Instruments for Extensive reading
Three instruments were used to collect data in this study. The first one was a test designed to measure participants’ proficiency in English. It consisted of four sections: (i) listening, (ii) reading, (iii) grammar and vocabulary, and (iv) writing. The test was administered at the beginning of the course and, as was mentioned before, the scores were used as the basis for grouping students into two classes. The same test was given again at the end of the program.
The second instrument was a Book Record form (see Appendix) given at the beginning of the course. In the form, students were asked to record the title of the book, the number of pages, the extent to which the story was interesting (1=least interesting, 10=most interesting), the difficulty level of the story (1=easy, 10=difficult), and the degree of their comprehension of the story (0%=zero comprehension, 100%=full comprehension). The Book Record allowed the teacher and students to regularly check on student progress towards their reading goals. Students who lagged behind were continually reminded to keep up with their reading.
The third instrument was a two-part questionnaire constructed to elicit further information from participants. The first part of the questionnaire asked about sex, age, and educational background. The second part asked about the amount of exposure to English and number of English books read before coming to Singapore; amount of time spent reading English newspapers and/or magazines while studying in Singapore, the extent the ER assignments were perceived as enjoyable, and the degree the ER assignments were perceived as useful in improving their English. The questionnaire was administered towards the end of the two-month course. Students were specifically told to be as honest as possible in filling out the questionnaire. To lessen any possible bias, the instructor waited outside the classroom while students were completing the questionnaire.
Descriptive statistics for the data from the Book Record and the questionnaire are displayed
DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSION
One of the first things to notice in Table 1 is that there was considerable variability in the amount of reading that participants did. Despite frequent monitoring and reminding by the instructor, about 60% of the students read below the required 800 pages of reading material. But, to our surprise, 40% of them exceeded the required amount, with 10% of them reading more than 1000 pages. This was certainly encouraging, given the fact that these students were literally flooded with large amounts of homework assigned by the other instructors.
Table 1 also shows that students reported reading material which was quite interesting (7.31 out of 10), moderately difficult (4.38 out of 10), with quite a high degree of comprehension (87% out of 100%). This was quite expected, as students were continually reminded of the importance of selecting a book which was interesting and easy to read—one which they could read fluently and with a high degree of comprehension. On the question of whether the ER assignments were useful in improving their English, students on the average gave a score of 3.04—Very Useful. An average score of 2.63 (midway between Enjoyable and Very Enjoyable) was given in response to the question of whether the ER assignments were enjoyable. This, we feel, is a good indication that our adult learners responded positively to the ER program. Although initially we heard many complaints regarding the amount of reading that they had to do, at the end of the program, most students reported finding the ER assignments beneficial in improving their English. One student who rated the ER assignments Very Useful commented (student comments are unedited), "Reading make me understand a lot of things. I can learn a lot from books." The same student, however, said that he needed more time to enjoy the books.
Thus, the answer to the first research question--whether ER could be implemented with older adult ESL learners—seems to be in the affirmative. Participants not only quite enjoyed doing the ER assignments, but also found them very useful in improving their knowledge of English. On the average, students did quite a large amount of reading within the two-month period they were in Singapore. In fact, as was mentioned earlier, about 40% read more than they were required to do, thus indicating that they were indeed willing to invest their time and effort in ER.
While the majority of participants in the present study could not be described as middle-aged, Rane-Szostak (1997) argues that ER also has important benefits for older adults, a growing proportion of the population in many countries. Research she conducted (Rane-Szostak & Herth, 1995) suggests that ER is associated with decreased loneliness and enhanced feelings of self-worth among elderly people. She explains these benefits with reference to the work of Csikszentminhalyi (1991) on the Psychology of Optimal Experience, i.e., by taking part in enjoyable, self-directed, goal-oriented activities, we experience a state called flow. ER certainly meets the criteria for producing this beneficial feeling of flow.
However, it is important to remember that people are more likely to immerse themselves in reading extensively if careful planning and monitoring take place. Not all our adult second language learners came to the program with the motivation to spend lots of time reading graded readers. In fact, in the first two weeks of the course some complained a lot about the quantity of reading assignments, saying that they did not have enough time to read and were busy doing the assignments given by other course instructors. This opposition displayed by some only turned to eagerness after repeated explanation of the importance of ER for language learning, weekly progress reports through the Book Record, tireless encouragement from the instructor, and, last but not least, the pleasure and insight provided by the reading material. Towards the end of the course, it was not uncommon to hear comments such as "I read fast now" and "I think I will continue reading English books after I return to Vietnam".
The second research question asked about the relationship between a set of variables (e.g., prior English study, amount of reading done, perceived usefulness of ER assignments) and learning gain as measured by the difference between posttest and pretest scores. Only three variables—amount of reading in English done in home country (r=.448) and in Singapore, amounts of ER (r=.386) and newspaper/magazine reading (r=.36)—were significantly correlated with gain scores (see Table 2). Note here that all three variables are associated with quantity of reading. On average, a correlation of about .40 was obtained for these three variable, which means that about 16% of the variation in gain scores can be accounted for by the three variables associated with amount of reading.
Further examination of the data using a more powerful data analysis procedure (i.e., regression analysis) revealed a very interesting result. Only one variable, amount of ER done in Singapore, was a significant predictor of students’ gain scores. The other variables made poor showings on the regression analysis, including the two variables that were significantly correlated with learning gain. These two variables did not survive the multivariate analysis. One possible explanation for this is that perhaps at the present stage of their language development, what participants in our study needed most was: (i) large amounts of language input which (ii) they could comprehend. The only variable that satisfies these two requirements was the ER done during the course. The other types of reading that students did (reading in home country and newspaper/magazine reading in Singapore) were small in amounts and perhaps not as comprehensible, thus exhibiting weak effects.
One last issue that came up as we were writing this report was whether language proficiency affected the amount of ER done by the participants in our study. Did higher proficiency students tend to read more than the lower proficiency students? In other words, did higher proficiency lead to more reading, rather than or in addition to more reading leading to higher proficiency? We did a follow-up analysis to address this issue. Our results showed no significant correlation (r = .223) between pretest score and quantity of reading done in Singapore, although there certainly was some correlation with the more proficient class reading an average of 774 pages and the less proficient averaging 684 pages. This difference, however, was not significant (t = .94, p> .05). One possible explanation for these results is that our library has a sufficiently large collection of graded materials to meet the needs of even those who came into our program with minimal language proficiency. As mentioned earlier in this article, ER specialists such as Hill (1997) stress the great importance of providing a collection of materials that cater the range of proficiency levels represented among students. The fact that the quantity of newspaper and magazine reading was not significantly related to learning gain in the regression analysis may have been due to the greater difficulty level of such material compared to graded readers.
Thus, our results seem to indicate that ER can indeed be beneficially implemented with second language learners beyond the age of university undergraduates, even in programmes of relatively short duration, such as the two months of the EIC programme. We propose the following diagram to show the key components in our ER program which may partly explain participants’ language development (see Figure 1).
Insert Figure 1 here
In conclusion, we should emphasise that it may not be sufficient to simply provide books and ask students to read them. As was discussed above, the success of our ER program required a careful planning and systematic implementation. And finally, one of the greatest rewards in conducting this study is in seeing the initially not-so-eager readers gradually develop a healthy reading habit—a very important component of learning a foreign language.
1) Two students who were originally placed in the more proficient group based on their pretest scores (which were higher than the cut-off point of 4.6) were moved into the low group following their complaints that the pace of the lessons was too fast to follow.
We wish to thank Mr. Edwin Goh, Director of SEAMEO RELC, for his encouragement and support for this project, and Ms.Yolanda Beh, Librarian and Head of Information Centre of SEAMEO RELC, and her capable staff for giving our students assistance and access to their fine collection of graded reading materials.
Anderson, G., Higgins, D., & Wurst, S. 1985. Differences in free-reading books selected by high, average and low achievers. The Reading Teacher, 39, 326-330.
Bamford, J. & Day, R.R. 1997. ER: What is it? Why bother? The Language Teacher, 21, 6-8/12.
Brown, H. & Cambourne, B. 1987. Read and retell. North Ryde, NSW: Methuen.