Extensive vs. Intensive Reading: How I Use Both Methods


[Source: Wikimedia Commons]

It’s hard to complicate reading, right? Well, when you’re reading in a new language, or one that’s not as strong, reading can seem pretty complicated. Should you go for native sources? Native novels, blogs, and website? Or should you stick to textbooks for a while, maybe dip your toes into into a kid’s book or something?

I tend to stick to native resources all the way around, with limited use of textbooks. I do use children’s books, but only if they’re aimed at kids of about age eight and upwards. I like comics when they’re available, since they have casual language aimed at teens and adults and lots of pictures for maximum context. None of this is set in stone, though. I’ll read anything that I enjoy and that I can get my hands on. In real life, this ends up being a lot of English language novels translated in Spanish and Dutch, as well as Japanese manga. I read things that I would want to read (or reread) anyways, regardless of the language. When I break that rule, I usually lose interest, and I’m not too great at keeping myself reading something I find boring in the moment.

So, what’s this about extensive and intensive reading?

Both are styles of reading that can  be used for learning new languages or developing your native one. Extensive reading is reading for quantity. It’s reading without caring if you didn’t catch a word– you can look it up later if you care so much. It’s skimming the paragraphs that are boring or too hard. Everything counts with extensive reading. Check out this website on Japanese kids learning English through quantity-based reading here. (to my knowledge, they use graded readers but never dictionaries.)

I favor extensive reading. It’s fun, it has the same feel as reading in English, and I get the satisfaction of finishing lots of books in short-ish periods of time. Because I’m only focusing on the parts that I know, I usually feel pretty accomplished, too.

I read extensively even with languages with which I’m not yet familiar, for example, Dutch (at the beginning), Japanese, Swedish, Icelandic, and Polish. With unfamiliar languages, I focus on picking out words (no matter how simple) that I recognize and being satisfied with that. I started doing this when I read about how Kató Lomb learned a lot of her languages largely by “decoding” them through novels without overwhelming use of dictionaries. Inevitably, especially if you’re reading comics or other illustrated books, you’ll pick up additional words through context, and you’ll remember them all the better because you learned them through a real life pursuit. And as a side note, I will use Google Translate or a dictionary while I’m reading extensively, but only for one or two words (if that) per 30 minute session.

What about intensive reading? Intensive reading is what most language learners think of when they think about reading in their target languages. You read and look up pretty much every word you don’t know. Some people do this for long periods of time, but I find it’s best to set a timer for 10-15 minutes (I use the Forest app!) and then go at it. I generally find intensive reading to be pretty tiring and tedious, and it’s not my favorite way to incorporate native resources into my studies. On the other hand, it’s a great way to learn vocabulary through context and to learn new, useful vocabulary in general.

However! Recently, I did discover a way to use intensive reading without boring myself half to death. The answer? Poetry! Over the holidays, I bought Jorge Luis Borges’s Poesía Completa, and I’ve been having good fun reading through these poems in Spanish. Of course, the guy’s a poet, so he uses a pretty broad vocabulary and a lot of archaic and literary words. But the poetry also tends to be short, less than one page per poem. So, when I read one of these, I define all of the words in the poem. Then, because the poems are so tiny, I can read through it again with complete understanding. This method is giving me the self-satisfaction I tend to have when I’m reading extensively because each poem is self-contained. I can read a complete work with the new vocabulary right away! That’s not the case with a novel or comic. If you have trouble with intensive reading like I do, try finding a book of short poems in your target language!

How do you read in your target language? What kinds of books do you prefer? Do you like extensive or intensive reading better?



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