Reading beyond the Text Book

Posted on 18 July, 2018 by Stephen Elvis

Reading beyond the Textbook: Organizing an extensive reading programme 

As indicated in the article on the theoretical background on extensive reading, this method requires that the learners read a lot. The aim is not only to increase fluency and develop language skills, but also to cultivate an enjoyment of reading. Since this is reading for pleasure, the learners work independently, selecting texts they want to read and reading at their own pace. Clearly, this is a method in which differentiation is a core feature; the level at which each individual learner in the programme will be reading is determined on the basis of his/her current level of competence. 

The Programme

Ideally, an extensive reading programme should be introduced not just for a class, but for an entire school, involving all of the teachers and pupils. However, expense and experience are two factors which mean that starting on a small scale and building up the programme over time is often a more successful strategy. From a curricular, work-load and learning perspective, it is often considered best to begin with the first class (for example, 4th, 8th and 11th grades in the Norwegian school system) and extend the programme upward from there. Whatever the scale of the programme, a system has to be in place before it can commence to regulate such matters as loaning out the books from the central library to class libraries, establishing learner levels and evaluation. It is also important that the programme be integrated into the school syllabus and timetable, to ensure that it will continue even if the organizers move on. Thus, the framework should be in place before the programme starts up. 

Programme development may be considered to move through a number of phases. The first phase in setting up a programme involves finding out about extensive reading, exploring the materials available, drawing up a plan for implementation, and setting the reading targets and programme objectives. The next phase involves purchasing appropriate materials and coding them for level; setting up the necessary facilities for registering and circulating the material; and deciding upon the reading tasks and evaluation methods. Only then is it possible to move on to the implementation phase, which will hopefully continue indefinitely, with regular evaluations. The teachers' role throughout is to organise and supervise the programme, as well as to motivate and advise the learners.

From a structural perspective, the programme should include two parts: in-class reading and outside reading. Class reading can be arranged in various ways. One option is to set a time for the individual reading of library books in the timetable. This has a number of benefits, such as allowing teachers to set an example of reading for enjoyment by reading himself/herself, and offering them the opportunity to observe individual learners' reading habits. Another option, although not strictly speaking extensive reading, is divide the class into groups according to level, and have them read aloud from a graded reader in their groups. At the core of an extensive reading programme, however, is the idea that learners must be encouraged to read in their free time, so most of the activity should be taking place outside the school.

It is common that the programme goals include requirements for the number of pages to be read or the time spent reading, but there is no set standard (see Susser and Robb, 3-4). This varies according to factors such as the type of programme and learner level. Nevertheless, it is often recommended that learners read one book a week at an appropriate level, so this requires a large collection of books. Thus, school and class libraries are essential features of every extensive reading programme.  

The Materials

There are basically two factors to bear in mind when selecting texts for an extensive reading programme: level and interest. It is fundamental that reading material is available at a suitable level for every learner in the programme. While ‘authentic' texts are often mentioned in this context, this is not always the best material to use in teaching foreign language (L2) learners to read. Since native-speaking (L1) learners already have a wide vocabulary and extensive knowledge of grammar before the start to read, material written for an L1 audience of the same age is generally too difficult for most L2 learners. While the topics may be motivating, the language level is demotivating, so only the best L2 readers will attempt these texts on their own. Similarly, while the language level is appropriate in texts written for younger L1 learners may be appropriate, the topics dealt will be demotivating for older L2 learners. The solution seems to lie in graded readers. 

According to Susser and Robb (1990), there are three types of graded readers: "(a) authentic readers, not written for pedagogic purposes; (b) pedagogic readers, specially written for EFL/ESL students; and (c) adapted readers, which have been adapted from authentic texts." (5). A large number of publishers produce graded-reader series, which generally include four to six levels of difficulty (for an example of the grading scale for L2 readers. In Norway, Cappelen-Damm is producing a graded-reader series for English called Galaxy. The reading levels in these series are defined in terms of the number of words and grammatical complexity (see examples of the criteria). Most of the titles are fiction, including abridged versions of classical tales, but there are a growing number of non-fiction series on topics ranging from biographies and history to weather and prehistoric animals. In addition, material is now being produced specifically for reluctant readers (for an example, see the Oxford Education Project X series. As well as the text, the books often include background material, vocabulary lists and comprehension questions for self-study. The problem facing teachers is not so much to find graded readers, as to select the best material from the vast number of series available (see here for links ). To assist in the selection process, there are several tables available on the Internet that summarize and evaluate the various series, and providing an overview of the level framework (see example 1 and example 2), To help select the ‘best books' in these series, the Language Learner Literature Awards site and Home Schooling site are quite useful. While there is a great deal of material to consider, the graded-reader levels are invaluable in the process of differentiation.

While level is a key factor to consider when selecting material for an extensive reading programme, a second important factor is the learners' interests, which vary enormously. This means that the library available for learners at all levels needs to include a range of texts in various genre, both fiction and non-fiction, as well as books that appeal to both genders and to reluctant readers. In addition to the graded readers, there is also considerable material available on the Internet, and annotated lists are available (see an example). For more advanced learners, in particular, the Internet is a source of varied and authentic reading material.

Determining learners' levels

For intensive reading, where the objective is often to learn new words and grammar, the reader level would be higher than for extensive reading, where the focus is on the message and the objective is to increase reading speed, fluency and enjoyment, and to become familiar with language in use. Rob Waring suggests that the learner's level be determined by having them read a page of graded readers at various levels to identify the level on which they do not require a dictionary. Another method is to simply have the learners check the level of any book that interests them by reading a page and counting the number of words they do not understand. A third method is for the teacher to have the learners read aloud in approximate level groups, and in this way check their level and progress. 


Since an extensive reading programme would be included in the classes plan, it is important to check that the learners are actually reading the assigned number of texts. This can be done in a number of ways, involving either written or oral language skills. The simplest task is a reading record or journal, in which learners record the titles of books they have read. Additional information can be added to these so that they serve as a book review or an analysis of various story features (see here for examples of forms). This information can then provide a basis for pair and group work in which the information is shared; in learning terms, this is an opportunity for meaningful communication. There are also book review forms for different genre available on the Internet. To help other learners select their next book, a smiley-face score sheet could be pasted in the front of each book, or the learners' could write blogs on the class website explaining why others should (or should not) read the book. The same basic information can be included in oral rather than written reports, and learners could be asked to give a talk on, for example, their favourite book. If time allows, they could even dramatize their favourite scene. Care should be taken in choosing post-reading activities, however, keeping in mind that the focus should remain on the pleasure of reading. The tasks should simply serve as a check that the book has been read and should indicate whether or not the learner enjoyed it.


Two levels of evaluation should accompany extensive reading programmes: evaluation of the learners' progress and evaluation of the programme. In fact, a learners' progress is quite easily evaluated as they move up the graded-reader scale, choosing progressively more difficult books. For a more detailed analysis of a learner's level, for example on entering the programme and after a semester of reading, it may be useful to listen to individual learners reading aloud, while keeping a running record. The running record is rather a complex process, but a simpler version is currently being developed by Angela Hasselgreen of Bergen University College. It should be stressed that non-traditional forms of evaluation should be used, since extensive reading should focus on reading for pleasure rather than assessment.

With regard to the evaluation of an extensive reading programme, this could involve a number of components. Any evaluation should consider the outcomes in relation to the programme objectives; were the programme goals achieved? This information may be obtained by evaluating learner performance or by observing the level of the books being read. Another component could elicit the opinions of participants, both staff and learners, by asking them to complete a programme evaluation form. The questions could be based on the programme objectives and ask the participants to reflect on their development and their experiences.

To sum up, there are many books available for L2 readers of all ages, ranging from authentic material to books for beginners. This greatly facilitates the differentiation process, but only if a collection of texts that appeal to a wide range of interests is available at the school, and if the learners are guided to the correct level. Thus, the role of the teacher is to organize the programme, and to motivate and guide the learners.

Works Cited

Abc Teach (2009). Book Report Forms. Downloaded 10 June, 2009, from

Book Adventure (2009). The Five Finger Test. Downloaded 10 June, 2009, from

Eggplant (2009). Reading Record Forms. Downloaded 10 June, 2009, from

Extensive Reading (2009). Materials for Extensive Reading. Downloaded 10 June, 2009, from

Hill, David (1997). Downloaded 10 June, 2009, from

Home Schooling (2009). Award Winning Books. Downloaded 10 June, 2009, from

Oxford Education (2009). Project X. Downloaded 10 June, 2009, from

Reading a-z (2009). Running Records and Benchmark Books. Downloaded 10 June, 2009, from

Susser, Bernard and Thomas Robb. (1990) "EFL Extensive Reading Instruction: Research and Procedure." JALT Journal, 12/2.

Waring, Rob.Downloaded 10 June, 2009, from

The Extensive Reading Foundation (2009). Language Learner Literature Awards. Downloaded 10 June, 2009, from

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