ESOL Reading Groups

I’ve believed in the value of extensive reading for language development since reading helped me to improve my French while living and working as an au pair in Reims. Reading the books found at the house helped to nudge me out of a period of stagnation. It helped immensely. Not only did I finally find out how Ça y est! was written – something that had been puzzling me for months – but I also felt more fluent. There was more French in my head.

Other people think it might be quite a good idea too. An overview of investigations into extensive reading programmes in Day & Bamford (1998:33) showed that:

Students increased their reading ability in the target language, developed positive attitudes toward reading, had increased motivation to read, and made gains in various aspects of proficiency in the target language, including vocabulary and writing. These programs were in a variety of settings with diverse populations, from young children to adults.

So, now I encourage the ESOL learners I work with to read extensively. I schedule a slot for a reading group and provide, or point them in the direction of, suitable books. It doesn’t take a lot of extra work on my part. The learners do most of the work between sessions, which works out quite well since they’re the ones who want to improve their language!

I’ve had an ESOL reading group for a couple of years now since I proposed starting one to take part in the Six Book Challenge. The idea of a challenge, and the prizes, encouraged the more reluctant readers to give it a go. Participants had to read six books, of any length, in six months. They could choose what they wanted to read. They could choose to listen rather than read. They could even choose to read in their own language (a detail I decided to keep from them!) If you’re in the UK, it’s worth finding out about the challenge because I’ve found it to be quite motivating for lots of different learners. Your local library may be able to support it.

The reading group usually gets together once a month – sometimes more often – to discuss what we’ve been reading, why we haven’t been reading, what we’d like to read and anything else prompted by the stories or books themselves. We started using the graded readers and the Quick Reads from the community library, and have since been slowly building up our own collection of Cambridge English Readers following enthusiastic recommendations from Jez Uden. Learners choose what they want to read to suit their level and interest. It’s completely up to them but I recommend that they choose something that they can read without needing to use a dictionary. Otherwise, they may soon lose interest and motivation. We don’t use any of the exercises that might be included in the books.

Every session is different and we’ve had some really interesting discussions – hearing about one participant’s inspiration for her own novel-writing in her own language, finding out about rationing in Romania, as well as discussing which books we’ll order next with some of the leftover money in the budget! I help out when people need language for the discussions but I try not to correct or focus on language too much during the sessions. I want the feel of the sessions to be different from the language learning sessions. In my mind, the purpose of these meetings is to encourage reading between sessions, by giving a reason and motivation to read, rather than for specific language work during the sessions.

Learners have said they feel that reading has helped them feel more confident about grammar, vocabulary and spelling. By listening along to a CD while reading, they see how words that they know orally are written (or vice versa). They get a boost when they see that the book they’ve just read quite easily shows that they know over a thousand words in English. They are aware of their own progress as they realise that level 2 is now too easy for them and they move on to reading books at level 3. And, they get to use the English they have to discuss their reading and their thoughts with others.

So, that’s what we do! Jez Uden, mentioned above and below, meets in cafés which sounds perfect! I’d love to hear about your experiences of extensive reading for language development – either your own or your learners – or about the thoughts you’ve had about introducing it in your context.

And, if you’d like to explore extensive reading and reading groups further, you might find these links useful to get you started. These include a really interesting British Council Seminar by Jez Uden about the importance of reading for pleasure, a presentation by Richard Day on the Value of Extensive Reading, an article from Alan Maley on the Teaching English site about why extensive reading is good for our students, and advice on how to use graded readers from Rob Waring on the Oxford University Press ELT pages.


Day, R. and Bamford, J. (1998) Extensive Reading in the Second Language Classroom, New York: Cambridge University Press

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