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Summary of Extensive Reading in Japanese by Claire Ikumi Hitosugi and Richard R. Day
Reading in a Foreign Language
Volume 16, Number 1, April 2004

Introduction and the nature of extensive reading
This was the first paper that discussed the use of extensive reading in an Asian language class. The authors defined extensive reading by Richard Day and Julian Bamford’s ten principles:

  1. The material should be easy, with understandable grammar and no more than 1-2 difficult words per page
  2. Students should have access to a wide variety of material
  3. Students choose what they want to read and whether or not they want to continue reading a particular book
  4. Students read as much as possible
  5. Reading is for pleasure and information, not 100% comprehension
  6. Reading is its own reward, and there’s no test, although there may be followup activities
  7. Reading speed should be faster, rather than slower, and dictionaries shouldn’t be used
  8. Reading is done individually and silently
  9. Teachers orient and guide their students
  10. Teachers are reading role models, and should read the books themselves

Japanese 102
The Japanese 102 course at the University of Hawai’i is the followup to Japanese 100 / Japanese 101. Each semester, there are 12-15 sections with about 15 students per section, and the sections meet five times a week for sixteen weeks. JPN 102 was chosen because 100/101 teaches hiragana, katakana and enough grammar and vocabulary that the students should be able to start reading low-level books. The extensive reading program was part of one section that had 14 students; it was taught by Hitosugi, and Day was the leading collaborator and mentor for the extensive reading component of the course.

Implementing extensive reading in JPN 102
Because all of the sections had to use the same syllabus, the extensive reading program was added to the section’s existing tasks and did not replace any part of the course. Although the project started three months before classes started, it wasn’t ready in time and was only in place during the last ten weeks of the 16-week class.

Although there are books written specifically for English language learners, Japanese language learners didn’t have that resource, and so students read books written for children whose native language was Japanese. The authors worried that such low-level material would seem insulting to college students, so they explained the project’s expected benefits and the difficulties in finding appropriate material to the section. They collected 266 new and used books and created classification and rating systems to help students select appropriate, interesting reading material. 39 books were level 1 (the easiest), 76 books were level 2, 50 books were level 3, 87 books were level 4, 11 books were level 5 and three books were level 6.

Participating in the program accounted for 10% of the student’s final grade; participation was required so that students would understand the importance of reading and find time for it in their busy schedules, as they might not do if it was just optional. To gain the full 10%, each student had to read 40 books over the 10 week period, with a weekly target of four books per week; there was also extra credit for reading more than 40 books. This was thought to be a challenge, but not impossible because the books were short.

Reading was done outside of class as homework, so that the students could keep up with the other sections during class. However, the students’ reading was incorporated into the class during a 30-minute session once a week, where the students did things like promote their favorite books or act out stories they had read. This was fun for them, but it also linked the reading that had been done individually to the whole class, and it promoted reading, as those who hadn’t done any felt left out.

To measure the impact of the extensive reading program, a three-part reading test and a 22-item survey were created. They were given to students in the extended reading section and a non-extended reading section before the program was introduced, then again at the end of the course.

What the authors learned
Although the authors only expected one or two students to read 40 or more books, four students hit or exceeded the mark. Five students read less than 25 books; the lowest number read was by a student who had a family and a full-time job.

The authors expected the extensive reading group to have made more gains in reading than the section that followed the standard curriculum, and the three-part test shows that to have been the case. (It must be kept in mind that the sample size was too small to be conclusive, and the program was done to aid in learning, not primarily for research.) Both classes improved their scores on part A and did about the same on part B, but students in the extensive reading program gained an average of .88 points (out of a possible 10) on part C, which was the hardest section (taken from the JPN 201 final exam), while the students in the other class did slightly worse than they had the first time around, dropping on average .13 points. In total, the extensive reading class gained an average of 1.08 points on the three-part test, while the regular class gained an average of .37 points.

The questionnaire asked questions such as “I have confidence in my ability to read Japanese” and “So far, I am enjoying Japanese 102”; the students in the extended reading section had a greater increase in positive affective responses than the ones in the regular class. The extensive reading students reported that they didn’t need to use a dictionary as much as the students as the regular class, and that they came to read outside of class and watch Japanese TV more than the non-extensive reading students. Answers to some of the questions indicate that the extensive reading students considered reading more difficult than students in the regular class did; the authors theorize that this may be because the books they read had little connection to the vocabulary or topics found in the textbook. However, even though these students saw reading as a challenge, their attitudes towards it, and towards their Japanese class, improved between the first and second times the questionnaire was administered.

Even though ten weeks is a fairly short period in which to expect significant gains in reading ability, the 14 students read a good deal, improved their scores on the reading test and came to feel positive about the experience. The authors continued the extensive reading program and expanded it to JPN 101 and 202; they’ve found that it appeals to some students but not to others, that it promotes overall reading fluency, and that for some students it triggers an interest in Japanese culture, prompting them to study independently.


  • Given that this was the second semester of a first year class, I’m kind of surprised that there were so many level 4 books, and that the organizers bothered adding anything above level 3 to the library at all. Was this just because the level 4-6 books were donated, because teachers and experts sometimes forget the practical concerns and abilities of beginning students and thought higher-level books might be within their reach, or because the organizers were looking ahead to the future and planning to expand their program? Was it by design that the students would have to read at least one level 2 book to get full credit, or just a coincidence?
  • I would have liked to have known how the students’ reality corresponded to the extensive reading ideal: did they stick mostly to level 1 books so that they could read fluently? Even with the level 1 books, did they ever find more than two difficult words per page? (The study’s given threshold for the number of unknown words per page allowable in extensive reading (1-2) is even lower than the one I personally use (3-4).) Did they push themselves to read higher level books despite probably finding more than two difficult words on each page? Was there any sort of one-upmanship among the students or were they all content to read very low-level books? If there was any sort of feeling of competition, was it beneficial or not? Did they actually read without dictionaries?
  • We know the number of books that each student read, but what level did they primarily read at? My guess is that they mostly read level 1 books and some level 2 books, and didn’t read level 3 and above at all; I base this guess on the fact that they’re first-year students and that one student who only read level 2 books was treated as an exceptional case.
  • Was there any particular difference between the background and performance of the student that only read level 2 books and that of the other students?
  • Question 5 on the questionnaire was “I read Japanese books, comics, newspapers, etc., outside of class,” and the authors found that the extensive reading students came to read much more outside of class than the non-extensive reading students. I wonder if the extensive reading students interpreted this question to mean “outside of class, but as part of the reading homework” or if they read materials beyond the ones provided for the extensive reading program.
  • These last two papers about extensive reading as part of a beginning student’s coursework make me wonder how it would have affected my own progress in Japanese, had it been known to me at the time. The more I think about it, the more I realize that Japanese didn’t really feel like a language to me until I started trying to read authentic material; that material, however, was waaay above my level.

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

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.

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.


  • 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?