What’s so great about extensive reading?

I’m collaborating on a research and development project for integrating extensive reading into intensive English programs. After the initial review of the most recent literature, I was quite surprised at the overwhelming positive effects of extensive reading on reading proficiency, comprehension, and motivation. Although I’m still skeptical, I’d like to share the findings with you.

I looked at 17 articles published since 2012. Although this may not seem like much, 3 of these articles were meta-analyses, which investigated a much larger quantity of studies on extensive reading. Only one was not relevant to intensive English programs, bringing it down to 16 articles. Many of these articles came from the 2015 discussion forums in Reading in a Foreign Language. The majority of those discussion forum articles were not empirical studies, but they went in depth answering “What constitutes extensive reading?” After summarizing these answers, this blog post covers the results of the empirical studies, which mostly demonstrate benefits. The last section of this post covers curriculum design and other practical implication issues.

What is Extensive Reading?

Most of the studies attempting to define extensive reading reference Day and Bamford’s 2002 article from Reading in a Foreign Language, “Top ten principles in teaching extensive reading.” Richard Day, the co-author of the article, is also co-editor of the journal and founder of The Extensive Reading Foundation. The best graphic organizer I found to illustrate these principles was created by John Macalister (2015).

Macalister (2015) later shortens the number of principles to seven, but Jeon and Day (2015) reduce it further to five: 1) The reading material is easy, 2) Learners choose what they want to read, 3) Learners read as much as possible, 4) Reading is individual and silent, and 5) Teachers orient and guide their students. I believe this narrowing down of the principles illustrates how teachers and researchers can pick and choose which principles they believe are the most important factors of extensive reading. Stoller (2015) demonstrates this as a reflective exercise, creating his top five priorities for busy teachers.

Two studies (Waring & McLean, 2015; Yamashita, 2015) dive deeper to get to the heart of extensive reading. Yamashita (2015) analyzed extensive reading through multiple perspectives: cognitive, affective, and pedagogical. Waring and McLean (2015) perform a meta-analysis to find other definitions beyond what they call “Classical Extensive Reading,” which refers to the ten principles. Through their analysis, they identified four core elements and eleven examples of variable elements of extensive reading programs.

What are the results of extensive reading programs?

This was the main question for two meta-analyses (Jeon & Day, 2015; Nakanishi, 2014). Other studies. Motivation was an important factor for other studies I found (Haupt, 2015; Komiyama, 2013; Mori, 2015; Sampson, 2013). Other studies were interested in how extensive reading affected vocabulary (Nation, 2015; Webb & Chang, 2015). Some studies looked at contextual factors, such as computer-based reading (Haupt, 2015), reading outside class time (Robb & Kano, 2013), amount of time spent on reading (Tien, 2015). Finally another study looked at the affect of extensive reading on translation (Sakurai, 2015).

The meta-analyses found slightly different results probably because their parameters were different. Jeon and Day (2015) looked at experimental and quasi-experimental studies from 1980 to 2014 that indicated changes in reading comprehension. Nakanishi (2014) looked at overall effectiveness of extensive reading, specifically concerning learners’ age and the length of time, by looking at test scores.

Meta-analyses results

  • Extensive reading had a small to medium effect concerning the overall effectiveness on reading proficiency (Jeon & Day, 2015), but it had a medium effect in Nakanishi’s study (2014)
  • It had the highest effect with adults and the lowest effect with adolescents (Jeon & Day, 2015). This is supported by Nakanishi’s analysis (2014), finding no effect for children, a medium effect for high school stuents, and large effects for university students.
  • Teachers’ skill and enthusiasm may affect motivation (Jeon & Day, 2015)
  • One year of extensive reading instruction had a medium to large effect whereas one semester had a small effect (Nakanishi, 2014)
  • Not enough programs use the same test to investigate the effect of extensive reading. The EPER Placement/Progress Test was used the most, in only five studies (Nakanishi, 2014)

Other results

  • Yamashita (2015) echoes many of the results above and adds that easier materials are more beneficial and that researchers will see linguistic gains more quickly than gains in motivation
  • Motivation — computer-based reading aided in motivation (Haupt, 2015); paying attention to the orientation of students’ motivation appears to be as important as noting the intensity of their motivation (Komiyama, 2013); intrinsically motivated readers are outliers in the classroom (Mori, 2015); only one out of seven students showed gains because of intrinsic motivation (Sampson, 2013)
  • Vocabulary — Comprehensible input and language focus is important for pedagogy (Nation, 2015); Prior word knowledge may have an impact on the amount of vocabulary learning (Webb & Chang, 2015)
  • Others — Computer-based reading improved other areas of language development (Haupt, 2015); reading outside class time increased content-based test scores (Robb & Kano, 2013); amount of time spent on reading graded readers directly impacted students’ positive attitudes (Tien, 2015); extensive reading helped decrease dependency on translation and grammar analysis (Sakurai, 2015)

These results are overwhelmingly positive with the exception of Sampson’s 2013 study, which had a small sample size of seven students. I have found these quite convincing and would like to replicate some of these studies and approaches to more intensive English programs.

How can teachers develop a successful extensive reading program?

First of all, I recommend teachers and administrators to visit Richard Day’s Extensive Reading Foundation at http://erfoundation.org/wordpress/. The menu at the top of the page demonstrates the various ways the website can help all stakeholders in English language teaching. This is probably the most practical starting point.

The reviewed studies also provide some great advice and suggestions. Macalister (2015), Nation (2015), and Peel (2015) wrote their articles particularly for curriculum development. Teachers can refer to Macalister’s recommended 7 principles reduced from Day and Bamford’s 10 principles. For those who are interested in developing an extensive reading program with emphasis on improving vocabulary, Nation (2015) presents the following 8 guidelines:

  1. Include an extensive reading program as part of your language course
  2. Make sure that learners spend enough time each week on extensive reading, either around 3/16 of the total course time or better still enough time to meet the words often that they need to learn
  3. Make sure that there are 2 strands to the extensive reading program: 1) the strand where they read texts at the right level for them and 2) the fluency strand where they read easy familiar texts quickly
  4. Support the fluency development strand by getting learners to do a timed readings course
  5. Support vocabulary learning from extensive reading by getting the learners to do dictionary look-up, preferably while reading electronic texts
  6. Support vocabulary learning from extensive reading by getting the learners to note unfamiliar words on word cards for later independent study
  7. Link some of the extensive reading to extensive listening, and to speaking and writing about what has been read
  8. If necessary, provide training in the guessing from context and word card strategies

Peel’s MA thesis (2015) describes how an intensive English program at the University of New Orleans implemented an extensive reading program in their English for Academic Purposes curriculum. The appendix of his thesis provides some helpful logistical ideas as well. You can access his thesis at http://digitalcollections.sit.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1710&context=ipp_collection.


This attention to extensive reading started after re-reading Grabe’s Reading in a Second Language (2009) for the purpose of improving our reading curriculum, which is already quite good. I found that nearly all the weak spots of our curriculum could be remedied by integrating extensive reading. If we successfully include extensive reading, according to Grabe, we should see positive results in the following motivation for reading, reading fluency, reading rate, and reading comprehension. With these positive results combined with these more recent results, the benefits of extensive reading are quite clear.

I’d like to end with Jeon &Day’s (2015) conclusion to emphasize that a successful extensive reading program requires effort not only from students and teachers but also the administrators.


Haupt, J. (2015). The use of a computer-based reading rate development program on pre-university intermediate level ESL learners’ reading speeds. Reading Matrix: An International Online Journal, 15(1), 1–14.

Jeon, E. & Day, R.R. (2015). The effectiveness of core ER principles. Reading in a Foreign Language, 27(2), 302–307.
 Komiyama, R. (2013). Factors underlying second language reading motivation of adult EAP students. Reading in a Foreign Language, 25(2), 149–169.
 Macalister, J. (2015). Guidelines or commandments? Reconsidering core principles in extensive reading. Reading in a Foreign Language, 27(1), 122–128.
 Mori, S. (2015). If you build it, they will come: From a “Field of Dreams” to a more realistic view of extensive reading in an EFL context. Reading in a Foreign Language, 27(1), 129–135.
 Nakanishi, T. (2014). A meta-analysis of extensive reading research. TESOL Quarterly, 49(1), 6–37.
 Nation, P. (2015). Principles guiding vocabulary learning through extensive reading. Reading in a Foreign Language, 27(1), 136–145.
 Peel, M. (2015). Implementing an extensive reading program in an intensive university EAP curriculum. MA TESOL Collection, SIT Digital Collections. Paper 706.
 Robb, T. & Kano, M. (2013). Effective extensive reading outside the classroom: A large-scale experiment. Reading in a Foreign Language, 25(2), 234–247. 
 Sakurai, N. (2015). The influence of translation on reading amount, proficiency, and speed in extensive reading. Reading in a Foreign Language, 27(1), 96–112.

Sampson, N.E. (2013). An extensive reading approach to teaching English second language reading comprehension with the American Language Institute at the University of Toledo. Theses and Dissertations, The University of Toledo, Paper 194.

Stoller, F.L. (2015). Viewing extensive reading from different vantage points. Reading in a Foreign Language, 27(1), 152–159.

Tien, C. (2015). A large-scale study on extensive reading program for non-English majors: factors and attitudes. International Journal of Applied Linguistics & English Literature, 4(4)

Waring, R. & McLean, S. (2015). Exploration of the core and variable dimensions of extensive reading research and pedagogy. Reading in a Foreign Language, 27(1), 160–167.

Webb, S. & Chang, A.C.-S. (2015) How does prior word knowledge affect vocabulary learning progress in an extensive reading program? Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 36, 651–675.

Yamashita, J. (2015). In search of the nature of extensive reading in L2: Cognitive, affective, and pedagogical perspectives. Reading in a Foreign Language, 27(1), 168–181.