There are two main approaches to teaching reading in the L2 classroom: intensive reading and extensive reading. Although both are important in facilitating L2 reading development, teachers seem to be more familiar with the former than the latter, and are more willing to invest more time on intensive reading than extensive reading.
This is despite the fact that in the past 20 years or so, the number of publications on ER that supports its implementation in ELT has grown exponentially. Both theoretical accounts and empirical research studies on ER have been catalogued by extensive reading archivists and can be freely accessed by both researchers and practitioners.
Over 600 abstracts of extensive reading works (i.e., books, book chapters, journal articles, theses, etc.) are available for viewing and downloading in the Extensive Reading Foundation website.
Summarizing years of research about the impact of extensive reading on language learning, Bamford and Day (2004, p.1) conclude:
“Good things happen to students who read a great deal in the foreign language. Research studies show they become better and more confident readers, they write better, their listening and speaking abilities improve, and their vocabularies become richer. In addition, they develop positive attitudes toward and increased motivation to study the new language.”
The purpose of this paper is to articulate more clearly some of the key differences between intensive reading and extensive reading so that teachers can have a deeper understanding of these two forms of reading and become more confident in implementing them in their teaching.
In the following sections, I discuss the differences in terms of learning aims, teaching materials, learning tasks and activities, roles of the learners and teachers, the theories of learning behind these two forms of reading and their differential impacts of language learning.
Intensive reading is often defined as reading for detailed information. The main aim of reading is to help students extract information from a reading passage. As the process of comprehending a text is not always straightforward for L2 students, the aims of the lesson also include teaching students some language elements and comprehension-related skills and strategies.
The aims of intensive reading can be summarized by the acronym LIST (MacAlister, 2011):
L – Language goals. These refer to the teaching of unfamiliar words and expressions found in the text and complex grammatical constructions that may cause reading difficulties.
I – Idea goals. These refer to the teaching of the contents of the text, both the main ideas and important details.
S – Skills and Strategies goals. These refer to teaching students skills and strategies that would help them read with greater comprehension (e.g., predicting, summarizing and checking for comprehension).
T – Text structure goals. These refer to teaching students various text structures (e.g., compare-contrast, cause-effect) to help them read the text more efficiently.
Extensive reading, on the other hand, is reading for general information and is often associated with the enjoyment that one derives from reading. When L2 students read extensively, they choose to read easy and enjoyable materials in order to build their fluency in reading.
The aim is not to teach specific language skills or comprehension strategies but to help them become fluent readers. According to the Guide to Extensive Reading published by the Extensive Reading Foundation (2011, p.1) the main aim of an extensive reading is for students to R E A D.
- READ QUICKLY AND
- ENJOYABLY WITH
- ADEQUATE COMPREHENSION SO THAT THEY
- DON’T NEED A DICTIONARY
In order to get the most benefit from extensive reading, students must read regularly and abundantly. Research shows that, while variables such as variety and availability of reading materials are important, it is the quantity of reading that correlate most highly with students’ reading improvements and general language learning gains (Renandya, Jacobs and Rajan, 1999). Thus, amount of reading is a key aim of an extensive reading programme.
Also, since sustained motivation is needed for students to read regularly over a period of time, increasing students’ motivation is also an important aim. Students who are motivated are likely to read more; and students who read more tend to be more motivated too. There is a reciprocal relationship between motivation and extensive reading (Day and Bamford, 1998).
Because of the different aims, the materials used in intensive reading and extensive reading differ a great deal. In intensive reading, the materials often contain language that is above (and sometimes beyond) students’ current level of competence.
The reading materials tend to be short and dense in terms of content and language features. Students often have to read several times, often with the help of the teacher or a bilingual dictionary, in order to make sense of the surface meaning of the text and also to interpret its implicit meanings.
In extensive reading, the materials are generally less demanding. They may be just slightly above students’ levels; but for weaker students who have had very little experience reading texts in English, the materials may also be at or even below their levels. Giving these students an opportunity to read very easy texts is a pedagogically sound practice. When they experience frequent success in reading, they become more confident and are likely to want to read more books.
So, what is important to remember is that students need to be able to read a text with minimal or no help from others. If students read texts that contain a lot of unfamiliar language, they will not be able to read with sufficient speed and may not enjoy what they are reading.
Intensive reading materials are usually short, roughly about one or two pages long. The contents are not always interesting, partly because the students have no say in the selection of the intensive reading materials. More often than not, students find the topics of the school reading materials unappealing as they can’t make meaningful connections to the contents.
In extensive reading, the materials tend to be longer (often a whole storybook) and more interesting in terms of contents. A variety of reading materials are made available and students get to choose the materials they like to read. This way, students are more likely to read with ease and enjoyment.
In intensive reading, teachers prepare a host of tasks and activities before, during and after reading. In the before-reading phase, teachers organize various activities to arouse students’ interest and motivation and to get them to activate their schema by engaging them in prediction activities.
In the during-reading phase, students are encouraged to take notes, make connections, visualize the text by building mental images, monitor and evaluate their comprehension. After they have finished reading, they check their comprehension by responding to teacher-prepared comprehension questions. This can then be followed by some language-related practice such as vocabulary building or grammar exercises.
Because of the numerous activities that students have to do, some reading scholars (e.g., Field 2002) have questioned the relevance of these activities in supporting students’ reading development. While these activities are not without values, they should not take up too much instructional time. L2 reading scholars (e.g., Day and Bamford, 1998; Renandya and Jacobs, 2016) believe that reading is best learned through reading, and not through doing reading-related activities.
In contrast to intensive reading, the main, if not the most important, activity in extensive reading is reading. Students read their selections in any way they like. They can stop reading at any point and continue reading at a later time. They can also finish reading the whole book in a day (if it is a small book), a few days or a week (if the book is longer).
When they finish reading their selections, they should select new books to read. The teacher’s job is to encourage students to do more reading, and not give students ‘work’ to do. In short, reading should lead to more reading.
Post reading activities may be organized for accountability purposes, i.e., to check if students have actually read the materials. However, we need to keep in mind that the main purpose of post-reading activities is to motivate students to read more books, and should be designed in such a way that they are not seen as an unnecessary burden by the students.
After reading activities should be cognitively and affectively appealing so that students develop positive attitudes towards reading and associate reading with enjoyable activities. After reading a selection, students can choose to do any one of the following post-reading tasks:
- Design a poster that captures the gist of the book
- Role play the main event in the story
- Describe the most exciting scene in the story
- Draw a mind map depicting the plot of the story
- Think of 5 adjectives to describe the book
- Create a 5-line poem (haiku)
- Describe a scene that makes you laugh, feel sad, angry etc.
- Change the ending of the story Change the gender of the main character and discuss how the story would develop and end