Intensive vs. Extensive Reading: Which Should You Use?

January is the first month of the Tadoku challenge, a challenge which encourages participants to read as much as they can in their target language. With that in mind, most of what I post this month with be related to reading – and this post covers something that I’ve seen discussed quite often.

So, first of all: what’s the difference between intensive and extensive reading? 

Well, extensive reading is what you do in your native language most of the time. You pick up a book and read it; and if you come across a word you don’t know, you work out its meaning from context.

Intensive reading is the process of taking a (preferably short text) and looking up all the words and grammar you don’t know. Extensive reading is generally considered to be more about the content, where as when you read intensively, you look at the language.

Which method works best then?

As with most methods, it’s entirely up to the learner. Of course, when you first begin learning a language, it can be difficult to read extensively. You don’t have the necessary grammar or vocabulary to tackle longer texts (that is sometimes when the reading-listening method can be more helpful), so it can be a little discouraging to start trying to understand a whole book. That’s why it’s also important to pick something to read that is both suitable for your level and, most of all, something that you find interesting.

At a beginning level, extensive reading can help you to reinforce the words and structures you already know, as well as helping you to pick up new words – even if you only get the gist of a page (or paragraph – or even sentence). When you get to an intermediate level, it again reinforces what you learned, while also helping you to pick up a huge amount of vocabulary, especially synonyms that you might not learn systematically. At an advanced level, there is still a lot to learn. Those synonyms are picked up even faster, along with idioms and a better sense of how the language is put together. When reading in German, I almost exclusively use this method and don’t worry (that often) about learning individual words, because I know that if they’re important, they’ll be repeated later on in a context I can probably understand.

Intensive reading can be particularly helpful if you’re having trouble with a difficult grammar point or want to mine for vocabulary. I use this a lot for Mandarin, mostly because without looking up words I still don’t really know how many are pronounced; but also because I do want to actively increase my vocabulary in this language. I sometimes do it for German, too, if there’s a specific topic I want to look at or some common words I feel I don’t know.

As far as I’m concerned, using a combination of both methods works best for me – but I don’t spend nearly as much time doing intensive reading as I do with extensive reading, because unless you really like looking up words in a dictionary, it can get dull. However, it’s probably best to see for yourself. You can just try extensive reading and work out meanings from context, or just intensive and steadily work your way through something, or use a combination when you need to.

Does anyone already use this method? Let me know if there’s anything you’d add – and how you go about reading in your target language!


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