Reading, despite being one of the four major skills of language learning, is one of the skills that is most often neglected by language learners.

Aside from reading the words and phrases that are presented in textbooks, phrasebooks and grammar guides, most learners do not bother to regularly engage in reading native texts in any meaningful way.

For the language learner who wishes to reach the upper levels of target language capability, this lack of reading poses a serious obstacle to the expansion of one’s vocabulary, as a limited vocabulary offers less capacity to understand and, in turn, be understood.

In spite of all this, the question is not simply “to read, or not to read”—the answer to that is a resounding “yes”—but what to read, and how.

You see, although reading is an immensely valuable activity, not all types of reading are created equal.

Indeed, there are styles of reading that are more useful in some contexts, and less so in others.

The two most important of these styles are known as Intensive Reading and Extensive Reading. If you learn to master the what, how, and why of these two manners of reading, you will have two extremely powerful tools in your language learning arsenal, which will fuel your ability to acquire vocabulary indefinitely.

Intensive Reading

To read intensively is to completely deconstruct a text, with the goal of absorbing as much meaning from it as possible. This is done by taking a text, and systematically looking up every word, phrase, or collocation that you do not understand.

This is an activity that requires great mental effort and focus. Because of this, the learner who engages in intensive reading must be careful to follow specific guidelines, or else risk boredom and burnout. Specifically, if you wish to read a text intensively, you must take care to read texts that are interesting and short, to read only for brief periods of time, and to do so when you have the most mental energy.

Let’s explore these concepts in further detail:

  • Texts for intensive reading must be interesting, because if you do not enjoy what you read, you will quickly forget the content, and have more mental resistance to the intensive reading process.
  • Texts for intensive reading must be short, because the end goal is to understand the text down to the most minute detail. The longer a text is, the more laborious it is to complete such a deep analysis, so it is better to stick to shorter texts in order to avoid mental exhaustion.

Ideal learning materials for intensive reading include:

  • News articles
  • Wikipedia articles
  • Short stories
  • Blog posts
  • You must intensively read for brief periods of time specifically to avoid the mental exhaustion that is described above. It takes much focus and effort to go from zero (or partial) understanding of a text to complete understanding, so it is best to limit intensive reading sessions to 30-35 minutes maximum.
  • You must intensively read only when you have the most mental energy, in order to further boost your capacity for learning, and to reduce the risk of mental exhaustion that comes with deep analysis of even the shortest texts. Of course, mental energy levels fluctuate throughout the day—and even differ greatly from person to person—so exactly you should intensively read is something you need to determine for yourself.

Extensive Reading

To read extensively is to simply read as much as possible, without concerning oneself with the minutia of meaning and the occasional unknown word. This is done by reading for large swaths of time, and looking up words only when you deem it absolutely necessary to your understanding of the text.

If the text you wish to extensively read is at the appropriate level, you’ll find that most unknown words can be deciphered by looking at their surrounding context, making overt use of translations or dictionaries unnecessary.

While intensive reading requires a high level of focus and deliberate effort, extensive reading is meant to be a fun and pleasurable experience, requiring a low expenditure of mental effort. The more extensive reading you do, the more language you are exposed to, allowing you to increase your passive knowledge of vocabulary quite quickly.

Specifically, if you wish to read a text extensively, you must read texts that are interesting, level-appropriate, of moderate length, to read when you can dedicate longer blocks of time, and to do so when you are relaxed.

Let’s explore each of these aspects of extensive reading in deeper detail:

  • As in intensive reading, texts for extensive reading must be interesting. Since extensive reading is done for longer periods of time, you must take care to select texts that hold your attention, and keep you coming back for more, hour after hour.
  • Texts for extensive reading must be level-appropriate. Since you will not be attempting to understand every single word and phrase (as in intensive reading), you must be able to understand a high-percentage of a text before you even begin. The goal is to absorb unknown words through context; therefore, if you don’t understand the bulk of the context, the text is not yet appropriate for you to read extensively.
  • Texts for extensive reading must be of moderate length. Specifically, a text should be, on average at least 15-30 pages long. Texts of this length are long enough to fully develop an idea or narrative, and require you to keep mental “track” of ideas, concepts or characters as they develop over time.

Ideal learning materials for extensive reading include:

  • Graded Readers
  • Bilingual Books
  • Monolingual (Native) Books
  • Magazines
  • Comic Books
  • Extensive reading must be done for longer blocks of time when compared to intensive reading. This is because you will be reading longer texts, which naturally require more time to read, and because sitting down to read for longer periods allow you to get into the “flow” of reading, and therefore mentally process the material more deeply. When aiming to extensively read a text, it is best to do so for sessions of an hour or more.
  • When extensively reading, it is best to stay relaxed. Reading in a relaxed, low-stress environment will help you associate reading with pleasure, and therefore increase your willingness to read more often, and for longer periods. Clearly, you don’t want to be so relaxed that you fall asleep, but instead just relaxed enough that you feel comfortable, and willing to absorb whatever you’re reading.


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Intensive vs. Extensive Reading

By now, you understand the how to read, what to read, and why to read of both Intensive and Extensive Reading. Though you may feel more compelled to one style of reading over the other, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that one method is intrinsically better.

Instead, it is important to realize that both styles of reading have their uses, and you should use both styles in tandem (across different texts) in order to bolster your vocabulary acquisition quickly and effectively.

Remember that extensive reading and intensive reading are, at their very core, simply tools. Whenever and wherever you read in your target language, if you know which of these tools is the right tool for the job, you’ll be able to maximize your learning, and take your language skill to new heights.

Written by Luca Lampariello and Kevin Morehouse

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