Why You Need Two Types of Reading to Learn a Language

intensive reading extensive reading language learning

Failing to use both intensive and extensive reading when learning a language is a big mistake.

Most people who are learning a second language understand how important it is to read material in their target language.

Even if your goal is purely conversational – maybe you just want to be able to watch movies or only need to use the new language in business calls – and literacy isn’t a concern at all, reading is still too powerful a tool to pass up. I’m all about having conversations as soon and as often as possible in your new language, but I’d never do it at the complete expense of reading.

The problem is, most people don’t recognize the differences between the two ways to approach reading in a target language. If you aren’t making full use of both, you’re making things unnecessarily hard on yourself.

Intensive Reading vs. Extensive Reading

It’s easy to think of reading in a target language like you might think of reading in your native language, as a relatively passive & relaxed kind of activity. That’s one way to do it, but there’s a second option you’re missing out on if that’s the only way you’re approaching your reading. You need a good balance between Extensive and Intensive reading, not just a focus on one or the other.

So what’s the difference between the two?

Extensive Reading

Extensive reading, to make a fitness analogy, is your relaxed low intensity steady state cardio. It’s going for a long walk at the end of the night or spending a little time just strolling leisurely on the treadmill. This type of reading is the kind of reading most people do in their native language – broad, relaxed, and casual. Think about curling up somewhere cozy with a novel, that’s the feel of extensive reading.

Extensive reading will technically take up more of your time than intensive reading. So what’s it good for?

  • Increasing Reading Speed/Fluency – Extensive reading is great for increasing your reading and comprehension speed since it’s a lot of slow constant practice. The more time you spend reading the more comfortable and habitual it feels as your brain builds all the little shortcuts to make for more rapid word and idea association.

  • Internalization of Grammar – Another benefit of extensive reading’s nature of being long and somewhat repetitive is that you’ll start to internalize common grammatical structures without thinking about it too much. When you’re exposed to the past participle form three hundred times reading a novel for an hour you stop thinking about it.

  • It’s Relaxing – I really enjoy learning languages, in the way other people might enjoy playing games or some other hobby, but even I hit times when studying or practicing just feels like work. Extensive reading is prefect for those times because the idea is to do it for fun. You’re not really worrying about whether you understand 100% of the material, or that you’re looking up unfamiliar words and adding them to a study list, it’s just the literary equivalent of plopping on the couch and watching some TV.

The keys to extensive reading is to set aside a moderate to long stretch of time to read, and to select something that’s either appropriate for your level of understanding, or even something a little below your level.

The goal here isn’t to have your dictionary and notebook handy, but just to read. Make sure you do pick something interesting, the goal here is to have fun. Novels (especially bilingual reader versions), magazines, and comic books are all good options in my opinion, but you may personally love reading personal style blogs or online automotive reviews – just find whatever is most enjoyable.

Once you’ve got something all you have to do is read. That’s it. Relax and enjoy. It’s not supposed to be intense, unlike…

Intensive Reading

If extensive reading is your long slow steady state cardio, then intensive reading is your high intensity interval training. This is the reading equivalent of doing hill sprints – short, intense, and focused.

The purpose of intensive reading is to dive deep into focused study of a text that’s beyond your current level, but not impossibly so, and deconstructing it as much as possible to tease out colloquialisms, implied or finer meanings of words, non-standard grammar usage, etc. What does intensive reading help most with?

  • Learning Colloquialisms – This depends a little on the material you’re selecting, a formal business report for example is less likely to contain the number of colloquialisms a blog post might, but intensive reading is a great way to single out and deconstruct usages that are more reflective of real life and less the inside of a textbook.

  • Developing Targeted Vocab Lists – Intensive reading also provides a good source for building vocab lists or study decks around things you’re interested in, or things relevant to the reason you’re learning the language in the first place. If you’re learning German because you’re being sent to a conference on gardening, then material on gardening and botany will provide more useful vocab for you than a book for tourists.

  • Comprehension Testing – Since you’re taking the time to dig deep into whatever material you’ve selected for reading, it provides an excellent opportunity for comprehension testing. After your first pass reading you can circle back and start deconstructing everything to see if you actually understood the material and what things tripped you up or meant something other than what you originally thought.

It’s important for intensive reading practice to keep sessions short. Treat it like you’re cramming for a test the next morning on whatever it is you’ve chosen to read, make lots of notes, look up words you don’t know, dig into unfamiliar grammars and usages to see if you can work them out.

Like those hill sprints, these should be brief but difficult. Pick a text that provides the right amount of brevity and challenge, you want it to be above your current reading and comprehension level but still fairly short. Wikipedia articles, news sites, and blogs are often good choices depending on how casual of language you’re looking for since they tend to be short and focused but still interesting.

Treat it like studying because that’s exactly what it is.

Finding the Right Balance

I would never prescribe someone nothing but slow, easy walks for someone looking to get fit nor would I prescribe daily hill sprints and barbell complexes – you need to have an appropriate balance of both to be successful.

Now where that balance is will certainly differ from person to person. Someone just starting out who is untrained and substantially overweight might do lots of walking and only one higher intensity session per week, someone who’s a high level athlete with an understanding of proper recovery might be able to handle five higher intensity sessions a week. The trick is figuring out what works best for you.

The balance between extensive reading and intensive reading is the same.

Some people might do better with more relaxed extensive reading to complement their other studies, especially if there’s severely limited amounts of time available for focused study that could be better spent with a teacher or native speaker. Others might find that they do better with a lot of deep dives into particular topics, especially if their reason for learning is tied to topics or factors related to the sorts of reading material they’re diving in to. There isn’t a perfect ratio for everyone, but the key is to be sure that you’re not devoting all your time to one and not any to the other.

Do you have any thoughts on extensive or intensive reading you want to add? Any tips for making either more effective or pitfalls to keep an eye out for? Share them with us!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *