Extensive vs Intensive Reading

In a previous blog post, we touched briefly on the distinction between extensive and intensive reading as learning strategies. The first of the two claims that the biggest improvements can be seen when a language learner reads as much as possible, regardless of content. Intensive reading, on the other hand, puts the focus on working with a short text but really getting to know the ins and outs of the text, in order to fully understand how language works.

Since reading is an essential part of any learner’s toolbox and both of these approaches have their upsides, today we’re taking a closer look at these approaches to see who they’re best suited for.

What is meant by “extensive” and “intensive”

Extensive and intensive reading refer to approaches to language learning and teaching. From their names, you can probably deduce that they both celebrate reading as an integral part of language learning. Where they differ, however, is in their approach to this activity.

Extensive reading can essentially also be referred to as reading for joy. This approach advocates reading as much material in your target language as humanly possible. This way, its advocates claim, you will be exposed to the widest range of vocabulary and grammatical structures. All of this is supposed to make you a better language learner and help you on the way to fluency.

Intensive reading, on the other hand, focuses on closely following a shorter text, doing exercises with it, and learning it in detail. According to this approach, this helps language learners really understand the language’s grammar and syntax. The proponents of this method use a range of exercises to complement the reading itself. Foreign language students can, for example, read a short paragraph and then answer questions about the text, order sentences, or find specific words.

The advantages of each approach

Extensive reading is a great tool for people who already enjoy the activity. Switching your reading into your target language will certainly expose you to much more vocabulary than you would normally learn. The aim of this approach is not to look up every single unfamiliar word but to simply immerse yourself in your target language. You can use context to figure out most of the words you don’t know in a text and, with extensive reading, you don’t exert yourself too much. Instead, you can take joy in engaging with texts that you can comfortably manage. With extensive reading, you can read material that doesn’t challenge your comprehension too much since the idea is to simply subject yourself to as much of the written word as possible.

Intensive reading, however, opens the doors of full understanding of a text. You can take a passage of Shakespeare when learning English or Murakami for Japanese and work out the very essence of that paragraph. You translate every word you don’t understand, think about the meaning of what was written, and really engage with the text and its author. While you’re not exposed to as much new vocabulary as with extensive reading, the intensive style helps you truly understand the language. You can take comprehension tests, deconstruct the more complicated grammar, and gain valuable skills that will help you in learning your target language. This approach is also invaluable to those who do not enjoy reading so much as to take up extensive reading. Instead of reading a lot superficially, you can deeply engage with a short text and walk away with a sense of great achievement.

But there are also drawbacks

While extensive reading is a great tool for those who enjoy reading, it really doesn’t work for those language learners who find the activity tedious. In addition, reading the texts superficially will mean that you will certainly miss important details that would come in handy in learning your target language. The evidence behind how much this approach helps learners acquire new vocabulary is also dubious.

The problems with intensive reading mostly have to do with the amount of concentration this approach requires. Since you’re pretty much doing a word-by-word autopsy of the text, the mental effort required for that will leave you exhausted after even a short period. That means you can only dedicate a limited time for this activity and should also pick times when you feel mentally prepared. While it is suited for people who do not find reading enjoyable (but are able to suffer through a short text), the close analysis of the text intensive reading requires can be tedious and boring for a lot of students.

Conclusion – Combine the two approaches for most benefit

Sadly, you can often only find intensive reading taught in the foreign language classroom. This is perhaps understandable due to the time limit classes face but it is, nonetheless, a drawback. While some students might find reading more enjoyable than others, the extensive reading approach should also be an option when learning a foreign language. Learners would certainly see the best results with a combination of the extensive and intensive approaches. Even if you personally belong firmly in either the camp who appreciates one of these learning styles, it might be beneficial to occasionally dabble in the other one, to get the full benefits of both.