What’s the Difference Between Extensive vs Intensive Reading?

By Jonty Yamisha • 8 minute read

If you want to reach fluency in a foreign language, then you shouldn’t overlook the importance of reading. It’s a great way to ramp up your progress and get you speaking like a local faster. But not all reading styles yield the same results. To get the most out of your reading efforts, you need to know when to use intensive vs extensive reading strategies.

What Is Intensive Reading?

Intensive reading tends to feel more like a lesson than casually reading. When you read intensively (vs extensively), you’re fully engaged in the material. You’re reading over each word, each sentence, focusing on the vocabulary, and acquiring grammar along the way

If you think back to any language learning course you may have had, you’ll remember spending entire classes on one or two pages, reading, re-reading, and discussing every aspect of the page along the way. It can feel exhausting at times.

Language learning books work well for this type of activity. That’s why you’ll often find them in the classroom. Classrooms tend to overemphasis intensive (instead of extensive) reading, which is why many people fail to learn a second language. More so, if they don’t enjoy reading.

when should you use intensive vs extensive reading

How to Read Intensively

You need to treat intensive reading like a language lesson for it to be effective. Sitting up straight at a desk, leaning over a book, and focus on what you’re reading. You’re looking for unfamiliar words and paying attention to the formation of sentences.

It can be intense, and like any intense activity, you want to limit yourself to about 20 – 30 mins. It’s enough to help you learn, but at the same time, not so much that it’ll burn you out. And trust me, you’ll feel it. Walking away from intensive reading should feel like you just finished a brain work out

The Benefits of Intensive Reading

Because intensive reading is challenging, you should know what you’ll get out of it. With intensive reading, you will…

  • Learn new vocabulary words
  • Gain a deeper understanding of grammar
  • Explore syntax and sentence structure
  • Better understand the language
  • Grow your abilities to read in your target language

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When Should I Read Intensively?

As with any high-intensity brain activity, you’ll want to engage in intensive reading when you’re the freshest. Early in the morning or after a nap would be a great time to sit down and dedicate 20 – 30 minutes to increase your reading ability

You’ll also want to do more intensive reading early on in your language learning journey vs extensive. As a new language learner, there’s a huge learning curve in the beginning. And you’ll see a lot of results with each intensive reading session you complete. You’ll learn new words, discover how sentences work and pick up on grammatical nuances along the way.

However, as your abilities increase, you’ll see less of a return on your efforts. There’s only so much grammar you can (or want) to take in at the beginning. Think about it, most people have a general understanding of syntax, morphology, and grammar, but few have a detailed understanding of most structures. At some point, you’ll need to move onto extensive reading. 

What Is Extensive Reading?

If intensive reading is work, it’s best to think of extensive reading as fun. Extensive reading is reading everything you can, as much as you can, for the sake of reading it. The key here is exposure. 

The more you read, the more words, sentence variety, and style you’ll pick up on as you go. You won’t need to study it, you’ll just absorb it (we’ll talk more about this somewhat controversial view in a minute). 

How to Read Extensively

Because reading extensively should be enjoyable, you should read things you find interesting.  If you like politics, you should read newspapers, magazines, and blogs about certain topics. If you like fiction, you should read novels. If you like comics…etc. 

Whatever you read, you should want to read because you’ll spend around 1 – 3 hours doing it every day. You should be comfortable too, so feel free to lean back, put your feet up, and relax while you’re doing it. Remember: you’re doing this for fun. 

intensive vs extensive reading

The Benefits of Extensive Reading

Extensive reading offers a lot of benefits (provided you enjoy reading). Here are a few of them: 

  • More exposure to the language, including style, vocab, and syntax
  • The last stage in your journey to learn a language 
  • Requires less effort
  • More freedom because you can read when you want to
  • Learn more about the culture using native texts
  • Helps you retain your language knowledge
  • Enjoyable

When Should I Read Extensively?

Whenever you like. The beauty of extensive reading is that you don’t really need to set time aside for it. You can do it throughout your day or all at once. Before you go to bed. On the bus. It doesn’t matter as long as you make time for it. 

However, it’s important to remember that you need a strong command of vocabulary, syntax, and grammar to read extensively. This is because you’ll be mostly reading without looking up words. Stopping to crack open a dictionary every few sentences will definitely take the fun out of the experience. 

To get the most out of extensive reading and to have the best experience, you need to know about 90 – 95 percent of the language in the texts you use. This doesn’t mean you need to be near fluent to read extensively. Whatever your language learning level is, you should choose texts within your range to get the most out of the experience.

The Controversy About Extensive Reading

There has been some discussion from linguists about whether or not extensive reading is as beneficial as some argue that it is. The debate centers around whether or not you can actually get enough exposure to vocabulary through extensive reading. 

Some say that because you limit the texts to a narrow niche of interest, there’s not enough exposure to a variety of words. Others, like Stephen Krashen, argue that extensive reading allows for significantly higher exposure. So much so, in fact, that in just 20 minutes per day, you could encounter 1,460,000 words. With such significant exposure to the target language, you could reach the 5000-word level. That’s enough to put you at the B2 – C1 range.

Extensive vs Intensive Reading: Which One Is Better? 

Both extensive and intensive reading have their advantages and disadvantages. If you hate reading, you’ll probably shy away from extensive reading. You’ll also miss some details by glancing over the language as you read. And intensive reading can be hard to do outside of a classroom setting. It can also be difficult to set time aside to make it happen. 

What do I do?

I use both. I use graded readers, written for a specific level. They’re not too easy and not too hard. And most importantly, they’re enjoyable. I’ll download them to my kindle because it’s fast, quick, and easy. All I need to do is click and hold a word, then Bing Translate pops up. From there I can easily figure out what the word means. Sometimes I do this for a word, other times sentences and phrases. It really just depends.

I start out with intensive reading the first time around so I can understand the text. I want to figure out any uncertainties. Once I’m done with that, I reread the text but much faster, allowing me actually enjoy the text more the second time around. Typically, I’ll do this with each chapter as I read the book.

Some people go further, writing out the words and defining them so they can return to them later. But ultimately, it comes down to you. You should choose the strategy that works best for you because you’ll have a greater chance of staying motivated. And maintaining motivation is vital for achieving success with your efforts to learn a new language.

Avoid Using Only Intensive vs Extensive Reading

One mistake a lot of people make when learning a language is that they only focus on one domain, like reading. But there are 4 parts to learning any language: reading, writing, listening and speaking. And the greatest test of fluency is your ability to speak the language. 

Don’t stick with only reading. Focusing solely on reading can leave you feeling frustrated when it comes time to use your new language. This is why some language learners spend 3, 5, or even 10 years studying a language struggle to speak. They neglect other domains of language learning. 

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Jonty Yamisha

Husband, father, and accidental polyglot Jonty Yamisha founded OptiLingo after working to protect his native language, Circassian, from extinction. He has helped thousands finally achieve their dream of reaching fluency by promoting SPEAKING over typing languages with OptiLingo.