When you think of reading in your foreign language, what comes to mind? A daunting challenge? A mindless chore? Whatever it is, there are two types of reading in foreign languages: intensive and extensive reading. This article will highlight the difference between intensive and extensive reading in a foreign language; and help you decide which method is the right one for you, as well as help you with the process of obtaining new vocabulary.



Intensive Reading


Intensive reading means going through a short, brief passage. These are normally found in textbooks and classrooms. When you read them, the objective is to understand every word written. There are many variations, however, which are discussed in detail below.


For example, an intensive reading passive for a student learning English may look like the following:


  • Jenna and her brother had fun at an amusement park. First, they rode the Wonder Coaster. Then, they ate some pizza, and drank one bottle of soda. Finally, they visited the Hall of *Mirrors*. What a fun day!


Asterisks (*) are used to denote an unknown word, and translations are usually found at the bottom of the story. This type of reading is promoted and endorsed by textbooks and classroom teachers across the world.

  • Also for this article, I have added asterisks for words that you may want to look up in the dictionary.


An intensive reading passage might also contain much more difficult vocabulary, and may be more difficult in general. Another modification that can be made is simply skimming through the passage, looking for key details and words.


Regardless of the style and direction of a passage, there is also usually an activity involved with the passage read. The passage above, for example, might come with a task to put the events at the park in *chronological* order. Another example could be to answer a series of true/false questions on the text. In theory, these mini-quizzes will lead to increased comprehension of the passage, and lead to what I call “passive fluency”: the ability to read in a language while being unable to speak or write in it.



Extensive Reading


This type of reading, although more challenging, is the most rewarding type. Extensive reading entails reading long articles, novels, and other types of literature. These can also be defined as native materials. With this approach, one should not try to understand every word; the aim is the understand the *gist* of the piece. If you try to understand every word, you will burn out very quickly.


Although the word extensive signifies a large volume of material read, it does not mean that the reading must be difficult. You can use comic books, or other light reads: this process is about what works for you. Whether it’s Superman or a book about super volcanoes, there are many materials in many languages that may *pique* your interest.



My Story


Originally, when I was learning Italian, I fell into the early trap that most language learners fall into; intensive reading. I figured that if it was in my textbook, it must be good material. Day after day, I poured over these readings, learning *obscure* vocabulary like “void” and “hummingbird”.


Now don’t get me wrong; if this is the type of vocabulary that you would like to learn, go ahead. If you like voids in space or hummingbirds in nature, then that vocabulary might be for you. However, it’s not what I wanted to learn. My goal was to learn vocabulary that I could use in my day-to-day life when speaking Italian. I also wanted to learn specific vocabulary in the fields that I liked (in this case world events, sports, and history).


It also didn’t help that after reading a paragraph per day for a few days, I would begin to burn out. This is by no means good. I thought about an alternative, and then heard about one; extensive reading. This was a lifesaver for me, and it forever changed my approach to reading in a foreign language. That’s when I developed my process for learning new vocabulary, and a new way of reading in my target language.



The Process


In this article, my focus is on extensive reading. Although there are many great ways to read intensively, based on my own experiences, extensive reading is the method to follow. I have laid out a plan for what I do whenever I want to read something extensively. This process is very simple, and can be broken down into a small number of steps.



Before You Read


1. Choose Your Genre


The key to this is choosing something that you will enjoy. Into science? Find an article about the solar system or the universe. Interested in European history? An article on Leonardo DaVinci must exist in your target language. Has philosophy piqued your interest? Essays on free will or fate are *bountiful* across the world and across languages. No matter what path you choose, the key is to stay motivated and stay interested.



2. Choose Your Difficulty


Once you have your genre, select a difficulty level that you want to read. Do you want a nice, easy read, like a children’s book? Perhaps you want to challenge yourself, and give yourself a whole article to read on your chosen subject? This is the beauty of the extensive reading process. There are so many different options and routes that you can follow, but they will all lead to one destination: reading fluently in your language.


Side note: one website that I really enjoy using for extensive reading materials is e-stories.org. This platform allows you to read poems and short stories in many different languages. They sort them by genre and, if you’re feeling ambitious, they even take guest poems and short stories in all their languages!



During Your Reading


3. Read!


The next step is getting into the meat of the matter; you will begin reading your text. Although you may feel overwhelmed, don’t panic! If there is a word that you don’t know, simply skip it. If this word keeps popping up, chances are that it is key to understanding the article. Then highlight it. Continue reading the text. If you can *decipher* what the text means, congratulations! You are extensively reading!


However, if you don’t, that is fine as well. Simply put all your highlighted words into a translation site (I use Word Reference), and see if that makes a difference in your understanding of the article. If you still cannot understand, you may have to go back and choose a different difficulty level.



4. Reflect and Input


Once you are done with your reading, look back: Was I able to understand the article? How could it have been better? After reflection, take your highlighted words, and look at their meanings. Then plug them into a flashcard deck (either real or virtual), and save them for review (which we will discuss in detail below). Go back into your article and find any other additional words that you found important, but didn’t highlight. Take those words, find their meanings, and add them to the deck as well. This will lead to an increase in your vocabulary in your target language. Even though you may have only 20 words per article, multiply that by every time you read. That’s a lot of words!



After You Read


5. Choose Your Own Path


After you read, you are faced with two options. You can either read the original passage again until you fully understand all the idioms and deeper meanings that are contained within it, or you can find a new passage to read and repeat steps 1 to 4. I have done both, so whichever one you do is up to you.



6. Review


Once you have a *substantial* amount of vocabulary words (around 50-100), you can start reviewing. The best part; this can be done anywhere at any time! Got five minutes to spare? Go onto your Notes app, and start typing sentences using your new vocabulary. On the bus? Pull out your phone and go over your virtual Anki deck. In today’s language learning environment, there is no excuse to not learn your vocabulary in order to become fluent in your target language.



7. Repeat


This is a simple enough step - continue reading and learning new words! Make sure to continue to add new words into your flash card deck. Make it a cumulative deck, not one deck that you read every time.





In conclusion, reading does not have to be “boring” or “too challenging”. It can be a *dynamic* process, with readings just right for you and learning new vocabulary along the way. Extensive reading is a great tool, because you don’t need somebody to work with, and it can be used as much or as little as you want. Regardless of if you pull 5 or 50 words for every reading, over the long term you will become very successful in your foreign language.


Right now, I am reading a book about the history of Portugal (en espagñol), and reading it extensively has been a great pleasure. Remember; this is about you, the language learner. So, what are you waiting for? Grab a foreign book, and start extensively reading. Tell me what you think in the comments below!


Hero image by Lacie Slezak on Unsplash