Read more at home if you want to learn English faster: three ways to get in the habit
I can hear parents, ELT learners and teachers all over the world explaining patiently through gritted teeth: We know. We know it helps if English students learn to read for pleasure at home, but how are we supposed to find the time? Who is buying these materials? What if a parent doesn’t speak English themselves?
That, you see, is the beauty of extensive reading at home. It’s completely autonomous. Parents can be as involved as much or little as they like. And the good news is cost is no longer so much of a barrier to reading at home: it’s never been cheaper to assemble a selection of extensive readers for your children or students.
Is extensive reading really that critical to learning English?
Let’s set the scene a bit by establishing just how important it actually is for English learners, of any age, to read for fun at home, also known as extensive reading.
Stephen D. Krashen’s The Power of Reading, now in its second edition, offers a marvellous summary and critique of extensive reading studies around the world. His conclusion, quoted also in Philip Prowse’s excellent article “What is the secret of extensive reading?” is that:
‘When [second language learners] read for pleasure, they can continue to improve in their second language without classes, without teachers, without study and even without people to converse with.’
(Krashen 1993 p. 84)
Prowse goes into more detail about efficacy studies at primary, secondary and adult levels – the body of evidence that reading for pleasure improves results not only in comprehension and vocabulary but in grammar, writing, speaking and fluency, both alongside and instead of traditional textbooks, is too great to ignore.
So, we know it works. As with so many things education-related, though, the question is how to implement it. Christine Nuttall talks about the virtuous circle of reading – once a learner begins to enjoy reading, they are more likely to read more, and benefit more from it, so they learn to read more, and so on. The reverse is also true. The questions then follow: how do we motivate our Instakids to read at home in English, if they won’t read in their first language? How do we carve out time between travel, work, school and homework? Here are three ways you can form the habit of reading at home:
- First things first. You can’t bake a cake without ingredients: learners need access to extensive reading material at home in order to use it. Krashen establishes this common sense fact based on five studies from 1983 to 2003. It can be a reading app, an online library subscription or a pile of readers in the corner – whatever it is, it has to be the right level for the student and it has to be a topic they’re interested in or they’ll never learn to read for pleasure.
Negative reading habits can happen simply because there isn’t much available to the learner: Worthy and McCool studied eleven 6th graders in 1998 who ‘hated to read’, and found a direct correlation between those students and the lack of reading material at home. Thankfully, we now have more options than we used to:
For extensive reading online, the Extensive Reading Foundation offers good-quality, free materials, in audio and print, at its er-central.com website. You can choose by level and genre. These text resources and audiobooks tend to be quite basic, though, and the stories are largely classics. There is also a publisher directory.
- You can purchase full Pearson English Readers and other publishers’ Kindle editions on the Kindle store, iBookstore and Google Play, and read them on an ereader, phone or tablet using the Kindle app. These are finely-graded, contemporary, relevant ebooks with titles like Sherlock Holmes, The Phantom of the Opera, Martin Luther King, The Ring, Michael Jordan, Who Wants to Be a Star, Inventions that Changed the World and The Canterville Ghost.
- An ebook library subscription can be a cost-effective way to get access to a lot of ebooks online through your browser. Xreading is a Japanese-run online library which offers hundreds of full-text graded readers, from reputable publishers, and charges about £14 per year, or £1.17 per month.
- For print readers, cost can be an issue. If you aren’t able to buy readers at your local bookshop from a publisher like Pearson, you can buy first- or second-hand readers cheaply from Amazon or the Book Depository, or you can ask your school to let you know when they’re upgrading their Readers library and take some of the older books home.
- Make the most of the commute or the school run. The key here is routine – give it a try and see if it works for you. Reading doesn’t just happen on a page. Today’s English learners have multiple ways to read for pleasure on their various devices as well as in print, all of which are well-adapted for reading and listening on the train/on the bus/in the car/on foot. I listen to podcasts on my commute (they work on the Underground), and to this day, I know my times tables thanks to a tape my mother used to play in the car on the way to primary school.
- Download a podcast or audiobook. Ideally, an English learner would both read and listen, but one or the other is better than nothing. Audible.com has plenty of English extensive readers in audiobook format, and a year’s membership is £7.99 per month, or you can buy individual audiobooks. There are classic extensive reading podcasts available on iTunes for $4.99 each, about £3.50.
- Never underestimate your public library. Overdrive is an online service that finds your local library for you, wherever you are in the world. You can also search by title and see which libraries carry that particular book. If you can, pop out for Just think: you could create an instant extensive reading library, at your home, for free, that changes every month.
- Consider the power of rewards. You can reward your child or reward yourself, if you’re old enough. Remember, we are talking about starting a virtuous circle: persuading a learner to begin a new habit of reading in English for pleasure. Reward mechanisms can be very effective. This idea should be explored on a case by case basis – it depends what you or your child respond to best. In my opinion, starting a reading habit is well worth a glass of wine, a chocolate treat or an extra half hour on the playstation.
 Prowse, Philip: “What is the secret of extensive reading?” accessed on 4 Feb 2016 at http://www.cambridge.org/elt/readers/articles/CER_LALL_ART_PhilipProwseExtensiveReading.pdf.
 Krashen, Stephen D. (2004) The Power of Reading: Insights from the Research, 2nd Edition, p57
 Worthy, J. and McKool, S. (1996): “Students who say they hate to read: the importance of opportunity, choice and access” in Ibid, p61