Tips to Lead Students to Success in Reading Extensively

Tips to Lead Students to Success in Reading Extensively

By: Nobuko Sakurai

My journey as an extensive reading (ER) practitioner began when one of my former colleagues handed me a thin book with cute illustrations on the cover. She said, “Here, read this.” She is an enthusiastic ER advocate, and it was an extensive reading book that she owned. For the next two days, I was in the university library reading ER books collected upon her request. According to her, she selected books for students who had had no successful, pleasant English learning experience and who were repeating required English classes. The majority of the books were extremely easy to read and short. Still, I was absorbed in the stories. I was having fun spotting wordplay. I was thrilled at the stack of books next to me piling up higher and higher as I finished reading one book after another. When these story-filled days were over, the learner in me whispered to the teacher in me, “Include ER in my classes.”

Reading in Class

In the following semester, I started taking ER books to my classes and had my students try Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) for fifteen minutes in class. Just like books took me to a different world in the library, the ER stories put smiles on my students’ faces, touched their hearts, and gave them joy in every class. As ER is sometimes referred to as pleasure reading, it is an affective activity that adds pleasure to a lesson that can be perceived as monotonous. Soon, conversations about books they read were heard among students when they came to the front of the classroom to return the finished book and choose a new one. SSR was effective as it helped create a community where students shared their likes and where they were encouraged to read more because they saw each other enjoying reading. It was a time when their brains were in sync.

An illustration of four people happily reading books.

Refraining from Translating

As I became more used to facilitating ER in the classroom, I noticed some students continued to read slowly. Having experienced studying English in the same educational system, I naturally understood that they weren’t doing ER but reading in the way they believed was reading ingrained in the six years of English classes at junior and senior high schools. They were looking at each word in a sentence, thinking about the grammar in that sentence and understanding the content in Japanese. That is, they were translating English into Japanese but not reading in a true sense.

As Nishizawa et al. (2006) illustrated in the diagram below, the brain processes information differently when readers translate English and understand the meaning in Japanese from when they interpret English in English. Readers who are inclined to translate are dealing with two languages because they capture English letters with their eyes and decode what they see in Japanese. This imposes a burden on working memory. As reported by Price et al. (1999), different parts of the brain were activated when the participants of their study were asked to translate compared to when they were asked to read aloud, indicating translating is not identical to reading. A decrease in translation increases the amount of reading, comprehension and reading rate (Sakurai, 2015). If learners can read fast, they can use their finite working memory span efficiently. They will retain information to understand the content within a time frame. Then, automaticity will be enhanced. To reduce the workload of the brain and to develop reading fluency, students learning English should be encouraged to read English in English.

 A layered structure of information processing when a Japanese person reads or listens in English
(Adapted from Nishizawa et al., 2006)


As a step to break the habit of translating stories in English into Japanese, I suggest my students make a movie out of the story in their minds during ER. Fortunately, most ER books have illustrations. Instead of having Japanese in their minds, I advise them to transform the English words and sentences into images and visualize the scenes between the pictures while reading. Visual imagery strengthens memory (Blakemore & Frith, 2005). Students who have moved up the ladder and started reading longer stories often remark that they have forgotten the beginning part of a story by the time they reach the ending. Visualization certainly helps them remember the whole story and grasp the plot fully.

An illustration of three children reading a book and imagining the story in their minds.

Reading from a Limited Number of Series

Another tip I give to my students is to find a favorite series and read titles within that series. It seems to me that some students are improving not only their receptive skills but also their speaking and writing skills through ER. Although ER is not the only English study they are engaged in, it must influence their learning positively rather than negatively. Under this assumption, I first examined the reading record of seemingly successful readers. It looked like the bookshelf as shown in the photo below. It was not random at all. They were finishing almost all the books at the starter level, then reading a lot of level 1 titles and moving on to level 2 within one series. In a series, it is often the case that the same characters appear and stories develop in a similar manner. Also, the same vocabulary is repeatedly used within a series (Nation & Wang, 1999). This presumably reduces the cognitive load on the brain and promotes efficient learning. 

A picture of a library bookcase, holding many books of the same series.

Together with the reading record, I analyzed their pre, post and delayed vocabulary test results as well (Sakurai, 2023). The test administered was called the Productive Vocabulary Levels Test (available at It aims to assess vocabulary that learners can use in speaking and writing when they are prompted by the teacher. To score high on this test, orthographical, syntactical and semantic knowledge of words is required. I found that those who achieved a higher score on the post-test were reading from fewer series. These students were probably meeting the same vocabulary in diverse contexts and internalizing it firmly. Selecting titles from a limited number of series seems to contribute to lexical development.

Reading Plenty of Short Books

Another finding (Sakurai, 2023) was that students who retained the post test scores or further improved the scores on the delayed test were reading more fewer-than-2,000-word-long books and fewer longer books than those whose scores deteriorated. This scheme, along with reading from fewer series, might have enabled the students participating in the study to repeatedly meet the same words in different situations. Retrieval is the key to successful learning (Oakley et al., 2021). Frequently appearing words were probably solidified in the memory of these participants at every retrieval. The capacity of working memory is limited, and information that overwhelms the memory system falls off (Oakley et al., 2021), but short books don’t contain long, complex sentences. On the other hand, longer books use a wider variety of enriched vocabulary. It is possible that readers can be distracted by it. Besides, longer books need a longer period of time to finish. Generally speaking, a person’s attention span in minutes is age plus one (Oakley et al., 2021). Most of my students read 100 to 120 words per minute on average, so they can maintain attention while reading books with 2000 to 2400 words. I now believe shorter length and simple books can advance vocabulary acquisition, so I encourage my students to read a number of books at very easy levels, especially at the start of ER.

An illustration of a girl reading a book; five books float around her.

The tips outlined in this article are the product of my experience, observation, and research over a decade. I explain them in the orientation held in April for first-time extensive readers, but the tips tend to fade away and slip out of their minds before Week 2. New students are processing a myriad of new information in a new environment, so their memory system is overworked. I’m convinced that repetition and retrieval do the trick. I remind them of these tips until they automatically do ER accordingly. I hope these tips will stay in the memory of the teachers who are directing an ER program and who are going to implement it.


  • Blakemore, S-J. & Frith, U. (2005). The learning brain: Lessons for education. Blackwell Publishing.

  • Laufer, B. & Nation. P. (1999). A vocabulary-size test of controlled productive ability. Language Testing, 16(1), 36-55. 

  • Nishizawa, H., Yoshioka, T., & Itoh, K. (2006). Improvement of engineering students’ communication skills in English through extensive reading. The Institute of Electrical Engineers of Japan Transactions on Fundamentals and Materials A, 127(7), 556-561. 

  • Oakley B., Rogowsky, B. & Sejnowski, T. (2021). Uncommon sense teaching: Practical insights in brain science to help students learn. Penguin Random House. 

  • Price, C. J., Green, D. W., & von Studnitz, R. (1999). A functional imaging study of translation and language switching. Brain, 122, 2221-2235.

  • Sakurai, N. (2015). The influence of translation on reading amount, proficiency, and speed in extensive Reading. Reading in a Foreign Language, 27(1), 96-112.

  • Sakurai, N. (2023). Potential influence of extensive reading on controlled productive vocabulary. Language Teaching Research.

Nobuko Sakurai is an associate professor and a coordinator of the extensive reading program in the Faculty of Foreign Studies at Kyoto Sangyo University. Her research interests include the efficacy of extensive reading on cognitive and language development.

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