Philip Prowse on Extensive Reading & Graded Readers

Philip Prowse picPhilip Prowse (Cambridge Readers Series Editor)
1. What is the value of extensive reading?

There are two versions of the claims for the benefits of extensive reading for language learners, a strong one and a weaker one. The strong one is expressed clearly by Stephen Krashen: ‘… when second language acquirers read for pleasure, they can continue to improve in their second language without classes, without teachers, without study, and even without people to converse with …’ (The Power of Reading (2nd ed. 2004) p147).

The weaker one is that language learners who read books they have chosen themselves individually for pleasure as part of their regular classes make significant improvements not only in their command of grammar and vocabulary, but also in all four language skills. I tend to support the second of these claims in relation to teenagers and adults following a course of instruction with a teacher in a second or foreign language who read individually and extensively as part of that course. This is not to say that the strong claim is unsupported by research evidence and much anecdotal evidence.

2. What do you think the teachers’ role is in helping learners to read for pleasure?

To be both a facilitator and a role model. In other words to make available or provide access to lots of graded readers at a suitable level or levels covering a wide range of interests. While I have my own personal preference for original fiction, with my own classes I used to include both original and adapted fiction and also non-fiction (though there’s not a lot of it about). As facilitator the teacher can give ‘book talks’ recommending (not summarising!) particular titles and encourage students to recommend books they have enjoyed; the teacher can direct students to publishers’ websites where they can read (and hear) sample chapters of readers before choosing the one they want to read; and the teacher can take time to talk to each student individually (perhaps while they’re doing some written work) about the books they are reading, and plan to read. Being a facilitator does not preclude the teacher from being demanding and asking learners to read say at least one book a week. How to achieve this? By convincing learners of the value of extensive reading – see the answer to question 10!

As role model it is vital that the teacher read the graded readers her/himself so that s/he can discuss them with the students.

3. Why should learners be using graded readers and not books written for native speakers when engaging in extensive reading?

Success breeds success and we want extensive reading to be an enjoyable successful experience because simply the more learners read the better their English becomes. Therefore we are aiming for 98-100% comprehension. The barriers to comprehension are not only linguistic (this is why graded readers control lexis and grammar) but also cultural (the schema – or assumed knowledge- of a novel written for native speakers does not often match that of the learners) and stylistic. We want our learners to succeed and we do this by removing as many barriers to comprehension as possible.

4. Can you tell us a little bit about the Cambridge English Readers series?

The series is 12 years old and we have nearly 100 titles at seven levels from Starter to Advanced. A distinguishing feature is that it contains only original contemporary fiction – no adapted classics here! Titles in the series look like ‘real’ books not school books – there are no activities or comprehension questions (see answer to question 6 below) – and they are written in fresh, modern English. An important feature is that the ‘genre’ in which the novel is written (eg comedy, thriller or romance) is very clear so that the reader is placed in a familiar landscape. Most importantly we do not believe in equating a low language level with a low intellectual, emotional or experiential level – in other words we treat the learner as a person and our books often have themes, they are ‘about’ something. You can find a much fuller discussion of this on YouTube – it’s taken from a talk I gave at IATEFL Harrogate 2010:

5. As the editor of the Cambridge readers, and as an author, what would you say are the biggest challenges in writing a graded reader?

You might expect me to answer ‘writing with a restricted amount of language at your disposal’ but surprisingly this isn’t the case. In a way it’s like writing poetry where the restrictions of the form become a strength. As Series Editor I read lots of stories sent in by would-be authors and the strengths we look for include: a clearly identifiable genre; a strong theme (what is it about?; a gripping opening to lead the reader in; ‘hooks’ at the end of chapters to encourage the reader to continue; ‘showing’ through dialogue and action rather than ‘telling’ through narrative; a clear sense of place (we encourage international settings); believable characters whose actions are motivated from within rather than to suit the plot; a linear tame frame at lower levels (flashback can cause problems for beginners); an avoidance of cultural references which could cause confusion; and most importantly fresh, natural language!

6. The Cambridge Readers don’t contain any activities or comprehension questions, unlike many other published readers. Why is this?

The response to reading is a tear or a laugh, a thought or a yawn! The best response of all is to read another book. Comprehension questions and activities in fact practise incomprehension.

Take two imaginary bookshops in the same town, both with the same stock. Yet while one is always busy, the other is usually empty. What’s the difference? Well, in the busy shop you go in, browse, choose a book, pay and go. However, in the empty shop when you choose your book after browsing and go to the cash desk to pay the shop assistant checks the title of the book and says ‘Oh, it’s by so and so. You read another book by her last week, didn’t you? Can you tell me the name of the cat in Chapter 3? What kind of car did the detective drive? Who found the body at the end of Chapter 4?’. Faced by this barrage of questions you flee the shop without buying the book. These are imaginary bookshops, but this in essence is what we do when we ask students comprehension questions on their reading. We put them off reading another book. Henry Widdowson’s famous dismissal of comprehension questions is worth remembering: ‘Comprehension questions … commonly require the learner to rummage round in the text for information in a totally indiscriminate way, without regard to what purpose might be served in doing so … Reading is thus represented as an end in itself, an activity that has no relevance to real knowledge and experience and therefore no real meaning.’ (Explorations in Applied Linguistics OUP 1979 p180.)

For me a student response to finishing a reader is to want to talk about it, to recommend it, to dramatise it, to write to the author (you can do that on Ask the Author on the Cambridge English Readers website) – in other words to have a personal response.

And for those teachers who do want questions and activities there are full teacher’s notes and worksheets for every title on the website.  (Go to )

7. How does the Cambridge English Readers series prepare learners for reading English texts intended for native speakers?

Our Advanced Level (Level 6) has a much larger vocabulary than any other series (3,800 headwords) and is longer (30,000 words) than any other series. These books provide a ‘bridge’ for learners moving on to texts intended for native speakers.

8. Do you feel that extensive reading is often neglected as part of a language syllabus in schools/universities? Why do you think this might be?

I think there is often an institutional culture that the role of the teacher is to teach and for the student to be a passive recipient of learning. Extensive reading is a great example of learner autonomy but all too often teachers prefer students to be dependent (‘look – they need me’) and students prefer dependence (‘you’re paid to teach us not to get us to sit and read!’). See answer to question 10. What we do know is that when learners read a lot they learn a lot (and the teacher can take the credit!)

9. Can the Cambridge English Readers series also be used for native speaking literacy students?

Yes they are used widely in the UK and other English-speaking countries with reluctant readers at schools, with adult literacy classes and even in prisons! This is for the same reasons that they are so successful with learners of English – they offer contemporary fiction with strong themes and people want to read. And getting learners to ‘want’ to read is more than half the battle.

10. For a teacher who is looking to start an extensive reading programme with their learners, what advice would you give them?

Join the Extensive Reading discussion list where you will find a great deal of advice from fellow-practitioners ( Extensive Reading Activities for Teaching Language (ed. Bamford and Day, CUP) is also a great resource. Have a look at the Extensive Reading Foundation website – it’s full of information, references and ideas ( )

For me though the most important thing before starting an ER programme is propaganda. You will need to convince your school director/administration, your colleagues, your students and (if they are teenagers) their parents of the value of ER. Good ammunition can be found in The Power of Reading (mentioned above) and also in Extensive Reading in the Second Language Classroom (ed. Day and Bamford, CUP). My experience has been that unless you prepare the ground in this way your task will be an uphill one. But once everyone involved understands that ER is a win-win educational strategy where students learn by enjoying themselves you can get started. Best of luck!

4 thoughts on “Philip Prowse on Extensive Reading & Graded Readers

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  2. Excellent–one of the books that Prowse wrote himself is what first sold me on the idea that graded readers COULD be interesting. I got it for free at the TESOL conference in Seattle and wound up reading the whole thing in the few minutes before the first ER meeting that I ever attended. It was absorbing enough that I wanted to finish it, despite the simple language. It was particularly striking given my previous experiences trying out other graded readers (mostly adapted ones), which were so lifeless that I would never recommend them to students. So thanks to both of you for putting this interview together!

  3. Hi Clarissa, thanks so much for this! I’ve had similar experiences with ‘lifeless’ and boring readers, it is so important that we can offer our learners well written, interesting, and attractive literature. And you’re right, the Cambridge readers are absorbing. In fact it’s something I’ll be discussing in a talk I’m doing for the British Council next week, looking at how the Cambridge readers still maintain their sense of adventure, mystery, romance, magic, and sometimes sadness.

    One of my learners was telling me about some of her foreign colleagues she works with. They work (and live) in a different town to where I run the book clubs, so it’s too far for them to travel to, but they have all started buying Cambridge readers on her recommendation. Now I hear, they are reading at home and in their breaks, and chatting about the books at lunch!

    I’m convinced there is such a thing as a ‘reading bug’ that is incredibly contagious, but its survival relies on quality, well written, interesting literature.

    Thanks again for your comments 🙂


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