Podcast: Read To Learn (With Emeritus Professor Paul Nation)

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We celebrate our second-anniversary episode by interviewing Emeritus Professor Paul Nation about reading. Paul tells us about research into the effectiveness of reading, why as teachers we tend to avoid including reading in our classes and how we can start doing more reading in class.

Paul Nation is one of the world’s leading researchers on and writers on vocabulary, reading and fluency, has written dozens of books and been publishing research on these topics since 1970. Paul is Emeritus Professor in Applied Linguistics at the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies (LALS) at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand and has taught in Indonesia, Thailand, the United States, Finland and Japan.

Transcription - Read To Learn (With Emeritus Professor Paul Nation)

Ross Thorburn:  Hello everyone. Welcome to this second anniversary podcast. Today, we're going to talk about something that we've not talked about much before on the podcast which is reading. I know we always say we have a special guest but today, we really have a very, very, very special guest.

Tracy:  He's a true world expert on reading, Paul Nation. I'm sure a lot of you are familiar with Paul Nation. Paul is emeritus professor at the School of Applied Linguistics and Applied Language at Victoria University, New Zealand.

Written dozens of books and been publishing research on these topics since 1970s. There are three areas that we're going to talk about. The first one is, how does reading help students learn vocabulary?

Ross:  Second, we'll ask, how can teachers include more reading in their lessons? Finally...

Tracy:  Why isn't there more reading in most language courses?


How does reading help students learn vocabulary?

Ross:  Hi, Paul.

Paul Nation:  Hello.

Ross:  Thanks so much for coming on the podcast.

Paul:  No problem.

Ross:  Do you want to start off by telling us a bit about vocabulary teaching and how reading relates to vocabulary teaching?

Paul:  The problem with vocabulary is when it's framed as teaching vocabulary because most of vocabulary learning will occur not through the teacher teaching, but through the teacher planning well, organizing well and providing opportunities for the learners to develop strategies to take control of their own learning.

There are just too many words for teachers to be able to teach them. Really, we have to see learning of vocabulary is really occurring through input which is very, very important. Learning through output and learning through fluency development, but also learning through some teaching and then through deliberate learning and so on like that.

I think that's really important because otherwise, teachers feel that they're the only source of vocabulary for the learners in the classroom. That's a very wrong view indeed.

Tracy:  That's really interesting. Does that mean teachers aren't really that important then in language learning?

Paul:  I didn't say the teachers weren't important. I said teaching was not important. There's an important difference. That comes back to what you see as the role of the teacher or the roles of the teacher. I put planning as the number one role of the teacher.

From a vocabulary perspective, planning involves working out what vocabulary your learners already know and making sure that they have plenty of opportunities to learn that vocabulary.

It's deciding what vocabulary your learners need to learn and then making sure that they have plenty of opportunities to learn it. If we just take meaning‑focused input, teachers need to know and the learners need to know how many words they know. Then what level of graded readers they should be working on in order to help expand their vocabulary through input.

The teachers' roles are very important because it's, first of all, making sure that learners were spending time reading at the right level for the students so that they have the opportunity to learn vocabulary through guessing from context and through some dictionary lookup and so on as they do reading in order for that to happen.

If you had a really good extensive reading program that learners were spending anything from half an hour to an hour or two a week on and maybe more, they could be learning at a rate of around about a thousand words a year, which would be a native speaker rate of learning.

The teacher has a good job to play there, a very important job to play but the teacher is not teaching. The teacher is making sure that the materials are available to the students.

The students know why they're doing it. The students are, therefore, motivated and they're getting some feedback on their progress. The teacher needs to do all those things but it's not fronting up saying, "This word means X and that word means Y." It's getting the learning going.

Ross:  I'd heard before that the big problem with reading is that it's actually much harder to guess from context than most of us assume. Something like students need to know. Is it 95 percent of words in a text?

Paul:  Yeah.

Ross:  If you're getting that correctly.

Paul:  That's 98.

Ross:  Right, 98 percent. How do you reconcile those two areas, that guessing from context is really difficult, but reading is also extremely helpful and helping learners build up their vocabulary?

Paul:  It depends on the standard used for guessing. You have to view knowledge of words developing over time. If you meet a word in a reading and you have a guess at its meaning, and your guess is good enough for you to carry on reading, you might have added only a little bit of knowledge about that word to your knowledge of words.

When you meet it again, the next time you'll add a little bit more knowledge. You can show...if you set your standard of knowledge for one meeting with a word is high, you can say, "Oh, people don't learn anything from context."

It's just to have the guess the full meaning of a word from one meeting. That's absolutely true. All of research on learning from context used to have this problem of saying, "Well, actually, we know that people learn from context, especially native speakers, but it's very difficult to show it experimentally."

You've got to see that when you guess from context, it's something which you're going to have to keep doing for the same word a dozen times at least. Each time you're building up knowledge, strengthening knowledge and enriching your knowledge of that word.


How can teachers include more reading in their lessons?

Tracy:  I read about some other studies before. Students, they make some really, really good progress in using graded readers. The progress was even bigger than attending teacher lec classes.

Have you ever seen any other examples of people applying these ideas? For example, they have a school and using these ideas, and then they provide the students an opportunity environment to read more.

Paul:  I always like giving the example of a language school in Tokyo that I heard about and couldn't believe. I went along to see it. This language school is...But I think they call it a Juku. Juku is where kids after the normal school day go and spend three hours, say from 6:00 to 9:00 in the evening doing study.

It's a private language school. The parents have to pay money for them to go. They have to take time away from their lives to go to it. They might go to one three‑hour class a week or maybe two.

This language school for at least half of that three hours simply gets the students to sit down and read. They can choose the book. They'll get a guidance and advice on what books to choose. Each classroom has lots and lots of books graded readers and text written for native speakers.

Some of the students, if they wish, can actually spend the whole three hours doing extensive reading. Most choose not to do that. Most do one and a half hours and then they have one and a half hours session of conversation with a native speaker.

The guy who owns these schools is making a fortune. He's really doing well. His results in the entry exams to universities are so good. That word of mouth just keeps them coming and the students love it.

I couldn't believe that parents were paying a lot of money for their kids to go to a language school where for at least half of the time they sat down and read while the teacher sat in front of the classroom and just did other irrelevant work.

I went along and sort, and oh boy, it was working well. The teacher said, "Here, you watch." This was the owner of the school, actually. He said to the students in this particular class I was observing, "Do you like coming to these classes and doing them?" Of course, being obedient students all the hands went up but I think they made it.

He said, "Now, watch this." The next question was, "Would you do this at home?" Only about two or three hands came up. They said, "Well, at home, we're just too busy. There are too many other things to do at home. Even though we could sit at home for an hour and a half, or also each week and quietly read.

"There's so many other...We got homework to do, there is computer games to play and all of these things. We just never get around to it." Having to come to this class and sit down and do it. I was talking to some of them after the class and they were really proficient.

Ross:  It sounds a bit like going to the gym, doesn't it? That example of, if you pay for the gym, but a lot of the things that you're doing at the gym, you could just do a home. Actually, if you don't pay for the gym, probably none of those things you end up doing at home for whatever reason. Right?

Paul:  You don't. No, I know. You don't. That's right. Once you have a dedicated time where your money is being paid out and that sort...people ask about extensive reading, "Why don't we just get the students to do it at home?"

There is a research which shows, in fact, you're much better starting off in the classroom at least. For the start at least of getting to do it because then you make sure that they do it. Then you make sure that they suddenly come to the realization that in fact, there are books that they can read, understand, enjoy, which are at the right level for them.

That's quite a revelation. A lot of students have never read a book in English from the beginning to the end. Through well‑planned extensive reading program, they should be reaching the end of a book at least once or twice a week.

Tracy:  Paul, those students that you just mentioned, they're younger learners rather than adults?

Paul:  They were teenagers. I think that were getting off to university in a year or two.

Tracy:  Is it possible to use graded readers with younger learners?

Paul:  You can have meaning‑focused input right from the very beginning stages of learning English. The lowest level of graded readers assume knowledge of 100 different words. You could start from that and the second or third week of a course if you really was switched on.


Why isn't there more reading in most language courses?

Ross:  Why is it then that all English schools don't actually have more reading in their curriculum? Pretty much everywhere I've ever worked there's been some reading in courses but it's been a very small one.

Paul:  That's right. The research on extensive reading is clear. We know how much extensive reading learners need to do. We know that very, very significant progress can be made through doing extensive reading. Every teacher should read the book "Flood Study" by Warwick Elley and Francis Mangubhai.

It's only about a 20‑page or so report, but it's such a significant piece of research showing that by getting meaningful input and comprehensible input as a significant part of the program, learners can make almost double their learning compared to a teacher in front of a class.

The researchers are clear on that but teachers are very reluctant to take up the option of extensive reading. One of the reasons is that if you have a really good extensive reading program, once it's running, once it's planned, organized and set up, the teacher has little to do. Teachers feel guilty about that.

They feel, "How can learners learn without me teaching them?" That's one of the false beliefs. Then, "Here are the learners working away and I'm doing nothing. Am I earning my money?" You could say, "Well, the teachers are very conscientious and things like that." It worries them that they do that.

Ross:  I presume that you need pretty interesting and engaging books for the students for all this stuff to work then...

Paul:  I would think so. In the Elley and Mangubhai study, they found that actually there was quite a lot of agreement among students on the books that they liked. The books that they liked, the books that native speaking kids also liked. The material also has to be at the right level for the students.

You need to get the good books. The good books part is really easy because every year the Extensive Reading Foundation runs a competition for the best graded readers. That's been going on for...I don't know, maybe 10, 15 years now. You can simply go to their website and find the best ones.


More from Paul Nation

Tracy:  Thanks very much for coming to our podcast.

Paul:  No problem.

Tracy:  I'm sure our listeners would really appreciate all the valuable information you shared with us.

Ross:  Everyone, highly recommend that you go into Paul's University of Victoria web page. I'll put a link for that on our website. You can find lots of great resources from in there, vocabulary tests, free books, etc.

Tracy:  Thanks everybody for listening to our podcast for the last two years and then really appreciate your support.

Ross:  Bye.

Tracy:  Bye.