Alice Savage

Leveling in the Reading Classroom


Computer games can provide an interesting insight into reading. The appeal of online games at least partly lies in the software that allows them to precisely level ability. In League of Legends, for example, there are multiple ranks. Players must advance through the ranks to reach platinum or diamond levels. The effect of the ranking system is to keep gamers in a specific zone where they can win or lose, and this intersection of ability and challenge keeps the game exciting.

The perfect zone in which a player is challenged and yet feels confident has been called many things that we can apply to education, including the zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978), and flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). In reading, however, there are many “zones” in which a student can benefit. The goal for teachers then is to match ability to text so students are in the right zone for the task.

Reading passages challenge language learners (and even native speaker readers) in different ways. As a result, encounters with texts occur on a continuum. At one end is intensive reading, which focuses largely on language development and strategy use with short challenging texts. This often requires classroom instruction and is often accompanied by pre-reading vocabulary tasks and follow up skills work such as “finding the main idea” or “identifying the author’s purpose.” These are largely academic skills, and they point students towards comprehending the text.

Moving towards the middle is extensive reading, which tasks students with longer passages and more incidental reading and vocabulary development. This type of reading is also suitable for skills work, but it may not require intensive focus on decoding language or structure. For example, students may produce a summary and response, which supports them in having a conversation with the ideas in the text. In this case, they bring their own background knowledge to bear on the experience.

At the far end is pleasure reading, which involves the greatest volume of reading. Pleasure reading is mostly done outside the classroom with self-selected material. It improves fluency in areas such as word form and collocation awareness, but its key strength is content. Pleasure reading gives language learners access to shared knowledge in the target culture.

When students experience all three approaches, their language improves more rapidly in all areas of their language ability, including speaking and writing (Nation, 2001, 2015, Grabe & Stoller 2015, Waring 2015).

However, due to the received curriculum of most reading course books, teachers and students may find themselves working almost exclusively on the intensive side of the reading continuum. (It is interesting to note here that Grabe and Stoller also point out that less than one percent of native speakers read at a level that we would consider intensive.) Such reading is frequently difficult and sometimes considered as more of a chore than an enjoyable activity. Perhaps this is why some students say they don’t like to read.

To create a balance of reading experiences, many teachers are including material along the middle and extensive end of the continuum. This often requires making a deliberate decision to go off book and include high interest accessible reading experiences.

To support extensive reading, many programs set up a reading library or make use of online resources for participants to choose from. Once a library is available, it’s helpful to be able to match the approach to the text level. The following chart created by Paul Nation can help teachers choose from a vocabulary perspective. (Note that the percentages refer to words that students are familiar with.)


Type of reading Learning goals Percentage of vocabulary coverage.
Intensive Developing language

Developing strategy use


Less than 95%
Extensive reading for language growth Incidental vocabulary learning

Reading skills

95 – 98%
Extensive reading for fluency development Reading quickly 99 – 100%
Learning Vocabulary in Another Language, I.S.P. Nation, 2001


In order to identify the target percentage of unknown vocabulary in the easiest way possible, Nation suggests students pick up a book, read a page and count the number of words that are unfamiliar. If they do not recognize one word in 20, they are at the intensive end.  If it is one word in 100 (about two unknown words to a page), they are at the extensive end. Students who have access to a pleasure reading library can be instructed to go through several books that look interesting. Then they can skim through a page or two to identify a book that is comfortable for them to read independently.

The next step is matching fluency reading to task. Because it is meant to be pleasurable, extensive reading matches well with lighter activities that value processing and completion. These micro-tasks can include short book reports, reading journals, poster sessions, reading circles, oral reports or one or two-minute podcasts that can be easily done with a smart phone. These do not need to be evaluated. Teachers can simply give credit for completion. Students who read a certain number of books are awarded points toward their overall grade. Teachers only need to track how much students have read through the micro tasks related to the reading,

While the benefits to extensive reading may seem obvious, some students (and teachers) may feel that if a text is “easy,” then students are not “learning.” In truth, learning is happening; it just doesn’t feel exhausting the way other types of language learning do. According to Rob Waring (2010), fluency development involves “getting really good at something you already know.” In other words, it is the reward that comes from all that memorization work.

Because fluency reading is an encounter with language that is meaning-based rather than language-learning based, it is truly communicative. Students can pick up and use fixed phrases without having to assemble grammar word by word. They are better able to speak without “uh, uh, uh.” And they can write thoughts fluidly without stumbling over vocabulary blocks.

Such outcomes are highly motivating because they give students the reward of being able to comfortably comprehend and use the target language now.

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