Intensive vs extensive reading

Reading, in any language, is one of the most powerful and efficient ways to increase our vocabulary. Even in our own native language, If you think about those with the largest vocabulary it is always the people who read a lot.

Reading is not only good for improving your vocabulary but also helps improve your grammar and solidify existing knowledge.

When reading in a foreign language, most of us do intensive reading. However, in order to progress to a high level, you need to know how to utilise both extensive and intensive reading.


What is intensive and extensive reading?


Intensive reading, as the name suggests, is short and focused. The goal is to take a short text and understand everything.

This entails picking a difficult text, reading it many times over and looking up every single word. The aim here is to try and understand everything in great detail.

By its very nature, the time spend on intensive reading is very short and very focused. Typically half an hour to an hour. You should be sat upright where you can concentrate, free of distractions, and pick a text short enough so that you can read it many times over and go into great detail.

Extensive reading is the polar opposite of this, reading for pleasure. Pick texts just above your level, and expose yourself to large volumes of content. As the texts will be much simpler and closer to your level, this should require much less mental strain on your part and you should be able to read for longer periods of time.

You can be in whatever position you want, just make sure you are comfortable. Sat on the sofa, laying down on your bed, really anything is fine.

The trick here is finding compelling content at the right level. This allows you to focus on the content itself without having to look up much or any unknown words and then you can try to figure out the rest through context.


Choosing a text for extensive reading


The biggest obstacle when extensive reading is trying to find material that is both at the right level, and compelling. This is especially true in the beginner stages.

If chosen correctly it should be at the right level to get you totally immersed in the story, while at the same time still having some unknown words. This allows you to figure out the rest through context and expand your vocabulary as you go.

Some experts say you should aim for 90%+ comprehension and others state you should aim as high as 98%! But what does this even look like?

To put this into context, this is only having 1 out of every 50 words unknown.

Lucky for us over at sinoplace, they have texts of English with nonsense words added in to get a feel of what 98, 95 and 80% comprehension actually feels like.




"You live and work in Tokyo. Tokyo is a big city. More than 13 million people live around you. You are never borgle, but you are always lonely. Every morning, you get up and take the train to work. Every night, you take the train again to go home. The train is always crowded. When people ask about your work, you tell them, 'I move papers around.' It’s a joke, but it’s also true. You don’t like your work. Tonight you are returning home. It’s late at night. No one is shnooling. Sometimes you don’t see a shnool all day. You are tired. You are so tired…"



Here you can see a few nonsense words have been added in, but as the percentage is so low, you can take an educated guess at what they might mean. The nonsense words don't affect your overall comprehension and the whole text still reads pretty smoothly.

Next, let's take a look at 95%:



"In the morning, you start again. You shower, get dressed, and walk pocklent. You move slowly, half- awake. Then, suddenly, you stop. Something is different. The streets are fossit. Really fossit. There are no people. No cars. Nothing. 'Where is dowargle?' you ask yourself. Suddenly, there is a loud quapen—a police car. It speeds by and almost hits you. It crashes into a store across the street! Then, another police car farfoofles. The police officer sees you. 'Off the street!' he shouts. 'Go home, lock your door!' 'What? Why?' you shout back. But it’s too late. He is gone."


Here you can see that you can still get the overall meaning of what is happening but some of the detail is beginning to get lost.

Next, let's look at 80%:


"'Bingle for help!' you shout. 'This loopity is dying!' You put your fingers on her neck. Nothing. Her flid is not weafling. You take out your joople and bingle 119, the emergency number in Japan. There’s no answer! Then you muchy that you have a new befourn assengle. It’s from your gutring, Evie. She hunwres at Tokyo University. You play the assengle. '…if you get this…' Evie says. '…I can’t vickarn now… the important passit is…' Suddenly, she looks around, dingle. 'Oh no, they’re here! Cripett… the frib! Wasple them ON THE FRIB!…' BEEP! the assengle parantles. Then you gratoon something behind you…"


Now with 80%, you can still get the gist of what is being said, but almost all of the detail is completely lost. Sure, you can guess what "joople" probably means phone, and "bingle" means dial, but it's almost impossible to try and figure out all of the unknown words through context.


Different people have different tolerant levels of noise. Some of us hate it, while others can tolerate a higher level of ambiguity to be able to fight your way through interesting content.

Based on the sample texts above you should have a pretty good idea of how much noise you can tolerate.


Intensive vs Extensive reading


With intensive reading, because the aim is to understand as much as possible, the text is kept short and you have to read over the same passage many times.

As a result of this approach, this means that you can tackle content with a much higher percentage of unknown words. This allows you to tackle much more interesting content at an earlier stage in your learning.

Additionally, when we first start out in a language we are on 100% unknown words apart from a few cognates. This means that the only option we have is intensive reading until we build up our comprehension to a level where extensive reading becomes possible.

The downside to this, is that because you are only reading short texts, you aren't exposed to a lot of language. You go over the same structures many times which is great for when you first start, but the better you get diminishing returns start to kick in.

The words you encounter become less and less frequent and this sort of focused study becomes less and less useful, unless you have a specific area or niche you want to improve in.

This is where extensive reading comes into play. With extensive reading, you expose yourself to massive amounts of language. Because of this, you are exposed to large amounts of new vocabulary and structures as well as re-consolidating the older ones.

Also, as you are just reading for pleasure this becomes a much more natural and enjoyable way to learn.

One drawback is that reading can be very exhausting and difficult when first starting out in a new language.

If the amount of unknown words is too high, then you can't figure out the rest from context. This means that in order to be successful in extensive reading you need to be at a much higher level. In the start, you simply don't know enough words, so intensive is your only option.

Then the larger the base you have in the language, you can start to shift your focus from intensive towards extensive reading.


How to get started with extensive reading


As I said before when you first start out intensive reading is the best option, until we have built up a base in the language. But once we reach an intermediate stage what is the best way to get started?

The first thing you could try is to read simple stories. These can be graded readers, short stories, novella with lots of dialogue, or even comic books and manga.

Another great thing you can do is choose something you already know the plot of. For example, if you are learning Japanese and you have watched the anime Dragonball, a good choice would be to read the manga version as you already know the plot.

Another tip is to read online as much as you can. Reading on the computer, especially in languages like Chinese or Japanese, makes looking up new words a lot easier. This keeps you entranced in the story as opposed to being glued to the dictionary, and lets you enjoy more difficult content through extensive reading at an earlier stage.

Another option I have tried before is to read the first few chapters intensively. When you start out you need to get used to the authors writing style, place and character names, and any niche vocabulary. For example, if you were to read Harry Potter, there is a pretty good chance you won't know words like wand, potion or spell.

Going through the first few chapters intensively you will learn a lot of new vocabulary and themes that will keep on recurring for the rest of the series and make the transition into extensive reading much easier.




Both intensive and extensive reading are both vital parts of language learning and you need to know how and when to use both in order to advance quickly in a language.

For intensive reading, this is best used either at the initial stages in your learning when there are simply too many new words, or if there are really specific topics you want to learn about.

Extensive reading starts to come into its stride at the intermediate level and beyond. The better you get, the more useful extensive reading becomes and the more interesting content you can access.

Extensive reading is great because it is the most natural and fun way to read, as well as exposing yourself to a tonne of new vocabulary and grammar structures at the same time.

What have you been doing more of intensive or extensive reading? Which do you prefer, and why? Let me know in the comments below!