Intensive? Extensive? What Kind of Reading Is Right For Me?

With so much talk recently about speaking, listening and writing, my old friend reading was starting to get a complex. Well, if you are a fan of reading (like myself), this is the post for you. I’m going to talk about a few ways to use reading to boost vocabulary, grammar, and even motivation. As usual, I am going to preface this post with a disclaimer that the information contained in this blog is what works for me. One size does not fit all, but I honestly believe that anyone can find something in this post to help them with their language quest.

Intensive Reading

Intensive reading (also called active reading) is when you read a text to understand it in it’s entirety. This involves looking up any unknown words in a dictionary as well as checking any unknown grammatical features in a grammar reference. Intensive reading takes TIME. Lots of time. The idea with intensive reading is to know everything that’s going on in a sentence before moving onto the next one.

When should I start intensive reading?
Intensive reading is best done at a fairly early stage. In fact, it can even be done right away when beginning a language, although it would probably be a bit more fun and slightly more bearable if you had a couple hundred words and a little bit of basic grammar. David Snopek, of LinguaTrek.com actually learned Polish by intensively reading Harry Potter with only a year of classroom polish grammar and almost no vocabulary. There is really no time like the present to get started with intensive reading.

What does intensive reading do for me?


Intensive reading can do several things for you:

1. Vocabulary building. Combining intensive reading with flash cards is a great way to build vocabulary. The key is to not make flash cards for EVERY SINGLE WORD. Use your judgement. Maybe words like “antagonistic” or “dirigible” aren’t the best use of valuable flash card space and review time. If you don’t think you will use a word in conversation, don’t make a card for it.

2. Sentence structure. As you read intensively through a book, you will start to see patterns and structures emerge, especially if you are looking up unfamiliar structures in a grammar reference. These patterns will start to really penetrate into your subconscious and before you know it, reproducing similar structures will start to come naturally. This does require a substantial amount of material to really start to see this kind of benefit in full. Don’t expect to intensively read a couple pages from a novel and all of a sudden feel right at home with grammar patterns. This works, but it takes a lot of effort.

3. Building up idiomatic “chunks”. There will be sentences you come across that just don’t make sense. You look up every word, you find the grammar pattern, but it still just doesn’t make any sense. Chances are you’ve stumbled upon an idiom. Sometimes the only way to make sense of these elusive little buggers is to look them up in Google or to ask a native speaker. They can be very perplexing. At the same time, they are pure gold as far as conversational tools go. Each idiom you absorb is a step closer to sounding like a native speaker (assuming you aren’t taking your idioms from 18th century religious manuscripts or something of the like). One thing you should find out before committing a new idiom to memory is how common (or potentially outdated) it is. Again, Google or a native speaker would be your best ways to figure this out.

Tips for Reading Intensively

Pick materials that interest you. Intensive reading is a slow process by design. If you are reading something that doesn’t really grab your attention and make you want to continue, then you will come to dread the intensive reading portion of your study plan.Pick materials that are above your level. If you know 2000+ words and the most common grammar patterns, don’t pick an “easy reader” kids book. Pick something that will challenge you.

Pick something relevant to your language goals. If your goal is to be conversational and talk about everyday things with natives, don’t intensively read a historical treatise of medieval castle-building. You won’t get much relevant vocabulary out of it. However, if you are studying to be able to give a presentation on medieval castle-building, then you will be right on target. Just remember, even if it interests you, it may not fit in with your overall language goals.

Don’t be afraid to toss in some audio (if you have it). If you have the audio, you can use it even in intensive reading situations. Listen to a paragraph a few times and then dig into the unknown words and grammar. Once you’ve worked it all out, listen to that paragraph again (and again). Anytime is a good time to practice listening.

Extensive Reading

Extensive reading is when you read a text with the goal of not necessarily understanding every word, but to maintain a “flow” or momentum through the text. The ultimate goal of extensive reading is quantity over quality. Pure exposure to as much volume as possible is the goal here. Comprehension is still a factor, but FULL comprehension of every word is not a requirement. Extensive reading is also often accompanied by audio (extensive listening) as well.

When should I start extensive reading?


Extensive reading is typically reserved for the intermediate/advanced stages of language learning. Vocabulary and grammar structures should be built up to a decent level through intensive reading (and other methods) before extensive reading would prove to be of much use. Of course, with graded readers and potentially some children’s books, extensive reading could be done a bit earlier. My rule of thumb for extensive reading is 90%+ comprehension of the material. Any less than that and you are missing (or looking up) more than 1 word in 10. That is not what extensive reading is all about.

What does extensive reading do for me?


Extensive reading is all about one thing: Exposure. Sheer exposure to the language in mass quantity is the goal here. Grammar and vocabulary will be reinforced through repetition. Reading speed will continue to build. It will also develop your ability to identify new words through context (a fancy way of saying you will become a better guesser). If you are using audio as well, then you are doubling your exposure and working on 2 very important skills at once.

Tips for Reading Extensively

(repeat alert!) Pick something interesting. Just like with intensive reading, you need to find something enjoyable to read or you will not make it very long. Extensive reading is basically what you do in your native language for fun. Why should it be any different in your target language?

Pick something slightly above, but very close to your level. If you have less than 90% comprehension, then you are basically doing intensive reading anyway (or you will miss an unacceptable number of details).

Try not to look things up. This can be tough and every once in awhile, you just ay have to check a dictionary to make sure you understand something critical. Remember, one of the skills we are building here is guessing words based on context. We are also more concerned with main ideas and flow than with understanding every detail.

Flow is key. For me, extensive reading is all about pace. My goal is to get into the “reading zone” where I’m not translating, I’m not nit-picking every word, but instead I’m just riding the wave. This is another reason that I like using audio. The reader sets the pace and it’s up to me to match it.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, not all reading was created equal. My Dad always told me “use the right tool for the job” and I think it applies here. I think reading is an important part of every language learning routine, however I caution you to not make it TOO important. Reading is easy because you can do it by yourself, in bed, with less effort than speaking with a partner, listening to pure audio, or writing a journal. Balance is the key. Don’t neglect any aspects of your language learning. Use them together and before you know it, you’ll be right where you want to be.

How do you incorporate reading into your daily routine? Let me know in the comments.

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