An experiment in extensive reading

Last summer, my student asked me to recommend books for her to read and us to discuss. I gave her a list of books I thought she might enjoy – a range from teen fiction that I liked when I was her age to more mature novels. She chose “The Giver” by Lois Lowry. She bought the book and we agreed to read a chapter every week.

It didn’t quite go that way. The first two chapters went well. We read and discussed them. We talked about the main concepts present in the book. She asked questions when there were phrases she did not understand. The book has a lot of Capital Letters. Usually they are used for words that are being used differently from their regular use. I drew her attention to those and for the most part, she was able to deduce the usages.

Then came the third week – and she didn’t have time to read. And the fourth week. And the fifth. I asked her about her interest in the book and she claimed that she was very interested, but just didn’t have time to read and check the dictionary for the words she didn’t know.

Comprehension dawned. I hadn’t realized that is how she was reading it, but I guess I should have known.

So I said, “Okay. I want to try something different. Read it without the dictionary.” She looked dubious, but I convinced her that it would save her time and that it was not important to understand all the words or all the ideas. I told her not to take notes on things she didn’t understand.

The next week, she told me it took less time, but she thought she only understood about 50% of the chapter. However, she was able to have the same level discussion about it that we had before. We decided to keep doing it this way. This has been going on for a few weeks now and the chapters have flown by.

I asked her for feedback again today and she said it’s relaxing to read without the dictionary and she feels that she understands nearly 70% of what she reads. She wants to continue reading this way and she wants to find out what happens next in the book.

What I learned:

I learned that I need to be aware of how my students are approaching reading assignments.

I learned that reading can be more enjoyable when students choose the reading material themselves, reading limits are flexible (today’s homework: read as much as you can), and exact understanding of every single word is not required.

I learned that I need to convince my well-intending student that it is okay to read like this.

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  • Kevin Stein  On October 25, 2012 at 12:39 pm

    Hi Anne,

    Really enjoyed this post. It’s great you could give the student the encouragement and support she needed to just relax and try to enjoy reading. Students always seem to go for that 100% understanding of text, a big hurdle when it comes to enjoyment. Good to know that there’s one more student out there who can enjoy a book without peeking at their electronic dictionary every few words or so.


  • Gordon  On October 25, 2012 at 2:40 pm

    I always tried to push students to read without trying to understand 100%, yet find myself always trying to read Korean word-by-word with a dictionary! For me its an easier said than done thing, I guess. I can understand those students who continually try to read like this, and their frustration. Finding the right book or reading material makes all the difference though, when you care more about the story than the language, you don’t want to take time to stop and look up all of the words. I just need to find something like that at a low enough level in Korean for that to happen maybe. Kudos for helping her find the right path!

    • livinglearning  On October 29, 2012 at 7:05 pm

      That’s a good point, Gordon. I also (try to) read Korean with my dictionary at hand. I underline the words I don’t know and make a guess at them, but don’t consider the reading complete until I check my guess. One thing I found in Korean that I usually don’t need a dictionary (much) for is fairy-tales. They’re written for kids, so with a smaller vocabulary; and they have pictures, which help comprehension; and they are familiar already. Thanks for reminding me about level – I’ll put more thought into it for future readers!

  • itinerantteacher  On October 27, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    Great reflection Anne – your negotiation of the student’s actions has informed your practice which through this reflective piece has rippled outward to the community of teachers here.

  • Nina  On November 4, 2012 at 2:54 pm

    Excellent example of how handing the learning tools over to students works! Undoubtedly your students are motivated to learn the language, and thus applying unnecessary control over their learning decreases the intrinsic motivation to learn. I have applied the student centered principle of teaching to the extent where I let my students choose their own homework (from a selection if they were young students, but actually quite freely when my students were adults). And it worked like a charm.Supporting the learning process helps your students become autonomous and independent learners.

  • Ava  On November 15, 2012 at 2:05 am

    The Giver was one of my all-time favorite books as a child. Great choice 🙂
    Love that you were able to convince her to approach reading without a dictionary. many of my students feel as if they need to be given permission to read (or do any task) without translating every single unfamiliar word. And lo and behold, when they can finally put the dictionary down and approach a text different, they can often end up with the same level of comprehension and a higher quality of discussion. I’m all for encouraging students to discover new words and meanings on their own, and dictionaries can be great for that, but I think that the process of using them often takes students out of the task and can make the activity less connected and engaging.
    Nice work, and nice post!


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