The Role of Extensive Reading in Language Learning


Why is extensive reading important for language learning? And how can students be motivated to read for pleasure? 

As an international student and immigrant, I know how difficult it is to read extensively in English. Diverse backgrounds and school experiences can create different profiles of reading strengths and needs. As an experienced EAP/ESL/EFL instructor, I did a case study about Extensive Reading (ER) for my MA, and I learned things I wished I had known much earlier! Now I would like to share that knowledge with other instructors because ER touches every skill we teach (Reading, Writing, Grammar, Speaking and Listening).

Above all I would like to stress the importance of motivating students to read extensively so as to build confidence, enjoyment and autonomy. Because of test requirements students can become fixated on Intensive Reading (IR) and may misunderstand what ER is all about. IR requires a high level of focus and effort in deconstructing texts and looking up unfamiliar words and phrases, whereas ER is meant to be a pleasurable activity. So, at the beginning of one term, I took a half hour to explain the IR/ER difference and to underline the value of ER. At the end of the term, four of my 18 students thanked me for the improvement ER awareness had facilitated. That result reminded me of the “Starfish” story I heard while teaching in China. A man sees many starfish stranded on the seashore and throws them back into the sea one at a time. A passerby says,” You’ll never save all of them,” but the man replies, “Look! I saved this one”. Four students out of 18 made a real difference even if the effect was not perfect. It is very rewarding to see students become motivated to practise ER and thereby discover pleasure, confidence and self-esteem as language learners.

How can we enhance incidental language learning through ER?

First, explain the difference between ER and IR, and talk about the benefits of ER in every term, because there will always be new students. Tell students that ER impacts performance in all skills and can increase passive knowledge of vocabulary very quickly.  Emphasize that there will be no test. Highlight the opportunity for ER enjoyment by reminding students they can always change books if they get bored. Lastly, give them good advice about selecting an appropriate book; find content that is interesting and not too difficult! ER can be tiring and time consuming if lack of vocabulary forces students to guess words too often. The answer is to have lots of books at different levels and advise students that it’s okay to choose an “easy” book.

Day & Bamford’s Top 10 principles for teaching extensive reading outlines ten clear and practical ER principles. They emphasize the following points:

  • Easy material (e.g. no more than 2 or 3 unknown words per page for beginners, or 5 for intermediate readers)
  • Diverse reading material (lots of different topics)
  • Free choice for learners re. when, what, where, and how to read, as well as when to stop
  • Encouragement for learners to allocate as much time as possible to ER
  • Clear indication that the purpose of ER is related to pleasure, information and general understanding (NO TESTS)
  • Emphasis on ER as its own reward (ENJOYMENT, not TESTS)
  • Selection of ER materials easy enough to permit reasonably fast reading speed (no dictionary needed)
  • Individual and silent ER (help students discover that reading is personal)
  • Orientation and guidance for students’ ER choices (very different from IR)
  • Teacher as a role model for ER as an interesting and enjoyable activity

Those are all things that work for me. How do you motivate your students to read extensively? Please share your valuable experiences.


Day, R. & Bamford, J. (2002). Top ten principles for teaching extensive reading. Reading in a Foreign Language, 14(2), 136-141. Retrieved from  

Gonul - I graduated from Brock University, with a B.A. in Sociology and a minor in Women Studies, earned a TESL Certificate and Master of Applied Linguistics (TESL). Previously, I taught ESL in China and Turkey. I have taught a variety of EAP courses at Niagara College in the School of English Language Studies since 2013. Currently working three part-time jobs: as a Peer Tutor Program Coordinator in Niagara College’s Library, a communication professor for the School of Academic and Liberal Studies, and an interpreter for Canadian Border Services. Currently, I am a volunteer with TESL Ontario (TESL Exchange Videos, Dialogues, Webinars and Blogposts). My research interests are Extensive Reading and Second Language Reading.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *