I’ve spent a lot of time this year attending and presenting at various language teaching conferences both abroad and in Japan – Seoul, Kobe, Jakarta & Kyoto – and one common, digital theme has really stood out: reading books, specifically graded readers (GR’s), on your mobile device.
Granted, the idea of reading books or printed content on a digital device is not all that new or uncommon, the 1st generation Kindle was released in late 2007 with new versions and upgrades surfacing what seems like every holiday season. iBooks for iOS was released in early 2010 and in addition to Amazon & Apple, the 2 heavyweights, there have been a slew of other digital e-readers on the market – Barnes & Noble Nook, Icarus Reader, PocketBook and the Sony Reader, to name a few. No, what struck me most at these English language conferences were the vast number of ELT publishers rushing to get their stock digitized into “e-Libraries” and one particular new and impressive start-up offering “the future of Extensive Reading, Xreading.
At my university (Tamagawa University) we have an ELF Program and there is an extensive reading (ER) component. So naturally, at these language conferences, I try to attend as many presentations about ER as my schedule allows. I was not expecting the sheer number of ER presenters who were trumpeting the digitized graded reader nor was I prepared for the dozens of publishers pushing their e-book collections. “Students today all have a smartphone so it’s only natural to let them read GR’s on their device,” the argument went, or, “my students are attached to their iPhones and now, with more and more GR’s available to download, they can read using their chosen medium.” Yes, in theory, all fine and good.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a bit of techie (news flash!) and whenever I attend these educational conferences the CALL and CMC-related presentations get first priority. I’m also a bit of a bibliophile, although that might be a bit too strong to describe my affinity to all things books. I do, however, have a modestly sized and diverse library in my office and at home, I can’t go into a bookstore for less than two hours and I love getting totally submerged in a ripping good yarn (pardon the cliche). Oh, and, yeah, I like bookshelf porn, but don’t tell anyone.
So as I traveled around and sat in these presentations and listened to the “21st century of ER” and saw the colossal increase in digital GR collections (and yes, admittedly, I did get excited at times) a nagging, persistent doubt followed me around: digital books are not going to make students read more. We all want our English language learners to read more or start reading if they are not already, but I seriously doubt that anyone is going to catch the “book bug” or read more just because they can “open” a book on their smartphone. Students don’t read anything of great length on their smartphones and they certainly are not going to “read for pleasure” on their new 5S. Yes, students most often use their phones for entertainment and books are “entertainment”, but for the typical L2 learner, reading books in English is a means to an end.
Then there are the practical pitfalls: the type is small, who wants to pinch and zoom after every sentence? Often the books are not free; often the student has to create an account to access the digital library (めんどくさい); and often not all titles are available. Sure, you could safely argue that it’s convenient, but so is a paperback. You could argue that it’s portable, so is a paperback. You could argue that it’s small and easy to carry, so is a paperback.
What you do get from a book, however, be it paperback novel or GR, is that singular focus on a written story. When was the last time your paperback started vibrating with incoming calls? When was the last time a Facebook notification popped up on Chapter 2? When was the last time someone Lined you seconds before Piggy* meets his fateful demise? Never, a book is its own distraction.
So remember, when you reach into your backpack and clutch that soft, dogeared tome and settle in for another commute home on the Yamanote Line, you are holding the best mobile, language learning device there is.
I guess three out of 4 ain’t bad.
* Lord of the Flies, William Golding (1954)