Reading in a Foreign Language
Volume 14, Number 1, April 2002
Extensive Reading and Language Learning: A Diary Study of a Beginning Learner of Japanese
Ching Yin Leung
Motivated by the continued growth of research on extensive reading as well as the positive results from a variety of studies (e.g., Bell, 2001; Camiciottoli, 2001; Elley & Mangubhai, 1983; Mason & Krashen, 1997; Nash & Yuan, 1992; Renandya, Rajan, & Jacobs, 1999; Tse, 1996; Walker, 1997), an investigation was conducted on the impact of extensive reading on an adult's self-study of Japanese over a 20-week period. Data were collected from multiple sources, including a learner diary, audio-recordings from several private tutorial sessions, and vocabulary tests. The results of this study show that extensive reading can enhance vocabulary acquisition and reading comprehension, and promote a positive attitude toward reading. The challenges that the learner encountered during the extensive reading process and how they were dealt with are also addressed.
Over the past decade or so, there have been numerous studies reporting that extensive reading not only benefits learners of different ages, but also in different contexts. In addition to the gains in reading proficiency, positive affect, and reading habits (Camiciottoli, 2001; Nash & Yuan, 1992; Renandya, et al., 1999; Tse, 1996), other benefits of extensive reading also include gains in listening proficiency (Elley & Mangubhai, 1983), writing ability (Mason & Krashen, 1997; Tsang, 1996), reading speed (Bell, 2001; Walker, 1997), and even spelling (Day & Swan, 1998; Krashen, 1989). These studies provide valuable insights and pedagogic implications for educators who want to implement extensive reading in their classrooms.
However, the majority of these studies are quantitative with a focus on whether a particular extensive reading program is beneficial to learners; very few of them provide a clear picture of what learners experience during the extensive reading process, including the challenges they face or the turning point at which learners gain a more positive attitude toward reading. In addition, researchers who have conducted studies on extensive reading are mostly researchers or language teachers who lack the time or the opportunity to experience what it is like to engage in extensive reading from the learner's perspective. The purpose of this paper is to explore both the benefits and challenges that one may encounter when engaging in extensive reading as revealed through a learner's diary study.
According to Bailey (1990), a diary study "is a first-person account of a language learning or teaching experience, documented through regular, candid entries in a personal journal and then analyzed for recurring patterns or salient events" (p. 215). In fact, diary studies have been an important introspective tool in language research because they can provide an emic perspective of learners' learning experiences and processes which may be "hidden" or "inaccessible" through observation from investigators (Bailey & Ochsner, 1983, p. 189). While some diarists are commissioned to keep a journal recording their language learning experience as a participant in someone else's study, others diarists are the investigators themselves (e.g., Bailey & Ochsner, 1983; Cohen, 1997; Jones, 1994; Schmidt & Frota, 1986). Although diary studies, like any other case studies, cannot make claims for generalizations, they have provided valuable insights regarding various aspects of language learning which include learners' anxiety, learning strategies, impact of classroom interaction, conversational interaction, proficiency thresholds, self-study, vocabulary development, and pragmatics, to name a few.
A major limitation of a diary study is its subjectivity, as has been well recognized by researchers in general (e.g., Schmidt & Frota, 1986). Jones (1994) observed that when a researcher is the observer as well as the subject under study, it creates a "triple subjectivity" which may "increase the danger of finding what one sets out to find rather than what is objectively there" (p. 444). However, Jones also argued that if the goal of a study is to find out what is involved in the learning process, then that subjectivity -- "how one perceives the processes, what one chooses to record" -- should be an important part of the study.
Purposes of the Study
Due to my own interest, I decided to learn to read Japanese on my own for four months and to record my journey of extensive reading in a diary. The goals of this study were to discover the effectiveness of extensive reading and to better understand the extensive reading process from the perspective of a foreign language learner. The research questions in this study are
The subject of this case study is also the researcher and the author of the paper, referred to as Wendy. Wendy lived in Hong Kong for 20 years where she learned Chinese as her first language and English as a second language. She has resided and studied English in the US and Canada since 1992. At the time of the study, she was attending the University of Hawai`i for her master's degree in ESL.
About 10 years ago, Wendy took a few Japanese lessons at the YMCA in Hong Kong. In those few lessons, she learned how to write and pronounce Japanese orthographies, hiragana and katakana, and learned some phrases for self-introduction, greetings, and so on. Although she still remembered some of the expressions when she began this study, the limited training did not help her with her reading. She had to relearn hiragana as a beginning learner of Japanese at the time she began this study.
The study was divided into two stages, covering 9 and 11 weeks respectively. During the first stage of the study, Wendy was taking a graduate course about teaching ESL reading. It was then she gained a better understanding about what extensive reading was and how it could benefit language learners. Since Wendy could not find any Japanese courses featuring extensive reading for beginning learners, an ideal way to carry out her study was to set her own course. To prepare for the study, Wendy talked to her professor in the Teaching ESL Reading class and two students who had learned Japanese as a foreign language. Some of their suggestions included: a) start reading something simple and interesting; b) learn some basic vocabulary; c) try to read hiragana out loud to get a feel for the language; d) learn the conjunctions because they delineate word/vocabulary endings; and e) study with a Japanese student.
Wendy tried to follow their suggestions as she began the study. She also borrowed books from her friends and the library to learn to read and write the hiragana. Occasionally, she asked her Japanese friends to clarify some of the grammar points and explain the Japanese sentence structures to her. She also got help from a book called Japanese for Busy People (AJLT, 1995). It contains basic grammar and dialogs focusing on learning Japanese for communication. In an effort to learn Japanese through extensive reading, Wendy tried to apply the characteristics of the extensive reading approach established by various studies (Bell, 1998; Day & Bamford, 1998; Renandya, et al., 1999; Walker, 1997):
Wendy spent an average of one hour studying and reading Japanese each day. Every day after her study, Wendy reflected on what she learned that day and wrote in her journal issues that concerned her. Then she gathered her notes and made one to two diary entries recording her experience and progress for the week. The diary was written in English, which is the language she had been using to write her personal journal for more than 8 years. Periodically, she talked to her professor about her progress and concerns about her learning Japanese through e-mail or after-class discussions.
After 9 weeks of studying and recording, Wendy reviewed her journal and identified interesting trends. Then, she resumed her study after two and a half months. During the second stage, Wendy continued to follow the same study pattern and journal recording procedure that she did in stage 1. In the second stage, Wendy found a Japanese friend who was willing to help her with her study for about half an hour to 1 hour each week. In order to triangulate the subjective date from journal entries and provide a more objective view, other sources of data were used to evaluate Wendy's progress in her learning as part of the study during the second stage.
Evaluative Methodology Used in the Study During the Second Stage
First, the tutoring sessions were tape-recorded. They contained discussions of various reading passages from a first-grade Japanese textbook, Wendy's questions about Japanese, her tutor's comments, and oral reading. Salient trends were identified and transcribed. A second source of evaluation was a vocabulary test.
Vocabulary test. The vocabulary test was created by a Japanese graduate student who randomly selected a sub-sample of 150 words from a word list of 689 words in Japanese for Busy People (AJLT, 1995). These 689 words are considered to be essential for the most common situations in which non-native speakers need to communicate in Japanese. Then, 50 words were randomly selected for the first test (version A) and 50 words for the second test (version B). Because one word mistakenly appeared twice in the second test, only 49 words were actually counted in the second test. The answers were marked by the test constructor and scored by the researcher. In grading the tests, each item was evaluated on a 0-4 scale (adopted from Paribakht & Wesche, 1997):
Results and Discussion
Does Extensive Reading Lead to Vocabulary Acquisition?
Vocabulary test. Results of the vocabulary test show that Wendy's vocabulary knowledge, as measured by the modified Paribakht & Wesche's scale, improved by 23.5% in one month (see Table 1).
Table 1: Vocabulary Test Results
Note: The pre-test had 50 items; the post-test had 49. The best score possible on the pre-test was 200; the best possible for the post-test was 196.
The first test was administered in Week 16; the second test in Week 20. The largest improvement was manifested in her ability to identify words and use them to construct more semantically and grammatically correct sentences in the second test (from 10% on the first test to 16% on the second test). In addition, her responses in the "don't know the word" answers (categories 0 and 1) decreased slightly in the second test. The gain in vocabulary knowledge as assessed by Wendy's ability to use words in sentences resulted from the large linguistic input she received through extensive reading and her increased knowledge in Japanese grammar and sentence structure through self-study.
Data from journal entries and tutoring sessions. Wendy's journal entries indicate that extensive reading helped her acquire vocabulary in various ways. First, a large amount of input increased her opportunities to be exposed to words previously learned. As a result, it reinforced her existing knowledge of certain vocabulary items and allowed her to apply her vocabulary knowledge in a meaningful way. At weeks 10, 13, and 18, Wendy made these journal entries:
Second, reading different genres allowed Wendy to learn words or phrases that would not normally be found in textbooks. For example in week 14, she learned expressions such as "it's time to get up." In week 16, she learned oshikkoshinakatta (children's expression for "I didn't wet my pants"). Third, the children's literature that Wendy read not only provided favorable repetitions for vocabulary learning, but also allowed her to discover the meanings of certain words through pictures and contextual cues:
Fourth, reading extensively increased Wendy's opportunities to discover new and alternative meanings for certain words that she knew, but in a limited sense:
Fifth, reading extensively also helped Wendy learn vocabulary incidentally. Being able to correctly guess some unfamiliar terms at the time of vocabulary testing really surprised Wendy; her only explanation for that was "I must have read it somewhere" (journal entry, week 20).
Although extensive reading has helped Wendy acquire vocabulary in various ways, the data recorded in the tutoring sessions as well as the journal also revealed that multiple exposures to particular vocabulary items do not necessarily ensure vocabulary learning:
The phenomenon of forgetting the meaning of certain vocabulary could be caused by insufficient exposure or reinforcement of words. As Nation (1997) pointed out, "vocabulary learning from extensive reading is very fragile. If the small amount of learning of a word is not soon reinforced by another meeting, then that learning will be lost." In other words, though we cannot guarantee all the vocabulary items that learners encounter with multiple exposures will be acquired, extensive reading does lead to vocabulary acquisition if materials with suitable vocabulary levels are available to learners for "repeated opportunities to meet wanted vocabulary" (Nation, 1997).
Does Extensive Reading Promote Reading Comprehension?
Data from journal entries. Data from the journal entries show that Wendy's reading comprehension gradually improved throughout the course of the study. Basically, she improved from having a hard time decoding the hiragana orthography to understanding some simple children's stories. This gradual improvement can be seen from the following journal entries:
Improvement in reading comprehension is a gradual process; it does not happen overnight. While the instructions Wendy received from the textbooks and her tutor gave her the basic foundation to improve her comprehension, reading extensively gave her the opportunity to practice and expand her reading comprehension skills.
Does Extensive Reading Promote Positive Attitudes Toward Reading?
An analysis of Wendy's diary entries indicates that her attitude toward reading Japanese generally became more positive throughout the course of her study. This change of attitude has also been reported in various extensive reading studies (e.g., Camiciottoli, 2001; Mason & Krashen, 1997; Renandya, et al., 1999; Tse, 1996). When Wendy began her study, she was very excited about her reading project, but then her excitement was quickly replaced by confusion and frustration, mainly because she had a hard time finding the appropriate materials for her study. She reported her concerns through an e-mail to her professor:
After consulting with her professor, Wendy decided that trying to "crack the code" by relearning hiragana would be beneficial to her. She would not only learn to read hiragana, but also have the opportunity to truly experience the learning process as a beginning foreign language learner. At the same time, she pursued reading children's books that would help her Japanese learning.
After Wendy was able to find a substantial volume of materials that matched her language competency, she felt more comfortable trying to read Japanese. Her confidence as well as her excitement toward reading grew gradually as she was able to identify different vocabulary appearing in various texts and figure out meanings of words or sentences that she had never learned before. This attitude change can be seen in her diary entries:
As Wendy's confidence in reading grew, she found herself having more tolerance of the different features and complexity of Japanese. In other words, when things got complicated, instead of thinking that Japanese was too difficult to learn, she tried to acknowledge the complexity and patiently learned to resolve one thing at a time. When she came across books that she really wanted to read, it motivated her to improve her reading proficiency so she could truly comprehend the essence of the story:
Whenever Wendy was able to read something interesting and within her level of proficiency, it motivated her to read more. But if she tried to read something that she could not understand, it negatively impacted her confidence in reading:
In short, extensive reading did promote a positive attitude toward reading when appropriate reading materials were accessible to Wendy. Also, in her case, reading extensively helped her develop a habit of reading Japanese. From her journal entries, she recorded that she has tried to read Japanese advertisements on campus, directions on the package of children's toys, Japanese instructions on a phone card, Japanese signs everywhere, and items on the menus of a Japanese curry house near a bus stop. This reading habit increased her linguistic input whenever and wherever possible.
What Challenges Does a Beginning Foreign Language Learner Face in the Extensive Reading Process?
Through an analysis of journal entries, some of the challenges Wendy faced at the beginning of her study included the difficulty of finding the appropriate reading materials, discipline, and time to read:
Another challenge, as mentioned in the earlier section regarding attitudes toward reading, is that Wendy got discouraged if she did not choose the appropriate reading materials to read. Also, sometimes Wendy's L1 negatively impacted her learning of Japanese. For example, she wrote
Dealing with the Challenges
Since Wendy was studying Japanese on her own with very limited help from her Japanese friends at the beginning of her study, it seemed that some of her challenges were related to the self-study itself. To overcome this problem, she studied with her tutor for about half an hour to an hour each week during the second stage of her study. As a result, she was more motivated and disciplined with her study because she felt that there was a good language model she could follow and rely on.
Although Wendy's tutor provided her a lot of help, finding the appropriate reading materials to read still seemed to be a major concern for Wendy throughout the study. In order to read extensively, Wendy had to look constantly for materials to read. Besides checking out books from the local library, a good source of materials she found was her Japanese friends, especially those who have young children in the family. During the second stage of the study, Wendy was referred to a Japanese teacher who was implementing an extensive reading program in one of her classes. Wendy was allowed to borrow Japanese books from the teacher and felt relieved, as she knew that there were a lot of books available for her study:
When learners try to learn a new language, it is possible that they apply some of their previous language learning experiences or strategies to tackle their foreign language learning problems. While sometimes this helps, other times it does not. It may be frustrating when beginning learners feel that what they are learning is very different from the language they already know. As Wendy mentioned in her journal, she had a hard time understanding Japanese when she tried to apply the way she had learned Chinese. Also, Wendy reported that the Chinese orthography had somewhat impacted her pronunciation in Japanese. Nevertheless, as Wendy continued to learn and read Japanese, her tolerance of the difference between her first language and Japanese also grew. This change can be seen in her journal in Week 11:
The present diary study, motivated by extensive reading studies from various learning contexts, examined the impact of extensive reading on vocabulary acquisition, reading comprehension, and attitude toward reading through the eyes of a beginning learner of Japanese. It also documented the challenges encountered during the extensive reading process and how the learner dealt with these challenges.
Through this study, we can see that the key element in the success of extensive reading is having access to a large quantity of reading materials geared to an individual's level of proficiency and interest. While some people believe that there can't be any pleasure in reading if learners haven't mastered the language (Nell, 1988, cited in Susser & Robb, 1990), the author would agree with those who argue that postponing reading until students have at least reached a certain level of proficiency may ignore "the role that reading can play in foreign language acquisition, particularly in the all-important learning of new words" (Bamford & Day, 1997). If appropriate reading materials are available, it is possible that a beginning foreign language learner can reap the benefits that extensive reading can offer.
Although the instructions Wendy received from her textbooks through self-study and her tutor contributed to the improvement of her vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension, reading extensively also played an important role in her learning process. As Wendy reflected on her learning experience at the end of her study, she wrote
Language learners, especially those who have never experienced the benefits of extensive reading, may find it challenging to find the time, discipline, and commitment to read extensively at the beginning. The problem will probably be resolved as they begin to experience the impact of extensive reading during the reading process. Once a routine is established, with constant encouragement from friends and teachers, reading can become a part of learners' daily activities and provide a nice break from other intensive studies.
In short, learning to read a new language is not an easy task, but it does not necessarily mean that one cannot find enjoyment in the process. If learners are given the opportunity to read extensively for pleasure and develop a passion for reading, they can become more eager to learn the necessary reading skills and vocabulary they need in order to enjoy what they read. In addition, extensive reading also gives learners more control over and confidence in their own learning. In light of research that shows the benefits of extensive reading, it is worth incorporating extensive reading into the reading curriculum.
Since this study only investigated the impact of extensive reading on a single subject, the findings in the study are limited to the perspective of this single learner. Future research involving beginning foreign language learners in different learning environments along with more subjects will shed more light for those who are interested in implementing extensive reading into their reading curriculum. In addition, keeping a record of reading to keep track of learners' progress or reading speed may provide greater insights regarding the effectiveness of extensive reading.
Association for Japanese Language Teaching. (1995). Japanese for busy people I (Kana Version). New York: Kodansha International.
Bailey, K. M. (1980). An introspective analysis of an individual's language learning experience. In R. Scarcella & S. Krashen (Eds.), Research in second language acquisition: Selected papers of the Los Angeles Second Language Acquisition Research Forum (pp. 58-65). Rowley, MA: Newbury House.
Bailey, K. M. (1990). The use of diary studies in teacher education programs. In J. C. Richards & D.Nunan (Eds.), Second language teacher education (pp. 215-226). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bailey, K. M., & Ochsner, R. (1983). A methodological review of the diary studies: Windmill tilting or social science? In K. M. Bailey, M. H. Long, & S. Peck (Eds.), Second language acquisition studies (pp. 188-198). Rowley, M.A.: Newbury House.
Bamford, J., & Day, R. R. (1997). ER: What is it? Why bother? The Language Teacher, 21(5). Retrieved September 22, 2001, from http://langue.hyper.chubu.ac.jp/jalt/pub/tlt/97/may/ extensive.html
Bell, T. (1998). Extensive reading: Why? And How? The Internet TESL Journal, IV(12). Retrieved September 22, 2001, from http://www.aitech.ac.jp/~iteslj/Articles/Bell-Reading.html
Bell, T. (2001). Extensive reading: Speed and comprehension. The Reading Matrix, 1(1). Retrieved September 22, 2001, from http://www.readingmatrix.com/articles/bell/ index.html
Camiciottoli, B. C. (2001). Extensive reading in English: Habits and attitudes of a group of Italian university EFL students. Journal of Research in Reading, 24(2), 135-153.
Cohen, A. D. (1997). Developing pragmatics ability: Insights from the accelerated study of Japanese. In H. M. Cook, K. Hijirida, & M. Tahara (Eds.), New trends & issues in teaching Japanese language & culture (pp. 137-163). Honolulu: University of Hawai`i, Second Language Teaching and Curriculum Center.
Day, R. R., & Bamford, J. (1998). Extensive reading in the second language classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Day, R. R., & Swan, J. (1998). Incidental learning of foreign language spelling through targeted reading. TESL Reporter, 31(1), 1-9.
Elly, W. B., & Mangubhai, F. (1983). The impact of reading on second language learning. Reading Research Quarterly, XIX(1), 53-67.
Jones, F. R. (1994). The lone language learner: A diary study. System, 22(4), 441-454.
Krashen, S. D. (1989). We acquire vocabulary and spelling by reading: Additional evidence for the Input Hypothesis. Modern Language Journal, 73, 450-464.
Mason, B., & Krashen, S. D. (1997). Extensive reading in English as a foreign language. System, 25(1), 91-102.
Nash, T., & Yuan, Y. (1992). Extensive reading for learning and enjoyment. TESOL Journal, 2(2), 27-31.
Nation, P. (1997). The language learning benefits of extensive reading. The Language Teacher, 21(5). Retrieved September 22, 2001, from http://langue.hyper.chubu.ac.jp/jalt/pub/tlt/97/ may/ benefits.html
Nell, V. (1988). Lost in a book: The psychology of reading for pleasure. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Paribakht, T. S., & Wesche, J. (1997). Vocabulary enhancement activities and reading for meaning in second language vocabulary acquisition. In J. Coady & T. Huckin (Eds.), Second language vocabulary acquisition: A rationale for pedagogy (pp. 174-202). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Renandya, W. A., Rajan, B. R. S., & Jacobs, G. M. (1999). Extensive reading with adult learners of English as a second language. RELC Journal, 30, 39-61.
Schmidt, R., & Frota, S. N. (1986). Developing basic conversational ability in a second language: A case study of an adult learner of Portuguese. In R. Day (Ed.), Talking to learn (pp. 237-326). Rowley, MA: Newbury House.
Susser, B., & Robb, T. (1990). EFL extensive reading instruction: Research and procedure. JALT Journal,12(2). Retrieved September 22, 2001, from http://www.kyoto-su.ac.jp/~trobb/sussrobb.html
Tsang, W. K. (1996). Comparing the effects of reading and writing on writing performance. Applied Linguistics, 17(2), 627-642.
Tse, L. (1996). When an adult becomes a reader. Reading Horizons, 37(1), 16-29.
Walker, C. (1997). A self access extensive reading project using graded readers (with particular reference to students of English for academic purposes). Reading in a Foreign Language, 11(1), 121-149.
I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Dr. Richard Day and Dr. Richard Schmidt, the University of Hawai`i, for their valuable advice and comments. I also would like to thank Akemi Fu, Claire Hitosugi, and Kanako Cho for their help and support.
Ching Yin Leung received her B.A. in TESOL from Brigham Young University - Hawai`i and M.A. in ESL from the University of Hawai`i. Partial results of the study's findings were presented at the Annual Hawai`i TESOL Conference, February 2000.