This piece is about ways in which Intensive Reading can be employed in the EFL classroom as well as in children’s native language classes. One way to understand Intensive Reading is by contrasting it with extensive reading. The goal of one exercise is to push oneself to build specific skills by taking on difficult material in a focused session, while the goal of the other is to spend as much time as possible reading and building a strong language base.
Nearly anyone who has taken a foreign language class in North America is familiar with intensive reading. Maybe you have to read a paragraph, or maybe you have to make your way through Le Petit Prince, like I once did. In either case, you’d be reading something with a great deal of vocabulary and/or grammar that is beyond your current reading ability. If your instructor is kind, maybe the vocabulary and grammar that is new to you will be glossed page by page. If not, you’ll be spending more time looking up a dictionary than reading. Assuming vocabulary is supplied for you, the most efficient way to do this kind of reading is to first drill yourself on the new vocabulary for an hour or so, and then read. Diligent students will be able to use the reading to learn 10 or maybe even 20 vocabulary words within a couple of hours. However, even they will probably be reading word by word rather than taking in the language a phrase at a time as they would reading in their native languages.
Intensive reading has two key advantages. For low level readers, intensive reading is possibly the fastest way to build vocabulary. Some foreign language students are able to successful add 10 or more comprehension words per day. Additionally, reading difficult material forces a learner to develop strategies for for dealing with texts that are too hard to read comfortably.
When deciphering a difficult text, readers are forced to use a variety of strategies that they wouldn’t need while engaging in extensive reading. While these strategies don’t build overall language skills, they are very important for a learner’s ability to use what they do know. Skimming is critically important. Even travelers who may have only a basic knowledge of a language may need to read menus, look for an apartment or fill out forms. In fact, classroom exercises in doing just these tasks is an excellent way to build students ability to skim partially incomprehensible text. For younger learners, TV listings and search engine results are good tools. Dictionary use is another skill that can be developed through intensive reading. Equally important is guessing. Both children and foreign language learners often learn what words mean gradually as they make educated guesses when seeing it in context.
The biggest drawback, by far, is the large amount of time spent reading a small amount of text. While most people assume that this is necessary in order to be “learning”, it isn’t necessarily the case. Many studies have shown that the only way people really learn how to use new grammar or vocabulary correctly is by encountering them in a large variety of contexts. In other words, even after you have “learned” a word, it is still extremely beneficial to keep reading material which includes it. Words frequently don’t map one to one from one language to another. Take for example the word, “nose”. It seems like a simple enough word. It’s a noun and it refers to a body part that everyone in the world has, regardless of mother tongue. However, like many things in language learning, the word “nose” is much more complicated than it appears.
In Japanese, the word 鼻 (はな), means nose… sort of. Consider this sentence:
“Nose” and “鼻” aren’t quite the same. Japanese doesn’t have any one word that means exactly the same as “nose”. The word for “nose” in Malay, “hidung” is different from both “nose” and “鼻”:
As we can see, “nose” applies to people, but not pigs or elephants; “hidung” applies to people and pigs, but not elephants; and “鼻” applies to all three.
Intensive reading, by it’s nature takes a lot of time. Reading material with a lot of new vocabulary and grammar is a slow and tiring process. As a result, even if you spend an hour a day reading (which quite a bit for a language student), you will only get 3 or 4 pages of input. As a result, you won’t encounter the word “nose” in enough contexts to realize when it’s used. This may seem like a small problem, but consider the fact that many, if not most, words cannot be mapped 1-1 from one language to another.
The nose example may seem to be a hand picked, but I can assure you it’s not. While I was learning Japanese I encountered literally thousands of words that were just a little bit different than the English words into which they are commonly translated. Here’s one more thing to consider: The more common a word is, the more likely it’s usage (and conjugation if it has one) is irregular. Think of all the different meanings of the extremely frequently used word, “get”. Is there any other language in which “get up”, “get even”, “get better”, “get a new bike”, and “get to go on vacation” are all translated the same way? Worse yet, the forms of “get” are so irregular that not even American and British English agree on them.
What can be done about these misunderstandings? In most classrooms I’ve seen, intensive systems are used. This means that students not only have to try to memorize 50 words a week, but they are also told to memorize rules. “Nose” can be used for people, but not pigs, elephants or birds. If the “get” in your sentence means 變得 (
Ideally, a small portion of reading time (10%-15%) is intensive and the remainder is extensive.
This article is an updated version of one originally posted in 2005
The Malay example is from the 1999 ALT-J/M paper