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I learned the basic principles of extensive reading (tadoku) from some of my Japanese friends who had been following this method for several years, but it wasn’t until after I started this blog that I learned more about this particular method’s history and became acquainted with Kunihide Sakai, who developed and popularized this form of tadoku. He was kind enough to answer several questions that I had for him about extensive reading in Japan and other subjects. If anyone has any more questions or any opinions, please feel free to post a comment so we can keep the discussion going! You can also contact him directly through Twitter.

About the history of tadoku in Japan

What initially sparked your interest in extensive reading?

‘Sparked’ is a bit off the mark, really, because the realization was gradual rather than instantaneous. The biggest moment seems to have been around thirty years ago when an American colleague at a university where I taught English came to the common room one day with a black eye. She told me by way of explanation that ‘bump into the door’ is a euphemism suggesting domestic violence but that she really ran into the door. I gave up my research on English literature at that moment. I decided studying literature in a foreign language would be pointless unless I know the language well enough so I would know that ‘Bump into the door’ could suggest domestic violence. I decided also then I should read a lot before I’d be able to do anything worthwhile regarding a foreign language, let alone ‘to teach it’!

I could tell you more experiences like this one, but my answer is long already.

You said in the other interview that you had been trying to make extensive reading work for 25 years, but it wasn’t until you came up with your three golden rules that it really took off. How did you come up with those rules, and what had you been trying before?

Eleven years ago, I was in England for one year with my family. I watched my kids acquire English at an alarming rate from scratch. (I had not taught them English myself before my family arrived in England.) I thought maybe the same thing could happen if my university students mimicked the way kids acquire a foreign language. It did seem like a crazy idea at the time, but I had been fed up with failures of all kinds
of teaching methods that I was willing to give something drastic a try.

I started experimenting with eight 18-year old students at Denki-Tsushin University and, lo and behold, two of them started to read ‘grownup’ books after 30 weeks of what I since recognize as ‘tadoku’. I experimented a little more with a few more students and by and by the observation became the base of the three golden rules. They didn’t seem crazy at the time any more.

In Japan, is the word “tadoku” always associated with the kind of reading you advocate? (That is, fluent reading for fun without dictionaries, starting from a low level.) Or is the term used for other types of reading as well?

Not really. The term 多読 has been around for, say, a hundred years at least. Its revival is certainly largely due to what I started to advocate ten years ago, but there have spawned many interesting interpretations of what 多読 means. Many people now only know the term 多読 and don’t know the three principles I proposed. I think it’s quite natural that when something starts to spread widely it undergoes some kind of change or another.

Are there different schools of thought about extensive reading in Japan? That is, even if people agree on the basics of tadoku, are there disagreements on the details, or about the best way to teach or study English through tadoku? If so, what are some of the more notable differences?

Yes, differences abound. Even the basics of tadoku are forgotten in some cases. In one high school in Tokyo, for example, I hear students were given homework whereby they translate ten graded readers a year (like Oxford Bookworms Library books) into Japanese.

Also there are differences of opinions even where basics are supposed to be agreed on, like ‘Should we teach basic grammar first?’, ‘ Should flash cards be used?’, ‘Should we test comprehension?’.

What groups are there in Japan that work to promote tadoku? In what ways were you involved with them, and are you still involved with them now?

There are now a number of groups that have a website to promote tadoku in English. Most prominent would be the SSS group, the oldest and most widely referred to since its launch in autumn of 2001.

I was one of its founding members and tadoku owes the site a lot at its earliest stages. I’m not involved with the SSS group now because they have now reverted to traditional ways of learning English. They now advocate some degree of use of dictionary as well as teaching of grammar and use of tests. Other groups may have different principles but they are not very clear about where they stand. They seem to be simply providing information on books to read or online format to record tadoku progress.

Can you write a quick summary of each of the books about tadoku and language learning that you’ve written or been a major contributor to? How were they received?

「どうして英語が使えない? 学校英語につける薬」(ちくま学芸文庫, 1993)
Lays the foundation for tadoku, I was hoping, by explaining how flash cards are detrimental to language learning. I also ‘denounce’ in this book the course books certified by the Ministry of Education as presenting ‘unnatural’ English. Total number of copies printed would be around 30,000? I’m not really sure. Sorry.

「快読100万語! ペーパーバックへの道」(ちくま学芸文庫、2002)
This is the first book that presented the three golden rules together with reading suggestions to pave the way from picture books to books for adults. Total number of copies printed would be 40,000?


「教室で読む英語100万語」(Co-authored with Kanda Minami, 大修館書店、2005)

All about introducing tadoku to classroom, with 19 examples of classroom practice from kids English classrooms to high schools to university. Total number of sale, 4000?

「さよなら英文法 多読が育てる英語力」(ちくま学芸文庫、2008)
「どうして?」was in a way a criticism of English-Japanese dictionaries.「さよなら」takes a hard look on grammar as taught in schools according to the Ministry of Education guideline. Sad to say the worst seller of my books… less than 3000 copies sold? Intellectually exciting and truly eye-opening?

Liana, let me recommend you 「快読100万語」if you want to read my book. It’s the most readable, I hear. Don’t bother the latter half of the book if you are not into grammar, though. I hear it’s hard-going.

Are there any other books about tadoku that are particularly popular?

Yes there are a number of books that seem to be popular. Off the top of my head, 「今日から読みます英語100万語」is the second book to appear on the market after 「快読100万語」and it is still popular because there are a lot of brief reviews of books that are suitable for English tadoku. You can see how tadoku is liberating to the people on the street.

Do you think tadoku will ever become a major part of mainstream English education in Japan?

I doubt it. It is so counter-intuitive (that an adult can learn a foreign language in the same way as kids do), it seems unlikely that schools and universities will embrace it, especially in Japan where rote-memory and test scores mean so much.

Some people likened tadoku to Chinese medicine in that the effect is not so visibly clear except it builds your basic life functions in the long run, so to speak. (it seems to me the effect is much quicker than Chinese medicine.)

Is there still an extensive reading class at the University of Electro-Communications now that you’ve retired, or will it revert to a more traditional English class?

Er…m… (Sigh) I still teach two tadoku classes at UEC as part-timer. But no Japanese teachers are interested in tadoku so there will be no more tadoku class once I quit next March.

To be frank with you, Liana, Japanese teachers of English are the hardest to see the merits of tadoku. But let me grumble later if you want to know why. The topic is so depressing.

(Note: I asked why, and he posted this comment on another page on July 29, 2011, which I’m adding here.)

1) Why Japanese teachers of English are the hardest to convince about the merits of tadoku.

This is a big topic which would need a few thousand words if discussed in full, so let me just enumerate some of the problems teachers have with tadoku.

* Teachers of English are the hardest nuts to crack because they have semi-instinctive resistance to tadoku, which is against everything they have believed in all along: use of a dictionary, translation into Japanese, vocab building through sheer memorization, focus on grammar, evaluation by tests and exams, among other things.
* They think they are proficient in English thanks to the conventional methods described above, and they expect their students to follow their own steps. We all know the kind of disaster that results, don’t we?
* Most teachers blame students for not achieving the proficiency they think they themselves have reached. Very few think that it’s not the students but the conventional methods that are at fault.
* So, tadoku is only accepted by teachers who have tried everything in their arsenal and have seen no visible improvement in their students.

Are there any similar classes at other universities or schools that you’re aware of?

Yes, there a quite a few schools and universities where tadoku is available to students. I guess the number is somewhere between 50 and 100 in all of Japan. You see, there ARE some oddballs among teachers of English in Japan.

I find it very satisfying to work with such teachers and my diary since April is full of visits to schools to help with their tadoku classes.

What kinds of materials are available to Japanese speakers who are interested in doing tadoku in English?

A well-stocked school will have about 10,000 books and picture books for its tadoku classes. They are mostly material for native-speaking kids from K to 12 but some are graded readers that are written in controlled English with contents for high school to adult audience.

Is interest in tadoku continuing to grow, or do you feel like it’s waning somewhat?

At the moment, it is still growing, growing strong even, it seems. Signs are in a lot of places if you know where to look. (That is, the trend is not that obvious.)

I have a feeling that in five years’ time the tide will change either for the better or for worse: I suspect it will be basic soundness of tadoku principles against the staying power of traditional thinking.

I understand that the 日本多読研究会 (Japanese Graded Readers Research Group), the group that produced the only Japanese graded readers currently available, was organized (I think?) by your wife. How did she come to be interested in extensive reading for Japanese learners?

I asked my wife who is roasting 秋刀魚 now. She says first she was not happy with the traditional 読解 teaching method, second she was impressed by the success of tadoku in my English classes.

What else does that group do?

The group teaches Japanese language classes in Tokyo, holds seminars for teachers of Japanese as a foreign language, and has workshops for writing, rewriting and editing of Japanese Graded Readers.

About the tadoku community

You host discussions over Skype a few times a week: can you explain a little bit about what those chats are like and who can join in?

Those chats started about nine months ago and finally the number of sessions per week started to grow. They have been successful, I think, because they bring together tadoku lovers around Japan for friendly and relaxed chatting in English. I have found Japanese people being very unwilling to make mistakes so, to lower the threshold, I ask them to use Japanese whenever they get stuck in English. This might seem bad for learners with 根性 or determination and guts, it has proven successful so far, getting more and more shy people to talk in English.

I am hoping to invite more Japanese learners like yourself to one of these sessions so please be alert to notices in Liana’s blog and my blog at tadoku.org. I invite anyone who is learning Japanese to contact me and join the おしゃべり会。

People who are into tadoku in Japan do offline meetups as well; what are those like?

They have been extremely successful and I believe they contributed to the success of tadoku in general in a big way. You see, it seems to me that three elements that meant a lot to the success so far are The three golden principles, the great amount of easy tadoku material and the tadoku community.

The number of tadoku lovers is so small and they are usually separated far from each other, they needed the Internet to make sure they are not alone. And off-line meetups may have enhanced the sense of this minority community.

What sort of experience do people learning Japanese have with tadoku?

I’ll have to ask my wife for this question but she has already gone to her computer, I’ll ask her later but I believe it’s roughly the same as English tadoku lovers. Tadoku let them enjoy Japanese rather than toil at it, thereby taking them very far along the way — farther than learners have had any inkling of sometimes.

Do you ever hear from people doing tadoku in languages besides English and Japanese?

Yes, I do, but they are all of them Japanese and had done tadoku in English before they started tadoku in other languages, like German, Chinese, French and Spanish for example. They all complain about the scarcity of easy tadoku material. In some languages, manga in the target language seem to be useful and easy to get hold of.

About tadoku and the learning process

Why do you consider it so important to stop using a dictionary?

I know this goes against the grain of serious and deermined learners of any foreign language. But I have observed literary thousands of English learners in Japan and the experience has shown me that at the end of the day the less you use your dictionary the quicker you get the gist of that language and get more efficient.

Do you think that learning a language primarily through tadoku is effective?

Err, yes. Please note that I base this affirmation on my observation so far. Actually by the same token, it seems to me now that the operative word here is ‘primarily’, if you want to enjoy the process of acquisition itself. If you want to go the hard way or if you enjoy tackling the dictionary or translating, stay clear of tadoku.

Have some learners particularly benefited from spending time on structured vocabulary and/or grammar studies along with extensive reading?

I doubt it. I’m not saying this categorically, though. I’m trying to find out the impact of conscious vocabulary building and/or grammar learning, but the jury is still out at the moment. My guess is that vocabulary building and grammar learning may have adverse effect on ‘(simulated) natural acquisition’ of a foreign language.

One of the most common criticisms I see of tadoku is that it’s good for reinforcing previously learned vocabulary, but it isn’t as efficient a way of learning vocabulary as other methods are. How do you address that concern?

They must be talking about ‘proper books’ rather than picture books at the first stages of tadoku. Pictures help enormously, you see. I have seen people with next to no knowledge of English getting quite proficient in recognizing and understanding hundreds if not thousands of new words.

I could go on writing about dozens of examples in this respect but it will take another three days at least writing non-stop. So more examples made available on request:).

Are there students who were turned off by what they felt to be childish or overly basic materials? Were they able to succeed with tadoku anyways, and if so, how?

Luckily my students at Denki-Tshushin U. are almost all of them fed up with the English course books with difficult topics and more difficult English. That helps a lot when I show them hundreds of picture books that they are asked to enjoy. They think my courses are veritable ‘Mickey courses’ as you say?, and before they know it, they get hooked by tadoku through Curious George books and Frog and Toad books for example.

It is my thinking that really serious authors of picture books tend to take their job quite seriously and do their best to entertain or to be informative to children and themselves. Forget childish pride in being a grown-up!, I say.

What are some other common criticisms of tadoku in Japan, and how do you address them?

There are so many, Liana, it beats me how I should start enumerating… And they also depress me. So some other time, all right?

One thing though. Have your heard of Bernal’s Ladder? If you haven’t, please read an article in my blog: http://tadoku.org/sakai-note/archives/2009/07/29_1059.html

You will see, I hope, tadoku is slowly overcoming the countless criticisms and misunderstandings.

Do people studying on their own through tadoku usually start with graded readers, or do many people prefer to start with authentic materials?

I do not know the percentage but there are both. In the early years definitely more people started with controlled ‘graded readers’, but authentic materials like Oxford Reading Tree series are now easier to get hold of since public libraries have begun to stock them. I am pushing toward more libraries having authentic tadoku materials.

Was there any sense of competition among your students, or among people doing tadoku on their own?

Not that I am aware of in my classes at U.E.C. Though they tend to hide such urge to compete. My guess is that very few have a sense of competition.

In secondary schools, where class members are more ‘childish’, I have seen competition going, but it’s not all that bad as an initial driving force toward bulk reading. Problem starts when you keep on reading for competition too long. After all, tadoku is pleasure reading in a foreign language. Sense of competition gets in the way of sheer enjoyment, don’t you think?

What genres of graded readers did your students most like?

Let’s say, 70% fiction and 30% non-fiction? Both in picture books and proper print books. Fantasy is favourite of many students, detective stories are another popular genre, and very easy science books with photos are very favoured by many.

Did you ever help develop any English graded readers?

I was asked to be editor-in-chief of the easiest-level graded readers by Oxford University Press once, but the idea didn’t strike me as good and nothing came of it. I greatly regret my obtuseness.

About you

What do you prefer to be called in Japanese and why? (Any particular preference in English?)

Just call me Sakai or Sakai-san. I have just retired and I’m savouring the sense of freedom, you see.

What was your personal history with learning English?

Let me first make clear that I did NOT learn English through tadoku, which is my ‘invention’, if you like, at age fifty-five or so. I wish someone had come up with it before I started learning English.

I started learning English at age thirteen as any other Japanese in those days. (No English classes for kids in elementary school.) I was into grammar in a big way in high school. Then I began to collect dictionaries in undergraduate and graduate school days. The highest I paid for a dictionary was 100,000 Yen for the second edition of Webster’s International. Can you believe it? I sell it to anyone willing to pay good price for it.

Then I bumped into the episode of ‘domestic violence’ and washed my hands of dictionaries. I am still in love of grammar though. I’d like to make clear to myself what the structure is in any language, something like universal grammar? I don’t know but I enjoy making hypotheses about it.

Have you spent a lot of time studying abroad or living in English-speaking countries?

I don’t think it was ‘a lot of time’ but I lived in England on two occasions for one year each and another three months lecturing on English-to-Japanese translation.

Now that you’ve retired, where are you focusing your efforts in terms of promoting tadoku?

Three areas: Schools, the tadoku.org website, and one-on-one supporting of tadoku lovers in small and private classes.

How are you using Twitter these days?

I hadn’t expected much of twitter, as a matter of fact, but I had hopes for it as a way to write a lot in the target language, and it is working fine with some Japanese learners of English. I hope more people will realize the potentiality of twitter as opportunity for expressing themselves in their target language. The threshold is so low with twitter, and you can expect some kind of reaction from your 多読仲間.

Were there any English books that you particularly wanted to read when you were starting to learn English?

That was when I was thirteen years old, Liana. And I had no idea what English or American literature was like. No, I didn’t have an 憧れの本. I wish there had been a book like Harry Potter, though.

Do you have a favorite English book now?

Yes, many. Let us talk about them later.

Can you recommend any Japanese books that you particularly liked as a kid and/or ones that you think might be especially interesting to those of us doing extensive reading in Japanese?

Ah! That’s a brilliant idea, Liana. I’ll ask my friends in tadoku.org to come up with a Japanese book they enjoyed.

As for my own choice, I still think Eleanor Farjeon’s The Little Bookroom could be an excellent choice for tadoku lovers in Japanese, because it’s written in beautiful and readable Japanese and its stories are all of them fairly short. No kids’ stuff, I guarantee.

What do you think about the tadoku contest? (http://readmod.wordpress.com/)

Sorry. I didn’t have time to look at the site. So give me a rain check for now. (Does the term ‘contest’ play a big role there?)

Is there a story behind the penguin avatar?

Not really. One of my students at the UEC came to me one day about a year ago and showed me several animal versions of me. I liked the penguin version best and it turned out a lot of other people like it too. So it’s going to stay with me for a long time to come, I suppose.