A lesson from my great grandfather’s ELT coursebook: extensive reading and vocabulary

The pictures show my great grandfather, who was a teacher of English as Foreign Language in Geneva at the turn of the last century, and one of the ELT Books he wrote (this is a second edition in 1901). So you see, teaching and writing ELT materials must be genetic!

The book is a collection of stories in English, which he used to teach. In the foreword he writes (in French):

 The author uses this book as follows:  he reads the stories phrase by phrase, the pupils translate without seeing the book.  Afterwards, they read the stories and tell them in English.  For the next lesson the students study and tell the stories; the teacher tells them in French.  If you want to make the students’ task easier, you can question them.  When you attack the longer passages in the stories, let them translate for themselves before you give them the exact translation.

 Note, however, that the stories should not be studied in depth before the lesson.  It is enough to go over the vocabulary.  This method gives students confidence in their own abilities, gives them the facility to understand and to speak, and teaches them a lot of words, idioms and phrases in an enjoyable way.

 It’s interesting to see an example of the (in)famous Grammar Translation method, but what really caught my eye was the emphasis on vocabulary, rather than grammar, and the idea that reading leads to learning ‘a lot of words, phrases and idioms in an enjoyable way.’

Just lately I have been doing some reading on the subject of extensive reading (ER), inspired by seeing Philip Prowse at the Brasshouse Conference the other week, and also Jez Uden’s great presentation on the British Council seminar series.

There seems to be a lot of evidence that ER does help with developing all aspects of language, including speaking. Perhaps the most research has been done into how ER can help to develop vocabulary. Most people would agree that we learn vocabulary through being repeatedly exposed to it in meaningful contexts, and it is difficult (and probably uninspiring) for lessons or coursebooks to recycle vocabulary 10-20 times. If we read extensively, however, we will be exposed to frequent items many times.

There is also evidence to suggest (Pigada and Schmitt 2006) that being exposed to lexis in this way also helps learners to acquire more about a word or phrase than just its meaning (i.e. exactly how it is used, its grammar and its spelling).

Michael Hoey talks about ‘lexical priming’, the idea that learners store lexical items in the context in which they have encountered them, so that with repeated exposure we are confident about using them in frequently used chunks. (Leo Selivan has a great post on this here)

However, there is also evidence that (unsurprisingly when you think about it) learners need to do an awful lot of reading in order to meet most words and phrases enough times to acquire them.

One solution is simplified readers, with their limited number of words. These can also be more motivating, as it is suggested that anything above 10% of unknown words will be demotivating for a reader. (Of course, it also depends if the readers are intrinsically interesting).

Another solution is what is known as ‘narrow reading’. The idea here is that rather than reading widely, learners read narrowly- around the same topic. In this way  they will keep coming across the same lexical items. In How to Teach Vocabulary, Scott Thornbury suggests one way of doing this by asking learners to follow a particular news story on different websites, or over a period of time. They can then report back to other class members on the news story they chose (thus using the vocabulary).

However, there is still the issue of whether students will necessarily ‘notice’ the vocabulary, even with repeated exposure. As Huljstin says:

‘Incidental acquisition-through-reading is a slow and error-prone process with small vocabulary gains (Laufer, 2005; Nation, 2001; Read, 2004; Brown, Waring & Donkaewbua, 2008). Readers do not always notice unfamiliar words when reading a text. If they do, guessing the meaning is not always possible. Moreover, many people possess poor inferencing skills..’

It seems to me that, while we probably don’t want students reading word by word with dictionaries in hand, there is probably a benefit in having some intentional vocabulary learning as well as incidental learning. There is certainly some evidence that a combination of the two leads to the greatest gain in vocabulary acquisition.

So perhaps we could ask learners to carry out some of the following follow up activities after reading, rather than asking comprehension questions- or for the dreaded book report?

  •  Ask students to choose a number of words and phrases from what they have read which they think are related to the topic. They could then work with these in different ways (categorising according to part of speech, or by meaning, using them to write or speak about the topic etc)
  • Ask students to select a number of lexical items they didn’t know but think they might find useful. Then ask them to look them up in a good learner dictionary and find out how frequent they are, and based on that choose 6-7 to consciously learn.
  • Ask students to note down any new words that they noticed were repeated a number of times in the text. They can then decide if they think these words were repeated because they related to the topic, or if they are in fact high frequency words.
  • If learners have been reading the same text, you could go through it and select some common collocational phrases (such as those listed on Leo Selivan’s blog) and give them the beginning of each phrase to complete. They could either check their ideas in the text itself (obviously with a page or line reference), or use an online corpus tool like Netspeak.

Essentially these are all ways of making language noticeable or salient to learners, which should go hand in hand with all the benefits of simply reading, or as one of my favourite acronyms for extensive reading has it- DEAR (drop everything and read).


Filed under Exploiting authentic reading materials, Teaching methodology, Vocabulary

8 Responses to A lesson from my great grandfather’s ELT coursebook: extensive reading and vocabulary

  1. Hi Rachel,

    Some amazing stuff here, not the least of which is your grandfather’s picture. Love the Scott’s idea for how to get the students to do meaningful narrow reading. And letting students follow a news story of their choice could certainly be more interesting to them than an assigned reading which they might not connect to.

    I sometimes have my students look for lexical chains and this is pretty useful for helping them to notice related vocabulary items. For some reason, there’s a big Sherlock Holmes boom going on in my school now, so having students jot down a list of the words associated with crime, or police work, is one way to get them noticing both certain vocabulary, but how the vocabulary works to give a text cohesion.

    Thanks again for another post which I’m going to be putting to use…as soon as test week in my school ends. Oh, how I long for test week to end.


  2. Hi Rachael,

    I’ve been meaning to leave you a comment for ages, so now seemed like a good time. Thanks very much for another entertaining and inspiring post. I really appreciate the balance in your writing.

    Your post set me wondering as to how I could include more reading in my classes – ER is basically out, the pressure of course deadlines mean I don;t have much time to do anything other than scamper through the topics in the coursebook. Also, my students are already possessed of huge passive vocabularies, and the readings in the textbook are not exactly helpful in developing them. However, looking a bit harder at collocations, frequency and especially word class might be useful, so I’m going to give your suggestions a go next semester.

    I also wonder whether grammar could be taught lexically and generically using a kind of narrow reading in class, especially for basic contexts like present continuous. If students remember constructions in context, what I’m wondering is if I gave them the contexts (for example What is my family doing now, what am I wearing, what can I hear or see), and had them write a short piece using that grammar, could those pieces then be recycled as a kind of narrow reading, with a further task (like guessing whose family it is), and would this be helpful?

    I’m not sure if I haven’t derailed things a bit here. If so, sorry 🙂


    • There is a lot of evidence that just letting students sit and read silently is one of the best things you can do for them. However, I couldn’t see myself doing it either. I think it’s fine in the school system where teachers have kids all day every day, but harder to justify when you have them twice a week for a limited time.
      The point you make about passive vocabularies is a key one- it’s got to be all about getting some of that vocabulary out there and used. Partly this seems to be a question of how often learners are exposed to it in context: eventually, if they see it enough, they will become confident in using it. But I think we can do more for learners than simply expose them to language; we can also draw their attention to it, make it salient, help them to notice how it is used (and how it is not used) and provide them with opportunities to use it.
      If I understand you correctly you are suggesting using learner generated texts that naturally contain a particular language form (such as present continuous) and then exposing them to the form by reading each others’ texts. I’m all for learner generated work, and this would certainly give them a reason to read. Two slight caveats come to mind. Firstly, I think it would be best if the texts had some real meaningful purpose, as this will make them more interesting to read. It would be good to think of a context where you might naturally use present continuous. One thing that comes to mind is writing your ‘status’ on Facebook. This might work better than describing what you are wearing, for example. The second thing to consider is whether the language the students produce would necessarily be a good model. I don’t think this matters if the purpose is communication, but I guess if you’re seeing it as exposing them to language in context then it probably does… So you might need a stage between writing the texts and using them for reading where students redraft and correct if necessary. Of course, it depends on the level of the students, but I’m guessing if you’re thinking of present continuous they’re probably not that fluent?
      Thanks for an interesting question to start my day- and if you do anything like this, I’d love to hear how it goes.

  3. Thanks for the reply. The Facebook statuses thing is an amazing idea – will almost certainly try it out and report back. I had planned to include a redrafting stage, and to give a lot of help to those who needed it at the time. The lesson structure I was musing over went something like 1. Minimal introduction to the form, and genres where it might be used. 2. Students write a piece based on the grammar form and genre, with help from me. 3. Some form of peer teaching / correction. 4. Students read each other’s work and use it to complete a task (Maybe commenting on Facebook status updates). 5. Discussion of problems, examples and genres and how they are linked. I will almost certainly try this next semester – I’l llet you know how it goes.

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