Narrow reading

Narrow reading

Have you ever heard of narrow reading?

What’s that?

This term was introduced and popularized by a linguist Stephen Krashen. Narrow reading alongside with narrow listening means consuming a variety of texts on the same, ‘narrow’ topic. They might be books written by one author or just a selection of stories around a student’s scope of interests.

Why should we use narrow reading in the lessons?

This technique seems particularly interesting to use with teenagers. First, most of them nowadays are obsessed with media that comes in sequence. Episodes of a favourite series or manga comics, which come one after another, provide a huge amount of material to be exposed to.

Secondly, narrow reading is highly student-centred. As it implies reading for enjoyment and personal choice of materials, even the most disinterested teenagers will find something that will boost their motivation.

Thirdly, while reading narrowly students will be re-exposed to much of the same lexis and patterns in a meaningful and interesting way without having to read or listen to the exact same piece again and again. It will facilitate memorization as same-topic texts are more efficient in recycling vocabulary than varied and unrelated pieces from coursebooks.

What materials to use?

There are two main approaches to choosing texts for reading: texts linked by the author and the ones linked by theme.

Books linked by the author are usually characterized by favourite words or expressions of the writer, distinctive style, particular vocabulary and even grammar. The plot of the series can be built around the same place and, most likely, characters. Ray Bradbury’s short stories or Conan Doyle’s adventures of Sherlock Holmes, or manga comics mentioned above are the first examples out of thousands that spring to my mind. When the first story is over, it turns out to be easier and easier for students to move on. Here is what Stephen Krashen says in his article ‘The case for narrow reading’: ‘An example of this can be termed “the first few pages” effect. Intermediate foreign language students, reading a novel in the foreign language, often report that they find the first few pages of a new author’s work tough going. After this initial difficulty, the rest of the book goes much easier. This is due to the fact that the context, the story, was new, and, in addition, the reader had not adjusted to the author’s style. Providing only short and varied selections never allows language acquirers to get beyond this stage.’

Texts linked by theme will help teenagers gain more contextual knowledge. Let’s face it, even the most cutting-edge coursebooks just fail to keep up with teens’ interests nowadays. Combined with all those unfamiliar words, lack of context and a number of comprehension tasks, coursebook readings sometimes lead to nothing but ‘Why do we have to read these boring texts?’ question. When you finally happen to come across a text that makes their eyes shine with excitement, it’s usually too short for a full-fledged discussion. Narrow reading can help a great deal here. Do your teens like space, cooking, fashion or cybersport? Let them explore it as part of their long-term homework. By the way, some informative Instagram accounts can be a good example of the modern implication of narrow reading too. Teenagers can start easy and then gradually expand their reading interests.

How to make it happen?

As this technique relates mostly to work outside the classroom, especially if you teach groups, it’s useful to start with certain principles which will help teenage students exploit narrow reading productively:

  1. Lower the standards. Some students believe that reading ‘below their level’ is uncool and useless. However, learning English is a legal excuse for reading children stories, comics or glossy magazines – all things that might be not that deep. As far as teens enjoy them, of course.
  2. Aim at enjoyment. Students must never be expected to check up every third word in a dictionary. It’s frustrating even in case of the most interesting topic. If the book turns out to be too challenging, just give it up and look for something easier instead.
  3. Keep it around. It’s great if your students can devote 20 minutes of their evening time to a new story. It’s easier to stick to reading regularly if a comic or a book is with them during the day.
  4. Report findings. Class discussions should be held to talk about the most interesting stories and share emotions. The decision on format is all yours: you can ask teens to read out the most interesting passages, tell each other about the plot of their stories, or report about something new they have found out.

Narrow reading is a powerful technique. Not only it increases teenagers’ motivation but also exposes them to a wide variety of language patterns, vocabulary and grammar structures.

After all, what can be more satisfying than enjoying the book and being proud of the fact that you are reading in a foreign language at the same time?

The next article will look at some practical ways of using narrow reading with teenagers. Stay tuned!


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