164-178.

Webb, S., and Chang, A. C.-S. 2015. How does prior word knowledge affect vocabulary learning progress in an extensive reading program? Studies in Second Language Acquisition. 37, pp.651-675.