Intensive and Extensive Reading Skills

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 approachhelps 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.

Intensive and Extensive: 2 Ways of Reading That Power Language Learning

We learn languages for a host of different reasons.

Some of us do it for educational purposes, employment opportunities, travel goals or to communicate with family or friends, among other motivations.

But diverse as our motivations may be, we all want to read in our target language, don’t we?

Reading is basic. It’s practical. It opens up worlds and broadens horizons.

It’s also just enjoyable. Sometimes it even includes fun material like comic books and romance novels.

And most of us want to not just stumble through; we want to read well.

The great news is that not only is it possible to train yourself to read well in your target language, you can actually use reading as a method to teach yourself vocabulary, sentence structure and more.

With two different but complementary strategies—extensive and intensivereading—we can strengthen our reading skills and overall fluency.

Intensive and Extensive: 2 Ways of Reading That Power Language Learning

Intensive and extensive reading, named after a detailed study by Harold Palmer, are two distinct methods of reading. Both are useful for learning a second language.

What Intensive Reading Is

Intensive reading is just what the name implies!

It’s reading where testingevaluating and increasing knowledge is the primary focus. Understanding the literal meaning of what’s being read is vital. Reading intensively often includes note-taking and attention to details.

In intensive reading, there’s an emphasis on deconstructing sentences to understand grammar and syntax rules as well as to extricate the details of the topic. It can also involve reading comprehension testing, such as finding answers to specific questions.

Some possible examples of intensive reading material are reportscontractsnews articlesblog posts and short pieces of text such as short stories.

What Extensive Reading Is

Extensive reading is a completely different sort of approach.

Know how it feels when you’re doing something simply for the joy of doing it? Like riding a bicycle or dancing, when you know it won’t matter if you don’t get the gears shifted perfectly or your dance steps don’t hit every downbeat?

Extensive reading is like that. It’s reading for fun. And it’s doing it as often as possible.

Fluency and total comprehension aren’t necessary for extensive reading. It’s great to read at or, even better, below a comfortable level of understanding. Most of the time, an unfamiliar word can be deciphered by the surrounding text and if not, that’s fine, too. It’s not vital to understand every single word in order to get the general idea of a particular passage.

It’s generally accepted that 90-95% of the words should be familiar in order to read comfortably in a foreign language. And most of us can get along pretty well even without having all that vocabulary in our toolboxes. Guessing, especially when reading extensively, does work.

The idea behind extensive reading is that increased exposure leads to stronger language skills. Think of the vocabulary you’re being exposed to when you read a lot. And seeing the structure, idioms and cadence of a language leads to familiarity, which leads to reading competence.

Think about dancing again. The more you dance, the better you get. Reading extensively is just like that—but without the tight shoes!

Possible examples of extensive reading material are magazinesgraded readersnovels and, yes, even comic books!

How to Build a Learning Program Using Both Types of Reading with SMART Goals

One of the best ways to incorporate both intensive and extensive reading in your learning is by setting SMART goals.

SMART goals are goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely.

Let’s be clear on what this acronym means so we can see how it applies to intensive and extensive reading programs.

  • Specificis pretty clear-cut. It means just that, specific. “I want to read in Spanish” isn’t a specific goal. “I want to read in Spanish proficiently by this time next year” is a specific goal.
  • Measurablegoals are a road map for getting to your final goal. They define the way you plan to accomplish what you’re setting out to do. “I’ll read one blog post and one chapter in my target language every day.” One post, one chapter. Totally measurable.
  • Attainablegoals are less concrete than the others in that they depend on your level of commitment. Almost any goal is attainable, but are you willing to do what it takes to make it happen? Only you can answer that one. It requires putting your mind to doing something, then just doing it.

“I won’t read in any language other than my target language.” This is an example of a goal you might set in order to make the amount of reading you want to do realistic and attainable. An attainable goal must positively influence the overall outcome and also be attainable in itself, and whether or not it is will depend on your level of commitment. Setting attainable goals is helpful because they’re part of the actual “how to” process of your overall goal.

  • Relevantgoals answer the question “why?” Why are you doing this? What’s your reason for tackling the overall goal? “I want to read well in my new language so I can plow through the bestseller list without stopping!”
  • Timelyis definitely a no-nonsense part of the process. Set your timeframe and stick to it.

Now that we’ve got the whole SMART goal setting thing sorted out, let’s apply it to both types of reading.

Devise a schedule that will allow you to apply both methods of reading to your language study. Maybe alternate days for intensive and extensive reading. Or devote an hour in the morning to one type and another hour (or whatever time you have available for reading) to the other.

SMART Goals for Intensive Reading

Setting SMART goals for intensive reading isn’t difficult. An example of an intensive reading program using the SMART method might be:

Specific: “I want to read five blog posts each week.”

Measurable: “I’ll read one blog post a day.”

Attainable: “I’ll only read blog posts in the language I’m studying.”

Relevant: “I’m trying to learn how sentences are structured and pick up every detail of what’s written.”

Timely: “Every morning from 8-9, I’ll read intensively.”

Remember, this plan is just an example. Use it as a jumping-off point for your own intensive reading program. If you’re more of a news article person, substitute those for blogs. Honestly, there isn’t one material that’s best for everyone; it’s really a matter of personal preference. People tend to read more when they’re interested in what they’re reading. Me? I’ll take a fashion magazine over a dry textbook any day! Choose options that appeal to you, and insert them in the appropriate spots.

Also, the number of items on the reading list and times are suggestions. Tailor the plan to fit your schedule.

When you read intensively, ask yourself questions about the material and look for answers. Compile a vocabulary list and look up every word you don’t recognize. Read to dissect the structure of the piece and evaluate grammar rules so you can readily apply them to your own writing.

SMART Goals for Extensive Reading

It’s far easier to set SMART goals for extensive reading because so many of the stressful challenges (vocabulary lists, searching for answers, etc.) are no longer factors. This is the type of reading for enjoyment, remember? But SMART goals can still ramp up this part of your language program.

A SMART goal strategy for extensive reading could read as follows:

Specific: “I want to read one book a week.”

Measurable: “I’ll read 30 pages each day.”

Attainable: “I won’t read any books that aren’t written in my target language.”

Relevant: “I’m doing this so I’ll be able to read well in this foreign language.”

Timely: “I’ll read every day from 4-6 before I eat dinner.”

Extensive reading simply requires you to read. Choose a favorite book and read for the joy of it. Recognize what you know, but don’t stress over missed words or phrases. Quantity counts in this exercise. Of course, the bigger your vocabulary, the easier it’s going to be to read, but it’s not essential to be fluent to use this type of reading to help achieve your reading goal.

Both intensive and extensive reading programs provide material for keeping reading journals. Keep track of what you read, how easily you’re understanding the material, and how your vocabulary is increasing. Before too long, the journals will reflect your SMART goal programs by showing an improvement in reading skills!

How to Find Interesting Reading Material That Works for You

Intensive Reading Material

Intensive reading materials are everywhere. Blog posts, news articles and any pieces of short text are ideal for intensive reading practice. Additionally, children’s books work well in the beginning of intensive reading programs.

Wondering how to track down some super-relevant intensive reading material in your target language? Easier than you might think.

Say you’re learning to speak (and read!) Portuguese. I Googled “magazines written in Portuguese” and within 10 seconds I had so many to choose from. Here are just a couple:

  • Planetafocuses on environmental, cultural and health issues.
  • The Brazilian edition ofElle magazine is just as sleek and up-to-date as the one I pick up at my local newsstand.

Both make me consider putting learning Portuguese on my to-do list, if only for the fun of reading their mags!

I tried the same line in my browser but substituted Italian for the target language. Italian is a language I read and speak so the huge assortment of magazines that came up was absolutely wonderful.

  • Interested in the daily news from Milan? Try Corriere della Sera.
  • D la Repubblicais an Italian magazine with lifestyle, fashion, beauty and even cooking tips.

Both of these kept me reading and browsing much longer than I intended to be at my computer, but I’m not complaining!

Timely and interesting reading material? And loads of it? What’s not to love?

It’s a snap to do this for any language.

Remember, resources for both types of reading can come from internet downloads, a local library or any bookstore and, apart from the bookstore, a lot of it is free.

Extensive Reading Material

When it’s time for extensive reading practice, it’s more a matter of narrowing down choices than searching for them! Actually, there are so many options that it might seem a bit overwhelming, so we’ve narrowed things down a bit.

Here are some suggestions for beginning an extensive reading program:

  • French foreign language booksseem to have very attractive covers! “Le Petit Prince” (The Little Prince) is one of my favorites, in any language! If you’re a Stephen King fan, “It” is available in a three-book series in a French version called “Ça.”
  • Spanishis such a widely-read language that there are many books in all genres to choose from. “Harry Potter” always catches my attention. “La hora de la araña” is the Alex Cross mystery by James Patterson “Along Came a Spider.”
  • Chinesehas no shortage of translated books. “Life of Pi” has been read—and enjoyed—by readers all over the globe. “The Historical Lessons of China” is a volume of 24 essays which, depending on the individual essay, might prove handy for intensive practice, as well.
  • Italianis such a romantic language, both when read aloud and silently. Honestly, I could read Italian exclusively and never grow bored. “Harry Potter” is super interesting in Italian, too! For something a bit less involved, “Ottavia e i Gatti di Roma” (Octavia and the Cats of Rome) is a bilingual picture book.
  • German-language booksrun the gamut from health to travel to spirituality—and include popular fiction, as well. “Der Kleine Prinz”(“The Little Prince”) is just as good in German as it is in other languages!
  • English-language books are, of course, readily available. Some of the ones from the bestseller lists are perfect for extensive reading. They’re pulling millions of readers into their stories so they’re an ideal choice for reading practice. Practice that’s riveting? Perfect!

“P.S. from Paris,” translated from the French, is getting a ton of book chatter, both in the industry and among readers. “Any Dream Will Do: A Novel” is filled with feel-good moments that are ideal for making reading time feel like pure enjoyment rather than part of a learning program. If you’re a non-fiction fan, there’s buzz about “Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon.”

More Material, and Choosing What’s Right for You

Keep in mind that what you choose for both intensive and extensive reading practice should be geared to your reading level. There are a few ways to gauge whether a book, magazine or any other type of reading material is right for you.

Extensive readers shouldn’t discount books they’ve already read in their native language. In fact, this is a very good option for choosing books, especially if you’re just getting started with reading practice.

If you’re reading a book in another language that you’re already familiar with, it won’t be a stretch to figure out meanings or decipher new-to-you vocabulary. Hey, you already know the gist of the story, and a filling-in-the-blanks adventure has a great place in extensive reading practice.

Ditto for any material that has side-by-side translations. They work for both types of reading but are especially helpful when reading intensively and focusing on determining critical answers or nailing down tricky grammar issues. Seeing the words in print, in their entirety, eliminates ambiguity.

There’s no shortage of graded readers and they work for both types of reading. Wondering what graded readers are? They’re books that have been graded according to vocabulary.

If you have any doubts about your reading ability or what level to begin with, why not check out graded reader offerings? They’re available in nearly every language and as you gain your reading chops you can advance to the next level!


  • The Italian Bookshopfor readers in Italian.
  • Sinolinguafor its beautiful Chinese readers.
  • Penguin Readersfor tackling English.
  • Klettfor German readers.
  • CDJapanfor Japanese graded readers (some of these have fantastic artwork!).
  • The go-to spot for Spanish graded readers is European Schoolbooks Limited. I personally have several volumes from this site on my shelves, and a couple are very well-read.
  • Children’s Libraryoffers graded readers in French, and again, the artwork in some of these books is delightful.

Don’t forget the Amazon previews, or “look inside” feature available with so many titles. If you’re not sure about a selection, peek inside. See how many words on the first page, or first few pages, you understand. Gauge your readiness with this feature and whether you’re really interested in a particular book, as well.

Skim through as many first pages as it takes to find material you can comfortably comprehend. But remember, extensive reading doesn’t demand that you know all the words, so give yourself room to grow and learn!

Remember: Reading Takes Time

We learn skills through practice. Reading isn’t any different; reading well takes lots of practice, so if it’s not going really well in the beginning, don’t get discouraged. And don’t give up!

Whatever language you’re studying, choose materials relevant to both types of reading. Keep at it, and expand both types of reading programs as competence—and confidence!—grows.

Create a reading habit. It’s a healthy one that will get you closer to fluency.

As with any habit, the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it.

Read, read, read—and then read some more!

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