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Summary of Extensive Reading and Language Learning: A Diary Study of a Beginning Learner of Japanese, by Ching Yin Leung
Reading in a Foreign Language
Volume 14, No. 1, April, 2002

Summary
This paper is a diary study; the author Ching Yin Leung (referred to in the paper as Wendy), a beginning student of Japanese, analyzes her own journal in which she described her extensive reading experiences and challenges over the course of four months. The author incorporated extensive reading into a self-study program; she spent an hour studying and reading each day, took down notes about the day’s study, then used those notes to write one or two diary entries a week. For the last 11 weeks, she worked with a tutor for half an hour or an hour per week. By the end of the self-study program, she had read 1,260 pages of comics, textbooks and storybooks. Her goal was to answer four research questions:

  • Does extensive reading lead to vocabulary acquisition?
  • Does extensive reading promote reading comprehension?
  • Does extensive reading promote positive attitudes toward reading?
  • What challenges does a beginning foreign language learner face in the extensive reading process and how did the learner deal with these challenges?

Vocabulary acquisition
In weeks 16 and 20 Leung took two separate vocabulary tests to measure her improvement over the month, and the results showed that her vocabulary knowledge improved by 23.5%; she was better able to identify and use words correctly on the second test, and there were fewer words that she didn’t know at all. The improvement was attributed to both the large amount of input provided by extensive reading and the improved understanding of the grammar she had acquired by self-study.

The data from her journal entries and tutoring sessions showed that her extensive reading increased her exposure to words she’d already learned and helped her apply her previous knowledge; for example, she found it easier not to confuse 行く (iku, to go) and 来る (kuru, to come) when she saw them in context multiple times. She also learned things that weren’t in her textbooks, came to be able to understand words from context with the help of pictures and discerned alternate meanings for words she already knew, such as きれい (beautiful / clean) and おそい (slow / late). Even with her extensive reading, she forgot the meanings of some words she had already learned, probably because they weren’t reinforced enough. (This backs up Paul Nation’s characterization of vocabulary learned through extensive reading as “fragile”; it seems that extended reading has the most impact if there is enough material to provide repeated exposure over the long term.)

Reading comprehension
Leung’s journal entries show that her reading comprehension increased over the course of her study: at first decoding hiragana frustrated her, but by the end she was understanding simple stories. Her understanding was built on her textbook studies and tutoring sessions, but it was extensive reading that gave her a chance to practice that material.

Attitudes toward reading
She was excited at first, but the difficulty of finding appropriate reading material made her feel confused and disappointed. Because her first language was Chinese, she was initially frustrated that she could use her L1 skills to get a sense of the content of Japanese texts written for adults in a mix of hiragana and kanji, but couldn’t read simple children’s stories written all in hiragana. Once she was able to find plenty of material at her level, she felt more comfortable, and her confidence grew as her reading skill improved; however, trying to read children’s books that she couldn’t understand negatively impacted her attitude, because it was a jarring reminder of how much she had yet to learn. She found that re-reading was valuable to her, and finding books that she wanted to read or understand better was motivating. She also got in the habit of trying to read Japanese that she encountered in the real world.

Identifying and dealing with challenges
It was difficult to find appropriate materials; books that were too hard discouraged her, and she had to look for new material constantly. Finding time for studying, and self-study itself, was challenging; for the second half of her studies she worked with a tutor, which helped to motivate her. Her L1 affected how she learned Japanese: for example, she was frustrated that she couldn’t map meanings onto hiragana as she could with hanzi/kanji, and she thought that the hiragana “ka” looked like “ga” in Chinese, so she tended to mispronounce “ka” as “ga.” However, as she continued her studies her tolerance of the differences between the two languages grew.

Conclusion
According to Leung, reading can play an important role in helping students acquire vocabulary, become more enthusiastic about their language studies and gain confidence, even when those students are true beginners. Although her self-study and tutoring sessions were important, extensive reading reinforced the things she learned and made her feel like she was successfully reading “in the real world.” The key to a successful extensive reading program is access to plenty of materials that are both interesting and at an appropriate level.

Notes:

  • Leung studied for an hour a day, but I would have liked to have known how much time she spent reading and how much time she spent formally studying. Also, since I personally keep track of progress by word count, I would be curious as to about how many words she read.
  • I find it interesting that she specifically cited re-reading as something that increased her understanding; nothing that I’ve read about extensive reading (so far, or that I remember) recommends or mentions re-reading as a potential tactic, but in my own experience it’s very helpful. After all, the second time around I already know what’s going to happen so I can often understand parts that didn’t make sense before, and I often look up particularly critical words that I couldn’t understand from context after I’ve finished a book, so I can read with the benefit of knowing them (which often clarifies other words that only partially made sense to me before). Still, I don’t usually re-read a book unless I’ve particularly enjoyed it, because I want to move on to the next new thing. Maybe I should get in the habit of re-reading?
  • I found that this quotation from The language learning benefits of extensive reading by Paul Nation really resonated with me: “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.” I wonder what the best way to facilitate that meeting is: graded readers with deliberately repeated word usage? Looking up unknown key words later? Or simply more and more reading?
  • Leung’s experiences really mirror the complaints I’ve heard from others who have tried to use extensive reading as part of their Japanese studies: without a healthy supply of appropriate materials, the idea just falls apart. Finding that supply is probably not easy for any true beginner, and probably about impossible for one who doesn’t have library materials, Japanese friends or a Japanese teacher who is conducting an extended reading program.
  • It is easy to see how extensive reading would benefit an intermediate or advanced student of Japanese who already has a reasonably large vocabulary to draw on, but when I started reading this paper, I doubted whether it would be useful for a true beginner (who had, I thought, quite enough to be worrying about without adding authentic books to the mix). I’m pleased to know that it’s much more promising than I expected!
  • I wonder how Leung’s previous experience with learning English affected her experience with learning a third language, and if a beginning language learner without that experience would be able to get the same benefits from extensive reading. For example, did it help her be open to the possibility that one word could mean different things, or that words she thought she knew could be split into two parts (such as when she realized that “kodori” didn’t mean “bird,” but “little bird”)?
  • It seemed from her descriptions of the storybooks she preferred that she was mostly reading level 2 books, even though she was more or less a true beginner at the beginning of her studies, and so I wonder how fluently she was able to read.  We know the number of pages and books she had read by the end, but I would be curious as to the average number of unknown words per page she encountered over the course of her studies. In terms of learning a language more efficiently, would it be better for an adult learner with little or no prior experience with the language to exclusively read the more understandable level 1 books or to try to read the more interesting and rich level 2 books, assuming she or he had equal access to a large number of both?