When to Read Intensively vs. Extensively in Language-Learning

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Learning Chinese - Mandarin, Dutch, Croatian, Italian, Russian, Spanish

There are two basic approaches to reading in your target language:

- Intensive reading is to read in detail, for the purpose of acquiring vocabulary, and thus reading slowly and looking up a lot of words.

- Extensive reading is to read for your own enjoyment and not worrying too much about vocabulary for as long as you can follow the plot.

Obviously when it comes to textbook dialogs and similar, the default is to read them intensively, looking closely at any new words and new ways of expressing oneself. When graduating to easy readers and eventually books for native speakers, many first-time language learners make the mistake of reading them the same way without asking themselves whether that is what they want to do, or without realising that there is a choice.

When reading books in your native language, you read extensively, that is you don't (usually) read in order to learn new vocabulary, you just want to escape to another world and experience epic adventures. You can do the same in your target language, and finding yourself absorbed like this while reading your target language feels like the best thing ever.

By contrast, reading a book intensively (like a textbook dialog) takes a lot of energy and is generally not a lot of fun, because the constant look-up of vocabulary prevents you from becoming immersed in the world of the book and you may even lose the plot completely, but it can teach you a lot.

When to Read Extensively

- If you have only just stopped using textbooks, or if you are low on motivation. At that point it is important to discover activities that are genuinely fun in your target language, so that long-term maintenance of the language does not require superhuman levels of discipline.

- If you are reading a thriller or a cheap novel. For this type of book, the enjoyment lies 100% in the plot, so you should move through it relatively quickly.

- If you want to develop a reading habit. Building a reading habit around intensive reading is about as likely to succeed as building a habit around studying textbooks - it can happen, but it's much less likely than building an ice-cream habit. Assuming you read books (or fanfiction) that you picked yourself and that you enjoy, extensive reading is almost the same as an ice-cream habit.

- If you want to have deep knowledge of a culture, its books, or the world in general. We all just have 24 hours in a day, so everyone who reads a lot must go through books at a reasonable speed, not spend many weeks on each one.

- At night, before falling asleep.

When to Read Intensively

- If you have already read a lot and your biggest worry is your lack of vocabulary.

- If you're studying a text that will come up in an exam, or if you're reading a non-fiction book of which you want to retain particularly much.

- If you are reading poetry. Poetry is hard to savour when you don't know some of the words.

- If you are reading work of literature by an author known for their deftness with language, IF your goal is to fully appreciate their style and not just be able to talk about the book's contents.

- If you are rereading a book that you love and you want to draw it out and savour it. I often find that the first time I read a book, I want to lose myself in the world and I'm impatient to know how the plot continues, but the second or third time I want to read more slowly and notice all the details, the foreshadowing, the particular words used, and so on.

Best Practices

The border between extensive and intensive reading is somewhat fluid because you cannot completely avoid looking up words. Also, some books are harder than others and you may rarely look up words in one novel but regularly consult a dictionary in another novel, despite intending to read extensively. Here are some tips:

1. Even in intensive reading you shouldn't instinctively look up every unknown word as soon as you see it. Often words will quickly become clear from context and the temporary confusion may help your brain to remember the word better later.

2. Several polyglots recommend looking up (and possibly memorising) words as soon as you see them for the third time without understanding.

3. For extensive reading, I would say to only look up words when you don't understand even the gist of a paragraph. For other words, wait until you're at a good breakpoint, so that you don't keep interrupting the story playing out in your head.

When embarking on this road, definitely check out tools which provide instantaneous translation of words while reading and which later produce a list of words you had to look up, so that you can decide whether to memorise them. The most well-known such tool is LingQ, but my personal favourite is the LanguageCrush Reading Tool, which unlike LingQ is free even for extensive use and supports a whopping 104 languages.

When used in intensive reading, the tools remove most of the pain associated with this method. If you'd normally spend two minutes to look up a word that you read in a paper dictionary, or one minute with an online dictionary, and you have to look up 15 words per page, that means that you're spending 15-30 minutes per page just operating tools to find the translation, not engaging with the text. In the case of conjugated forms, you could spend a lot longer, as you're also guessing what the dictionary form might be. With instantaneous lookup including of conjugated forms, you save so much time that it's a game-changer for anyone trying intensive reading.

When used in extensive reading, it doesn't save as much time, but the time it saves is more precious: when you don't understand what just happened and you're forced to look up words, instantaneous translation means that you won't be catapulted out of the story: you can click/tap on the word, glance at the meaning, and keep reading.


"Keep reading" is really the key. If you imagine a page's worth of text, you can read and absorb its content much faster than if somebody read it aloud to you. This means that when reading, your brain will encounter more words and more sentences per minute than when listening - and in the end, your vocabulary and your "feel" for a foreign language simply reflects how many words you've encountered and in how many contexts. If you have limited time and want to improve your vocabulary, reading thus provides a greater bang for your buck than listening.

In basically every study of native or non-native speakers, the vocabulary of those who regularly read for pleasure (extensively, not even trying to learn vocabulary) is larger than the vocabulary of those who don't read or rarely read.

Keep reading!

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