Exam classes can be a challenge in its own, especially with the amount of pressure on teachers and students. It’s time, in my opinion, to look at the very important role extensive reading should play on the language development of exam class students and how to reduce the pressure. And whilst I don’t think my context covers every single context in the world, it’s useful to use our exam classes as a starting point as they can be divided into two groups that potentially covers some of the contexts: those that take a one-year course working towards an exam, and those that take a short semi-intensive course. Our semi-intensive courses are run over 8 to 12 weeks, getting through the equivalent of 78 classroom hours. By comparison, our annual courses are three hours a week over weeks, adding up to 120 hours a year. It is a lot easier to give students focused homework and get them to spend around 200 hours on an exam course over a year than over two months. The focus of this blog post will be on extensive reading tips and advice I give exam students to make the most of their short courses, but also those on the longer courses. I realise that many of you might be dealing with intensive courses where students are in class for 20 hours a week, that said I’m sure many of the ideas coming up will still be useful for you.
For the sake of this post, I’ve homed in on IELTS due to its popularity … and am aiming my advice at teachers of adult and teenage students. We do, of course, teach kids as well, but because we follow a slightly different approach that’s really a topic to explore in a future post.
How long does it take to learn a language?
While there isn’t a definitive answer on how long it takes to learn a language, this white paper by Knight (2018) is a great summary of the research. As I am focusing on IELTS, let’s assume a student is at CEFR B1 working towards B2 or a score of 5.5 to 6.5, or they are at B2 working towards C1, which will be IELTS 7 and up. According to the research summary by Knight (2018), it would take an adult learner with good motivation, sufficient resources, and well-trained teachers, around 180 to 260 hours to move from B1 to B2. And working under the same conditions, it would take a B2 learner aiming for C1 200 to 300 hours, though it’s worth noting these are guided learning hours.
That being said, I have to be honest and say that I, or indeed any of you teaching exam classes, cannot make our learners move a CEFR level in 78 hours - something I highlight to my learners right at the start of the course.
It’s not designed to demotivate – it’s more about pointing out that any course that short is predominantly aimed at getting the learners used to the exam tasks and format, working on strategies for different question and task types, and to get them useful feedback that can help them improve their performance, specifically in writing and speaking. While exam boards, and perhaps so specifically the bigger ones like Cambridge Assessment have made strides to ‘encourage positive learning experiences and achieve a positive impact on teaching’ (UCLES, 2015) by making their tests more communicative, a short intensive exam course is still limited in terms of what it can do for a learner’s language development and really moving them up a CEFR level.
The power of self-selected free reading
The power of self-selected free reading is perhaps the most underestimated learning tool, and it is often disappointing to see how little learners of a language actually read in that language. Nation (2014) estimated that learners can move from Elementary (CEFR A2) to at least Upper Intermediate (CEFR B2) with 1200 hours of reading. This was confirmed by Mason and Krashen (2017) who found that TOEIC students moved up 0.6 of a score on average for each hour they read and matches with 1200 hours of reading to move up two or three CEFR levels. This means that if a learner reads an hour a day for three years, and the texts are at an appropriate level for them, they can read themselves to upper intermediate in three years without any classes or with limited classes. This assumes the learners are reading between 200 and 300 words per minute and the books they have chosen to read allows them to be reading at that speed.
An important point to mention here is that all the students in Mason and Krashen study read novels or graded readers. This is particularly important to IELTS students as they often choose to struggle through a few articles in the Economist rather than just reading something they will actually enjoy. So, my first piece of advice to my IELTS students are: ‘’If you want to move up a CEFR level, read 400 hours of novels or stories. That means if you start now, three or four weeks before the course starts, and you keep doing that for 20 weeks, you need to read about three hours a day. And yes, I do mean things like Harry Potter or the Hunger Games if that is what you enjoy reading. But you need to read a lot!’
I don’t know where to get things to read!
This is always the next question. If you want your learners to read stories, they don’t know where to get them. We have a library at school, but even then, it is difficult to cover all the different tastes and there is always the risk that a student takes a book home, reads a few pages, lose interest, and then read nothing until they return to the school a few days later.
In 2015, at the English Australia conference, I saw a presentation by Jose Lara and Lesley Speer called the Book Club Café. It was basically an extensive reading project that they did with their students and the results were amazing. In their presentation, we were introduced to a website called Extensive Reading Central or ER-central for short. Using the site is free and it allows you to register as a student or a teacher. Students can input their teacher’s email address and send you how many words they have read in a week. 20 hours of reading a week, should get them to about 240,000 words. Now, I am not suggesting you only use this site, but it is a nice challenge to see who in the class is reading the most and how much they are reading.
My next piece of advice: ‘Read something you actually enjoy reading, not something you think will help you with the exam. It is called ‘Reading for pleasure’ for a reason.’
What about listening?
Here is what I tell my learners: ‘You can also spend a lot of time listening and listening to audio books are great, but not as effective as reading. You can also watch TED talks, especially as they have transcripts that you can read, but the key thing really is reading. You cannot really listen to the same number of words in an hour as you can read. You cannot simply go back and listen to a sentence again as easily as you can read it again in a book’.
That said, an important point to mention to them is that if they want to memorise vocabulary from books they have read, they have to be sure they know how to pronounce the word. If you don’t know how to say a word, subvocalization will not work if you read or try to recall the word in future, so it’s worth checking the pronunciation with an online English-speaking dictionary. My advice on listening and sounds: ‘Reading will improve your listening, reading, speaking and writing. But make sure you can say the words you are making notes off’.
Vocabulary at higher levels (like IELTS 6 and above)
The question about vocabulary generally proves the benefit of extensive reading, rather than refute it. According to text inspector (2021), only 1.25% of the words produced by C-level (CEFR C1 and C2) writers are actually considered C-level vocabulary.
This is simply because function words (the, and) take up a large percentage of our writing, and the syntactical control necessary to increase reading speed and comprehension, decoding listening, and producing comprehensible spoken and written texts can be acquired simply by reading the language. There is basically no difference between how the present progressive is used in an article in The Harvard Business Review and Harry Potter. But you are a lot more likely to acquire control over the structure through reading it multiple times in a story than once or twice in an article where you might need to check the meaning of every twentieth word.
It also means that we spend a lot more time on lexis in the classroom. This allows me to focus on the meaning, form and pronunciation of ‘more advanced words’ but also allows learners to consider how they can use collocation dictionaries and notebooks to expand their vocabulary. And obviously, there is always the Academic Word List to get the initial ‘Academic words’ out of the way through multiple apps available nowadays. So, tell them; ‘Find a suitably qualified teacher that can teach you the vocabulary, skills, and strategies you need. That is our job as teachers. Your job is just to read! And to read something you enjoy reading. It should be fun.’
I do wish sometimes I could simply say come to my school everyday for three hours and just read something we mutually agree on. And then take my 78-hour course … and if you don’t get the score I predicted prior to starting, I would refund you for the course and the exam! But business isn’t that simple, and there are some other important variables that impact an overall exam or IELTS score. Nonetheless, I think we need to significantly increase the encouragement we give our learners to read for pleasure outside of the exam classroom, as this is much more likely to increase their overall proficiency that any number of exam class hours. And then we can spend our exam class time on strategies, motivation, and the activities we need to do to get them ready for that very important language exam. A last word (actually three words) for them is: ‘Please, please read!’
Knight, B. (2018). How Long Does It Take to Learn a Language? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mason, B. & Krashen, S. (2017). Self-Selected Reading and TOEIC Performance. Sdkrashen.com: Stephen D. Krashen. (Last accessed 19 October 2022).
Nation, I. S. P. (2014). How much input do you need to learn the most frequent 9000 words? Reading in a Foreign Language, 26, 2 pp1-16
TextInspector (2021). Lexical Profiles According to the CEFR: What Does Research Say? Weblingua Ltd: TextInspector. (Last accessed 19 October 2022).