College ESL Students “Don’t Have Time” to Read in English, Researchers Claim

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From a recent issue of Language Teaching Research (open access) dedicated to vocabulary teaching:

For the past decade, we have been witnessing a heated debate between the advocates of ‘vocabulary-through-input’ position and the proponents of word-focused instruction. The most recent example is the discussion between Cobb, Nation, and McQuillan in the October 2016 issue of Reading in a Foreign Language (Cobb, 2016; McQuillan, 2016; Nation, 2016). The gist of these positions is as follows. The first group believes that the best way to acquire many words is by reading large quantities of material. The second group claims that to meet new words 12 times during extensive reading – 12 times being the average number of encounters required for acquisition to occur, according to the available body of research – L2 learners will have to read about a million words per year, which is unrealistic since they have neither the time nor the ability to do this. Hence, the argument goes, word-focused instruction is indispensable. The truth is probably in the middle: While a certain amount of extensive reading is certainly possible and useful, some word focused tasks can also be quite effective. (Laufer, 2017, emphasis added)

This paragraph refers in part to a set of papers on vocabulary acquisition that found ESL/EFL students could, in effect, read their way to a large enough vocabulary to understand adult-level texts, given enough time spent reading.

The counterargument presented by Cobb (2007), and now at least partially supported by Laufer, is that, for reasons that are never quite explained, university students don’t have time to read.

I was pretty busy when I was an undergraduate, and it wasn’t just because I was hanging out at Patrick’s Pub drinking Cuba libres. The “busy” part largely involved reading – textbooks, books, articles. Cobb and Laufer seem to be saying that students don’t have time for all of that, perhaps because they’re too busy working on vocabulary worksheets.

Let’s just do a little simple math here. There are 15 weeks in a semester, 30 weeks for a school year (we’ll give our students the summer off). Since we’re generous souls, we’ll also restrict student reading time to Monday through Friday. So 30 weeks x 5 days a week = 150 days a year.

We’ll assume students can read at least 60 minutes a day, either in-class (taking away time from, say, their vocabulary skills class) or out-of-class (or a little of both). Multiplying 150 days (hours) by 60 minutes gives us 9,000 minutes of reading.

Since ESL students can read text appropriate for them at at least 150 words per minute (probably a conservative estimate), we multiply 150 words by 9,000 minutes to get 1,350,000 words.

Is this really an unreasonable goal for a university ESL/EFL student, one who is expected at most universities to spend several hours a day doing homework and studying?

As Warren Ediger reminded me, Laufer herself points out that after 1,000 hours of traditional classroom instruction, most English students appear to know only around 2,000-4,000 words. If they had spent that time reading, they’d have read 9,000,000 words and acquired close to 8,000 words, enough by Nation’s (2014) estimates to bring them up to a vocabulary sufficient for understanding adult-level texts.

To be fair, I’m not really sure what Laufer means by a lack of “ability” by ESL students to read a million words a year. As I pointed out in my rebuttal to Cobb (McQuillan, 2016a), I think students should read texts appropriate to their level, and there are plenty of those available, as I demonstrated (McQuillan, 2016b).

Laufer’s commentary also contains a table showing the supposed advantages of instructed vocabulary learning over incidental acquisition that I can’t comment on yet because I have not read the studies she mentions (all from the special issue she edited).

However, she presented a similar chart in a 2005 paper meant to show the superiority of direct vocabulary instruction over reading. I provided several critiques in McQuillan (2016a) of those studies, including the limited usefulness of words memorized through shallow instruction, the rapid decay of word knowledge gained from direct instruction, and the time inefficiency of instruction versus just reading. None of those critiques is mentioned in her latest piece.

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