I’ve been working on more effective approaches to building extensive reading into the ALDA curriculum. Research consistently shows that it is the best way for non-native English speakers to build reading comprehension, vocabulary, and reading fluency. And reading comprehension and listening comprehension ability are believed to be the best predictors of success for students in a graduate program such as an LLM program.
Extensive reading, which I previously discussed a bit in this post, means 1) reading easy texts (i.e., where the reader understands 90% of the vocabulary), and 2) reading for enjoyment. It relies on the seemingly obvious premise that the best way to improve reading is to read a lot.
And it doesn’t matter what the learner reads so much as that the learner reads. In other words, even if you read novels or cartoons, it will still help learners when they go to read more challenging legal texts. This is because reading a lot and reading in a fluent way leads to building of larger lexical bundles by the reader. That is, rather than reading and decoding each word, the reader begins to see and process groups of words as a lexical bundle. This in turn means the learner is devoting less cognitive energy to that part of the reading and has more energy to devote to more challenging language that arises.
But how to do that in a legal English setting, where the focus is on texts and concepts that are challenging for even native speakers of English? Texts that render every reading an intensive reading, where the reading process involves constant dictionary use, which in turn reduces engagement and big picture comprehension?
My latest approach, which seems to be gaining traction, has been to build my own extensive reading library and keep it on a movable book cart that I bring to class with me every day. I have a sign-out sheet, and I give students time in class to leaf through books and see what interests them. I also try to direct them to books appropriate for their level.
My library consists of lots of John Grisham novels and lots of graded readers–books that have been written at an easier level, specifically with English language learners in mind. Graded readers are marked Level 1 through 6 to help learners choose appropriate books. Some are original stories or novels, while others are well-known books that have been re-written, like Shakespeare or Dickens novels. Though I’ve also tracked down a few graded readers of John Grisham novels–the best of both worlds! Also on my cart are St. John’s University yearbooks from various years, some Calvin & Hobbes books, a bunch of teen lit (e.g., Twilight) and kids lit (Encyclopedia Brown) books, as well as books on various topics like the immigrant experience or parenting.
I never require students to read a book. I just make the books available and encourage them to look and take something. I even gave them an assignment to interview a JD student on various topics, and one of the questions was to find out what the JD student reads when they’re not studying law. This helped reinforce the sense that law students are generally big readers. I also tell the student that if a book is not interesting or you don’t feel like reading it, stop and return it and try something else. The whole goal is voluntary reading for enjoyment in order to build a culture and practice of reading in English for pleasure. I don’t want them to feel like they have an obligation to read the book. Or to hide from me the fact that they haven’t read their book.
Not all students take advantage. But the ones who do get very excited about it, and it builds their confidence and reading ability. And bringing the book cart with me each day, and also leaving it visible in my office, serves as a symbol of the importance of reading to improving one’s reading and to succeeding in law school.
I’ll of course continue trying to think of new ways to improve our extensive reading program, but the book cart has clearly been a step in the right direction.