How useful is extensive reading?
My best student ever was called Anne. I taught her for about three years. She was a very enthusiastic student, though she rarely did what I set as homework. She did read books though. A lot of them. About two books a week in fact. Anna took her Cambridge Proficiency exams at the age of 14. She got an ‘A’. Anna is now an English Language teacher herself. Make no mistake – extensive reading works.
How can we help learners build a reading habit?
The first thing you need to do is to ensure buy-in. Experts agree that trying to get people to do something they do not really want is bound to backfire. Students have to want to start reading and you can help whet their appetite by showing them some great readers (OUP readers – naturally! ?), by engaging them in discovery activities and by getting them to choose which one they want to read.
What about the level?
For extensive reading, students need to be able to follow the story easily, without needing to look up words. This means that they need to be able to understand at least 95% of the words in the book. If you are not sure whether Level 3 or Level 4 is suitable for your students, go for Level 3.
What are the key steps to building a habit?
‘Habits are the holy grail of behavioural change because they herald the possibility of automatic behaviours’ (Service & Gallagher 2017 – p. 60). That means that we can do things effortlessly. Naturally, habits have been studied extensively. Below are a few key tips for helping your students build a reading habit.
1) Set a Target
To build a habit, people need to have a routine which they will perform on a regular basis. The starting point is deciding on a target. The target has to be very specific. Students need to know whether they have achieved their target or not. Telling yourself ‘I am going to read a few pages’ is too vague; ‘I am going to read one chapter’ on the other hand is good.
2) Start Small
Building a habit is not easy, so students need to start small. B. J. Fogg says that if you want to develop a habit of flossing your teeth, it is best to start by flossing one tooth a day! (Fogg 2019 – Introduction). Never mind the minimal benefits; once you have established the habit, then you can gradually increase how much you do. So – forget that ‘One chapter a day’; make that ‘One paragraph a day’. If students want to read more, no problems. This is a bonus.
3) Select a Cue
Habits tend to stick when we link them to a salient point in our day. The cue needs to be very specific and unambiguous (Clear 2018 – p. 78). That could be a moment in the day, such as ‘as soon as I wake up’ or it could be another thing we routinely do. For instance, we could tell ourselves ‘As soon as I finish my piano practice, I will read one page from my book’.
4) Select a Reward
To reinforce the habit, it is important to link it with something pleasant – a reward. The reward has to be small. It could be a little treat, such as a piece of chocolate, or it could be a behavioural ‘treat’. For instance, I revise my notes every day and I reward myself by playing a game of online chess (2 minutes only) when I have finished. The reward is ‘behavioural scaffolding’. Once the habit has been established, we can dispense with it (Service & Gallagher 2017 – p. ix).
5) Use Implementation Intentions
Research has shown that it helps a great deal if students write down a mini-plan about exactly what they intend to do and where (Duhigg 2012 – p. 142). For instance, a student could write: ‘As soon as I finish my online French lesson, I am going to read two pages from my reader in my bedroom’. It helps enormously if the reader is already there and in some visible place so it acts as a reminder.
6) Be Consistent
The key to building a habit is consistency. If one misses a day, this is not a big problem, but missing two days in a row is serious. Depending on the individual and the nature of the habit, it can take between 18 and 254 days to firmly establish a habit (Alter 2018 – p. 271). Generally, two months should be ok. This may seem a lot, but once a habit is formed, it becomes effortless and it is also easy to reactivate if for whatever reason we have to stop (Clear 2018 – p. 94).
The teacher as model
The best way to inspire your students to develop a love for reading is to share with them your favourite stories, or simply make sure the students see you reading on a regular basis. Students copy what their teachers do. I remember once a colleague in Turkey asked me ‘How can I get my students to use English outside the classroom?’ So, I asked him ‘What language do you use during break time?’ ‘Why, Turkish of course’ he replied. Ah… ?
Help your students to develop a reading habit.
Take part in our 10-minute reading challenge.
- Alter, A. (2017) Irresistible. New York: Penguin
- Clear, J. (2018) Atomic Habits. London: Random House
- Duhigg, C. (2012) The Power of Habit. London: Random House Books
- Fogg, B. J. (2019) Tiny Habits. London: Virgin Books
- Service, O. & Gallagher, R. (2017) Think Small. London: Michael O’Mara Books
Nick Michelioudakis (B. Econ., Dip. RSA, MSc [TEFL]) has been active in ELT for many years as a teacher, examiner, presenter and teacher trainer. He has travelled and given seminars and workshops in many countries all over the world. For articles or worksheets of his, you can visit his YouTube channel or his blog.