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? 

A young woman reads a book and drinks coffee. A lot of books. Concept for World Book Day, lifestyle, study, education.
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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 and Bamford (2002) outline 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 TEST)
  • 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  

Post written by: Gonul Turkdogan

A graduate of Brock University, with a B.A. in Sociology and a minor in Women Studies, Gonul later earned her TESL Certificate and Masters of Applied Linguistics (TESL). She previously taught English in China and Turkey and currently teaches EAP at Niagara College, Welland, ON. Gonul finds working with international students rewarding and is passionate about education. Research interests are Extensive Reading and Second Language Reading. 


17 thoughts on “The Role of Extensive Reading in Language Learning”

  1. Thanks for the post! A few questions:
    Do you as a teacher suggest the topics and specific books for ER or allow students to choose from a range?
    Have you found many motivated students interested in this kind of reading which does not involve tests, hence no grades?
    How do you know how much of ER a student is doing? Do you have any means of checks and evaluations? Or is it the honor system?
    I ask as I am totally convinced of the importance of ER and would like to know more about all the practicalities involved in application.
    Many thanks.

    1. You are very welcome Paramita and thank you for reading my post and asking questions.
      Q. Do you as a teacher suggest the topics and specific books for ER or allow students to choose from a range?

      A. Yes, I do suggest some books and topics (offer them a list of suitable books according to their level and also take them to the library to show other options) the decision 100% up to the Ss to choose what they like to read. If the student needs my assistance, she/he can see me at any time. I am there to guide them when necessary.

      Q. Have you found many motivated students interested in this kind of reading which does not involve tests, hence no grades?

      A. I cannot say many but, I have found that some students interested in ER specially when there is not testing involves. However, as an instructor I found that it is extremely important to explain implicitly why ER is important in language learning and what are the benefits. Once the students know the reasoning, they usually would like to participate to improve their reading.

      Q. How do you know how much of ER a student is doing? Do you have any means of checks and evaluations? Or is it the honor system?

      A. Usually, every other week I will talk a bit about my own ER reading then I will ask a few general questions about the ER that they are doing (For instance, how is your ER reading going? Do you enjoy it? Why? Why not? Would you recommend to other students? … etc. I am not to concern about evaluations because they do get tested in Intensive Reading. I just want them to get a habit of reading at least 10 to 15 min. a day and enjoy ER.

      I hope these answers helps.

      Thanks again Paramita!

      1. Thanks Gonul for your answers! They are really helpful. I really appreciate the time you took to engage in this conversation.
        Take care in these troubling times,

        1. My pleasure Paramita!
          I truly believe power of ER thus, I do not mind to take my time to explain it:) Thanks again for your interest in ER.

          Stay safe in these difficult times.

  2. Thank you for this thought provoking post! I am an ESL support teacher working at a public school. I work with students from Grade 1-5. Many of the students that I work with are at STEP 1 and/or STEP 2 in English language acquisition. Do you have any specific strategies that I could use with my STEP 1 and STEP 2 students? Some of my students experience difficulty with recognizing sight words. Also, my school Board is promoting the integration of technology in classroom instruction. Do you have any specific Apps that you have used or would recommend when working with younger ELL students? I am planning on preparing a professional development workshop that encompasses the Empowering Modern Learners framework that focuses on six pillars that are rooted in 21st Century teaching and learning. I would be very appreciative if you could provide some strategies that I may include in my workshop for colleagues.
    Thank you,

    1. Hello Ian,
      Thank you for reading my blogpost and asking questions.

      Q: Do you have any specific strategies? Some of my students experience difficulty with recognizing sight words:

      A: I understand this can be very challenging but, sight word acquisition is an important part of a student ability to read thus, it is worth taking time to help Ss as much as we can. Below are some of the strategies that might help a bit.

      Several strategies to recognize sight words for younger ELL Ss:

      1) Use games: It is fun, hands on way to reinforce words. For example, Sight Word Treasure Hunt: Hide sight words around the classroom and have students go on a treasure hunt to find them. They must be able to say the word in order to collect the word.
      2) Use pictures: This will help Ss recall sight words. Add a picture to the word, this will help Ss connect the object the words.
      3) Use music: it is a lot easier to remember the music lyrics to a song thus, create a song that uses sight words and have Ss to sign them every day as a warmup. You will be surprise.
      4) Use repetition: this is the key when learning sight words
      5) Use multi-sensory Approach: Help Ss learn sight by using variety of their senses (kinesthetics, tactile, visual or auditory).

      Q: Do you have any specific Apps that you have used or would recommend when working with younger ELL students?

      A: To be honest, I did not use specific Apps for sight words, but I have found the below website seem pretty helpful.

      A Few Best Sight Words Apps to help your younger learners

      1) Sight words sentence builder (need Android, iPad or iPhone)
      2) Pocket sight words (need Android, iPad or iPhone)
      3) Sight words adventure (need iPad or iPhone)
      4) Sight words learning games and reading flash cards (need Android, iPad or iPhone)
      This is the link Ian if you like to explore it a bit more

  3. Hi Gonul,
    I enjoyed reading your article and was reminded of the importance of ER for broadening one’s language ability – which is true for native and non-native speakers alike! 🙂 I appreciate the time you took to answer questions sent in from fellow instructors as well.

    I am going to put into practice some of your suggestions. I like your idea of talking about ER vs IR every term and then talking about your own ER in class and encouraging students to share what they are reading. I think I will try that once classes start up again (hopefully in May).

    Another thought I had during this time of isolation for those who are doing online instruction. This could be a good time to encourage ER and give students some suggestions for online reading resources. Here are a few ideas. Maybe others can add to the list:
    Advanced: is a good source for more advanced

    Beginner: learners is good for beginners.


    I had another website that is good for Beginner English. It had lots of African stories and folklore tales with beautiful illustrations – but I can’t find it right now. If anyone knows it, let us know.

    1. Hello Beth,
      Thanks for the links to the resources you provided. They are immensely useful. I am sorry, I am not aware of the African stories website.
      Many thanks and regards,

    2. Hello Beth,

      Thank you very much for your wonderful comments about my post. Also special thanks for taking time to read my post and share a few great resources with us. We truly appreciate it. Finally, I am very happy to hear that you are going to put into practice:)

      By the way, I totally agree with you ….. this a great time to encourage our students to do ER.

      Thanks once again!

      Stay safe

  4. In French studies, our IR components were usually 4-10 page short stories or articles and much longer books, all fiction, used as ER. I read 6 novels during my French courses at Brock. I found it very helpful in expanding my vocabulary and understanding of how everyday French is used. A non-fiction ER would have been torture, in my opinion.

    One thing I did do was subsequently read the English version of each book to see if I understood the overall story correctly. Yes, I cheated 🙂

    Looking back, from a teaching point of view it’s more efficient for the entire class to read the same book. From my point of view as a student, I would have enjoyed picking the book/topic myself. I guess there was nothing stopping me from reading extra novels of my choice. What you wrote about having books at various levels is very student-centred.

    Good article, Gönül

    1. Hi Frank,

      I am very happy to hear that you have found reading was very helpful during the process of language learning.

      Actually, this is not cheating. “…read the English version of each book to see if I understood the overall story correctly.” This shows me that you took your language learning very seriously. Reading something you know in a foreign language is an enjoyable experience, and it helps students to see if they are correct and boosts their motivation. Having learned a second language myself, I also did that, just to guarantee I understood everything.

      A learner’s intrinsic motivation can be greatly enhanced by giving them the freedom to choose what they like to read. This is extreamly important.

      Thanks for reading my blog post and for sharing your experience with us. I appreciate it, Frank!

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