When students read in a language they are learning, they often read slowly and carefully, perhaps stopping to look up words in a dictionary or identify all the instances of a particular verb tense. This is referred to as careful or intensive reading.
In contrast, extensive reading involves reading easier material, but more of it:
- The idea is to read material that is interesting and relatively easy to understand.
- That way you can read quickly, without stopping to look up words or re-read a paragraph that you didn’t quite catch – the way you would read if you were reading for pleasure in your native language.
- With extensive reading, you are focused on the content, rather than linguistic elements like vocabulary words or verb tenses.
Extensive reading can benefit language learners in a number of ways:
- It can increase your reading speed and reading comprehension. You will be exposed to large amounts of language, and your vocabulary will grow as you encounter new words and reinforce already-learned vocabulary. (As a child, you probably learned much of your native language vocabulary through reading.)
- Extensive reading can also help with grammar, since you will come across many examples of grammatical patterns used in context.
- You might notice that your listening, speaking, and writing skills benefit as well.
- Since you should choose materials that you find easy and interesting to read, extensive reading can also be fun and help keep you motivated to continue learning the language.
This is not to say that you should abandon careful or intensive reading altogether. But it is important to understand the difference so that you can choose appropriate materials and strategies for both intensive and extensive reading. A text that might work well for intensive reading could be too difficult for extensive reading. If that’s the case, find something easier for your extensive reading, and have fun with it!
In some Five College Center for the Study of World Languages courses, intermediate and advanced students choose reading and listening materials as part of their weekly assignments. It is usually most effective to do a mix of both careful or intensive reading and extensive reading.
Even if it is not part of your specific assignments, you might find extensive reading to be a helpful (and enjoyable) supplement to your other language-learning activities, or a fun way to help maintain your language abilities during breaks. As with other language-learning activities, it is most effective to spread your reading out over time (ideally doing a little bit every day, rather than leaving it all for the day before your conversation session).
You may also want to read Choosing Materials for Extensive Reading.