Extensive Reading with English Language Learners

Liz Svoboda standing next to ELP collection. ©Jolene Jacquays
Liz Svoboda standing next to ELP collection.
©Jolene Jacquays

Since Fall 2014, the Frances Willson Thompson Library has increasingly reached out to the University’s international student population, especially with regard to the English Language Program (ELP) collection. We sat down with Liz Svoboda, the library liaison to the International Center and the ELP, to find out more.

Q: What is the English Language Program collection? What is in it?

A: It’s a small collection of about 400 books that I started in Fall 2014. The collection is mainly devoted to books for the ELP students’ extensive reading program, with some test prep materials for the TOEFL, IELTS, and MELAB language proficiency exams.

Q: Extensive reading program? What is that?

A: Basically extensive reading is reading a lot of English books that are at an English language learner’s level of comprehension. The ELP students try to read as many as they can during the semester; their classes even have a friendly competition to see who can read the most.

Their books are leveled for both syntax (sentence structure) and vocabulary for beginning learners all the way to advanced learners who are about to enter academic classes. The main goal of these books is to be interesting to the students but in language they can understand to build up their confidence, reading comprehension, reading speed, and vocabulary. In essence it helps them practice their reading skills outside of their textbooks.

Q: You said these books are outside the textbook? But we’re an academic library, so are they more for education or for fun?

A: I hope they are both! Who says that learning can’t be fun? Imagine reading the equivalent of the Dick and Jane books in Spanish or Hindi, not all that interesting. But if a book has an engaging story or is a biography about someone you admire or it relates to what you want to study, you are more likely to pay attention to the book, while learning some new vocabulary words and seeing what written English is supposed to be. The books being engaging is especially important to new readers and students who do not normally read for pleasure.

The English Language Program collection on the shelf. ©Elizabeth Svoboda
The English Language Program collection on the shelf.
©Elizabeth Svoboda

Q: How do students know what level of book is right for them?

A: Each publisher has their own scheme, which don’t match each other. So I found a comparison chart from the Extensive Reading Foundation which shows how the different publisher levels correspond to each other, then used colored labels and a lettering scheme I adapted from another ER organization to show which books are easier than others.

The labels are meant to be a guide only; there are syntax and lexical differences between books at the same level from the same publisher. We encourage the students to stop reading a book they chose if it is too hard or not interesting and then to choose another that might be better. It’s not an exact science, but we can’t and shouldn’t stop them from choosing a book that may be too hard but interests them.

Q: You mentioned engaging books? What kinds of books or genres are there?

A: I tried to make the collection as diverse as possible. English language learners are people just like anyone else, so they have diverse interests and tastes, and I want to accommodate that as much as possible. There is about an even mix of fiction and nonfiction. The fiction genres include realistic fiction, mysteries, multicultural or immigrant stories, modified British and American classics, sports stories, and a few science fiction and romance stories. The nonfiction is a lot of biographies and books about to different cultures and the sciences.

Some of the books, both fiction and nonfiction, have an accompanying audio CD, so that students can listen to someone else reading the book as they themselves read it. Listening while reading is supposed to help with pronunciation and word recognition, since many of the students are actually at a higher listening and speaking level than reading and writing, but I’m not sure how many actually do it.

Q: Are these books you can easily get at Barnes & Noble or Amazon?

A: You can probably find them on Amazon, but they are not readily available in commercial stores. The big publishers of English language learner literature are Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press, Pearson Longman, Macmillian, and Cengage Heinle. So academic publishers, which means you can order them online easily or, in our case, through our book vendor.

Q: How popular is the collection?

A: Pretty popular. Last year (Fall 2014 – Winter 2015) we had a 60% circulation rate. The collection was smaller with just over 200 items (80 of which did not circulate), but had 234 loans over both semesters and pretty even across all levels of the collection. Nonfiction seems to be more popular than fiction, but I’m still waiting to run statistics for this semester.

Some of the books in the ELP collection. ©Elizabeth Svoboda
Some of the books in the ELP collection.
©Elizabeth Svoboda

Q: Any favorite books from the collection?

A: Personally, I enjoyed the biography of Tom Cruise. It’s for an early intermediate reader, so the language is pretty simple, but the opening sentence is something like, “Tom Cruise is a famous star who makes a lot of movies, though not all of them are good.” Cracked me up. But in general I’m impressed by the original stories that English language literature authors write and even some of the nonfiction topics they cover. There’s another book about the artists and filmmakers of Afghanistan who hid the country’s artistic works during the Taliban regime that was incredibly interesting.

For more information about the English Language Program Collection contact Liz at esvoboda@umflint.edu or find out more on the collection’s library guide: http://umflint.beta.libguides.com/extensivereading