Extensive reading is most easily understood by contrasting it to intensive reading—the type of reading most often found in foreign language learning programs. Intensive reading materials are often hard for students and are packed with new vocabulary or difficult grammar. Extensive reading materials are easy and have few unfamiliar words and little to no new grammar. Intensive reading is slow. In many cases students spend an entire hour working through just a few paragraphs or pages. Extensive reading is fast. Students might read 20-40 pages or more of foreign language text in an hour.

Intensive ReadingExtensive Reading
Hard GrammarEasy Grammar
Many unfamiliar wordsUnder 2% of words are new
Read 1-2 pages in an hourRead 25+ pages in an hour

What kind of materials are suitable?

Extensive reading materials should be three things—easy, authentic and interesting. These goals conflict to some degree. As anyone who has had the experience of trying to read in a language they don’t know very well, nearly everything they want to read is too hard. At the same time, those few texts that are easy enough, are usually very artificial (e.g. textbooks) or very boring (e.g. books for three year-olds).

Get books the students can actually read without a dictionary

The most important thing about choosing extensive reading materials for a classroom is that they are easy enough. There is a tremendous pressure to accept a text with “just a few” extra vocabulary items since it feels like the students will learn more. This is a trap. While intensive reading is valuable and has its place, the benefits students get from extensive reading disappear quickly if students cannot comfortably read and instead find themselves decoding and translating.

The bar identified by L2 acquisition researchers is that at least 98% of the vocabulary in a text must be comprehensible to the students.  About one or two new words per page and maybe one new sentence structure per session is the goal to aim for. If the students can already understand that much of the text, new words can often be learned entirely through context. If these few new words appear again and again through out the text, all the better. Words learned like this aren’t learned all at once, of course. Students start with a fuzzy understanding of a new word, which gradually gets clearer and clearer as they encounter it again and again in new contexts. This may seem like a slow way to go, but as I argued in my intensive reading article, there really is no short-cut. Translations accompanied by a few example sentences are never enough alone.

When choosing books for your students, one good test is to take a page from the text you are considering, give it to your students for a few minutes, and ask how many words they don’t know. Depending on how honest your students are, you’ll get a good idea of whether or not they could read the text. If you are worried they won’t admit what they don’t know, then cover up about twenty words scattered throughout the page, and photocopy it. You can then give the students a cloze test. If they can complete over 80% of the sentences with the correct words or reasonable alternatives, use the text. If they can’t, pick an easier one.

Aim for natural text—something native speakers (perhaps children) might actually read

There’s nothing worse than studying a language from materials filled with strange, wooden-sounding phrases that native speakers would never actually say. And yet, these kinds of materials are pretty common in foreign language instruction. Sometimes this is due to pressures to teach certain grammar structures or to prepare students for an examination. In isolation, that may not be a terrible decision since learning core grammatical patterns does help bring more authentic materials within a language learner’s reach. Extensive reading is not the time, though. When extensive reading, keep to the most natural texts possible. Reading a lot will improve a learner’s grammar but that’s not the primary goal.

Choose the most interesting books possible

At very low levels, there aren’t a lot of reading options that are easy for a second language learner. However, within the constraints of what texts are usable, it is imperative to choose the most interesting ones possible. In a classroom setting, very low-level students may need help from a teacher and need to go through the same story together. In this case, choose something with as broad of an appeal as possible. As students get more comfortable with books in the target language, they can and should be choosing their own. In my own experience teaching over a thousand students, I haven’t yet encountered one who didn’t start wanting to read specific books after having read a dozen or so at a given difficulty level. As long as students have had several successful reading experiences in the language and there are interesting choices, it’s almost inevitable that they’ll start finding themselves comfortable with more and more complex books over time.

How much should an L2 learner read?

Assuming, one free hour per day, aim to read at least 25 pages per day. If there’s only half an hour to spend on reading, then read at least 10 pages. This may seem like a lot and, for students who are reading normal paperback books with few pictures, it is. A native reader typically reads 40 to 100 pages per hour, so this is a bit over half the rate of a native reader on the slow end of the normal range.

There are two reasons for reading so much. First of all, it forces you to use dictionaries sparingly. As I encountered in a very painful way when learning Chinese, every 5 minutes spent looking through a dictionary is another 5 minutes in which very little language is acquired. The second reason to read so much is that reading too slowly interferes with comprehension. In normal reading, there are certain neurological processes at work that depend on sufficient reading speed (Day and Bamford, 1998). According to Nuttall, “speed, enjoyment and comprehension are closely linked with one another” (1996: 128). When adults read in their own languages, they take in entire phrases at a time, not individual words. If an L2 learner reads too slowly, word by word, it is even possible to forget the meaning of the first few words in a sentence before reading the last.

What are the benefits of Extensive Reading (ER)?

It seems obvious that it is better for a student to learn 20 new words while reading 20 pages of a fairly easy and interesting text, than it is to spend 20 minutes memorizing the same words and then struggle through a few difficult, boring paragraphs followed by grammar and translation drills. (For a look at one such difficult text look at page four of this report.) However, I’ll outline the main points below:

  • ER can provide “massive comprehensible input”
  • ER can enhance learners’ general language competence
  • ER can increase knowledge of previously learned vocabulary
  • ER leads to improvement in writing
  • ER can motivate learners to read
  • ER teaches learners about the culture of the target language users, which will allow learners to more easily join the L2 speech community
  • ER can consolidate previously learned language
  • ER helps to build confidence with extended texts
  • ER facilitates the development of prediction skills

How can these benefits be maximized?

Remember that newly acquired vocabulary is fragile. Therefore, the most important vocabulary to use is the vocabulary just learned. Obviously, you don’t want to introduce too much new vocabulary at one time, either. Aside from making sure that the difficulty of your texts is appropriate, it is also important to make sure that they are interesting to the students. The more interesting the texts are, the more the students will like reading (and the language in general), and the sooner they will start doing voluntary reading on their own. See this diary of a JFL (Japanese as a foreign language) learner’s extensive reading experiences.

What are the difficulties?

Using extensive reading in a classroom is, by nature, a difficult thing to do. Different students are at different levels. It takes some work to make a viable curriculum in which not everyone is necessarily reading the same thing at the same time. Some students, who have been studying a foreign language for a while in traditional a class, resist extensive reading at first. They feel that if it isn’t hard, it isn’t “real learning”. It is absolutely vital to explain the rational and benefits to them. Most difficult of all, particularly in an EFL as opposed to an ESL environment, is getting the appropriate reading materials. They can be expensive, hard to find, or simply unavailable, depending on where you are. It also takes some planning to effectively keep track of which students have which books and make sure they are all returned. In my next article on language learning, I’ll talk about some of the extensive reading materials that I have found useful.