Extensive and Intensive Reading: Why And How to Teach Them?

Extensive and Intensive Reading: Why And How to Teach Them?
In many countries, it is common to find that more and more teachers and parents
complain about children’s inability to express themselves due to shortages of opportunities of
reading. Some even conclude why more and more children have become poor readers is
because of all the influence of the modern life - computer games, TV, movies, pictorial
magazines, and comics. All these compete for attention and tend to distract the young mind
from good reading. It is understandable that when energetic and stimulation-loving children
are busy with these more exciting but maybe not so educating activities, such as violent video
games, horror cartoons which are not appropriate, especially for young children. Few of them
would like to sit quietly and read relatively less exciting but worthy reading texts? That being
said that the more time they spend on video activities, the less time they would spend on
reading. Let alone children, in fact, even lots of adults seem not to be interested in reading
quietly as well. Besides Taiwan, I believe that the phenomena may also be found in many
other countries. How to evoke an “interactive” reading environment with quality and
enjoyment is surely a big issue to many educators.
Extensive reading and intensive reading have been the hot topics for many years in the
field of second language acquisition (SLA). First we should make clear the definition of
extensive reading. A definition by Thomas (1938) suggests that the terms “free reading”,
“wide reading” and “extensive reading” seems to be interchangeable and also notes that the
definition of extensive reading should be the situation that pupils choose from a long list of
carefully selected books of a wide range of difficulty and type instead of a situation where
pupils are allowed to read anything their hearts desire. It may be reasonable to select a WIDE
variety of difficulty and type of books for children instead of allowing them to judge the
books they want to read by chaotic guessing (e.g., by book jackets or pictures). Some may
doubt that this would impede the reading motivation of children; however, just as even in a
free country, should we not limit the range of freedom, and allow the people to do anything
their hearts desire? However, if teachers encounter minor active children who are eager to
read beyond the booklist and having strong reading ability, they may be allowed to select the
book they want to read but should be under teachers’ guidance to prevent “misreading,” such
as pornographic materials.
Besides this, according to Carrell et al. (1997), extensive reading often, such as in an
EAP (English for academic purpose) setting, involves rapid reading of large amounts of
material or longer contents, such as a whole book, for getting a gist or a focus generally on
the meaning of what is being read. Especially, this pattern of reading gets the reader to focus
on reading itself rather than mastering the particular structure of a skill.
Moreover, it may also be noticed that the aim of extensive reading is to encourage
readers to cover a large amount of material in a comparatively short time and to gain a
1 general understanding of what is read instead of analyzing the detailed information. In
contrast, the aim of intensive reading involves focusing not only on what the text means, but
also on how the meaning is produced. It means that “how” and “what” are equally essential.
According to Nuttal (1996), the students should try to understand a text as fully as necessary
in an intensive reading setting. Besides this, intensive readers are often required to study a
small amount of material in an analytical manner under the teachers’ guidance (Good, 1926).
For either reading pattern, a teacher’s role may be also significant in both extensive and
intensive reading. In the extensive reading situation, the teacher should always encourage
students to choose for themselves what they read and to do so for pleasure and for general
language improvement. As for the latter, a teacher often chooses, directs and designs what
kind of book that students should read in order to develop specific receptive skills (Harmer,
Do “extensive reading” and “free pleasure reading” mean the same thing? If in extensive
reading, people are willing to engage with a lot of extended texts for a variety of reasons,
pleasure reading seems too specific or limited for readers or the instructors (Day, et al, 1998).
On the other hand, some students do not increase their interest in reading; and they regard
reading just like a task to be avoided unless teachers make an absolute demand for it. It is
also not unusual to find students’ lacks of motivation to read extensively on their own.
Besides this, in ESL classrooms, teachers read certain literature only because they have to
teach it to unwilling and unthankful classes, not because they enjoy reading it. Even if
teachers administered so-called “extensive” reading, would the abovementioned problems be
solved right away? Many educators, such as Krashen, have been arguing which styles of
reading are better to employ in the reading classroom. Before showing my stance, I may ask
“Do you know why so many colors are ‘meeting’ together in a rainbow?” If a rainbow heard
my question, she might say, “Being beautiful!”
Much research suggests that getting students to read extensively would be an effective
way to have them enjoy reading, and thus students may love reading. Besides this, slower or
unmotivated students may be motivated by other enthusiastic classmates and start to love
reading as well. Good (1926) also argues that in terms of retention for the purpose of
answering informational questions, extensive reading seems relatively effective.
Unfortunately, teachers need to face the fact that most students will not do a lot of
extensive reading by themselves until they are being asked or even forced to do it. Ironically,
some teachers asked students to read extensively, but for the teachers themselves, they do not
have any idea of what their students are reading or have read, because the teachers have not
read them yet. Worst of all, especially for younger readers, some teachers ask their students to
make a long book report instead of sharing the interesting things that each student gets from
what they read because the teachers ignore that students might read more with more
enjoyment if they do not have to make a burdensome book report. It implies that many
2 teachers try hard to encourage the activity of extensive reading but they do not have a clear
idea of how to do it. Therefore how to train a teacher to carry out an effective activity of
reading may be more meaningful and essential for the younger readers before attempting to
train them to develop a good habit of reading.
As for intensive reading, it seems to be stigmatized by some researchers as a dreadful
and boring style of reading (Krashen, 2004). Actually, it is hard to deny that there is a
common contradiction in reading lessons: encouraging students to read for general
understanding, without worrying about the meaning of every word while students are eager to
know most of the unfamiliar words or even each individual word in order to understand an
interesting book they are reading. How can teachers blame students for the desire to check
out the words which are unfamiliar? Do teachers ever help their students develop any
approach to read without understanding each word? Or the teachers just ‘push’ students to
read, and the students follow the requirement passively and finally choose the book which
may be the easiest and shortest in order to meet the teachers’ demand but without any desire
or enjoyment to read it. The point is that if many approaches are known only by “what” itself
rather than also by “how”, just as a person would not know much of human nature but is only
acquainted with the name.
Carrell et al, (1997) suggest the need for both intensive and extensive reading in an EAP
(English for Academic Purpose) reading curriculum. This paper suggests that both intensive
and extensive readings are necessary to prepare students for the task and texts they encounter
in college. They say that intensive reading focusing on skills or strategies instruction has been
shown to yield positive effects on second language reading, and students can also apply
extensive reading to integrate intensively acquired skills over the larger texts and over
multiple reading sources that are required in all academic course work.
In their article, they note that helping students have a successful interaction with
academic texts through instructing them with a strategic repertoire is necessary not only for
L1 reading pedagogy but also for L2 reading field. Carrell et al (1997) also cites from
Anderson (1991): that successful reader’s second language reading comprehension does not
merely relate to what strategies to use, but a reader must also be able to apply them
strategically. Therefore, learning to read by receiving strategy instruction from intensive
reading may not be so-called “meaningless”, particular in an EAP setting.
An obviously booming current in reading research is the interest in extensive reading as
a part of L2 language development programs. Carrell et al (1997) stated that a number of
empirical studies have been conducted to be the evidence of the positive effects of extensive
reading programs or “book-based programs” or even “diversified reading” on SLA of young
children all over the world. The most obvious benefit from extensive reading may be that it
has a positive influence on students’ general background knowledge or we may say that it
may activate the schemata of students to facilitate the ability of reading. This is because
3 readers’ background knowledge is significant for learning to read new material in other
domains and receiving new information from texts: “Matthew effect” (Wikipedia: The effect
takes its name from a line spoken by "the Master" in Jesus' parable of the talents in the
biblical Gospel of Matthew)- the rich get richer. However, as cited from Kern (1989), Carrell
(1997) says that it is necessary to integrate explicit strategy training in text structure
awareness of expository text. Carrell also states much research has demonstrated the efficacy
of the important role played by multiple strategies in successful and unsuccessful second
language learning.
Nuttall (1996) suggests” Most of the skills and strategies we want our students to
develop are trained by studying short texts in detail. But others must be developed by the use
of longer texts, including complete books.” (P38-39). It may imply that both extensive and
intensive reading styles are necessary for improving effective reading. Nuttall also raises the
awareness that there are not just these two contrasting ways of reading, but an infinite variety
of ways which may be relevant or overlapping; just as I have mentioned a rainbow should
have many colors. Therefore it may be fair to say both styles of reading should be employed
depending on the purposes and types of reading.
Carrell, et al. (1997) argues a principled curricular approach to combine both of
extensive and intensive reading through Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT) is necessary
to prepare students for the task and texts they encounter in college. For example,
Content-Based Instruction (CBI): it is based on the idea that real language learning is most
likely to take place when the learners realize that communicative purposes are essential in
real language learning according to Lynne (2004). This implies that, for CBI, there are two
purposes: one is the learning of a second language and the other is the knowledge of the
Content can be selected to maximize the chances to master specific academic tasks. For
example, writing an academic report requires gathering some literature and books. It means
the content needs to emerge from several resources and, at the same time, extensive reading
may be required. Besides this, because reading strategies (e.g., scanning, grouping, guessing
or even analyzing) need to be taught to enable learners to comprehend the texts from various
resources; therefore, the skills which are developed from intensive reading may be significant
to be included as well. It is reasonable that, for the readers in an EAP setting, intensive
reading does not prepare the experience of dealing with large amounts of text, therefore if this
experience can be combined with the ability from intensively acquired reading skills and
strategies, EAP students may be fully prepared to tackle the reading demands of actual
academic classes.
Following is an activity which may help students with upper intermediate level. It may
not only help the students develop a skill of reading for gist but also read for detailed
comprehension. The process is as follows.
4 1) Prepare a text of reading (Appendix A) that is a little beyond (i.e., i+1) the students’
reading ability; 2) let them discuss the whole text or just a few paragraphs (depending on the
average students’ level) in groups according to the general questions which may be prepared
by the teacher. Such as “What is the text about?” “Who was it written by?” “How many
people are there in the story?” and “Where did it happen?” and the like; 3) after discussing
and answering these general questions, some more detailed questions can be established (e.g.,
What happened? Who got hurt? What did the teenagers react to in the car accident? Whose
fault?); 4) prepare a list of important unfamiliar words for the students and, students can
match the words from the text with their English definitions: teachers may make all the
definition easier depending on the students’ proficiency. This matching would be meaningful,
especially for an EFL setting. In this way, the students may guess the meaning of each word
not only by the context of the text but also by thinking in English. Moreover, the teacher may
draw the students’ attention to certain items of vocabulary which may impede their
comprehension from the text (see Figure 1); 5) after step 4, discuss and answer these detailed
questions at step 3 again (e.g., “What happened? Who got hurt? What did the teenagers react
in the car accident? Whose fault?”), and teachers may distinguish whether their
comprehension is more complete than the ones from step 3.
Fig. 1 Unfamiliar Word Matching
a. livid 1. to risk harming or destroying sth/sb b. accident 2. beneath the surface of sth c. jeopardized 3. an unpleasant event, especially in a vehicle, that happens unexpectedly and causes injury. d. dorkey 4. being destroyed in an accident, etc. e. wrecked 5. having a stupid and silly characteristics f obstruct 7. being very angry g. submerged 8. block or prevent the progress or accomplishment of Through this kind of activity, the students may understand each unfamiliar word by
other words in their repertoire of active vocabulary or receptive vocabulary instead of
checking words in the English-Chinese dictionary. This may also help EFL students learn to
think more in English; 6) finally, the teacher may ask the students “if you were, say, the
teenager who drove the car, “what would you react?” and “what would you do?” to expand
their scope of thinking through discussing in their groups. Through this process, the EFL
students may expand their learning zone and try hard to express what they want to say in
English by themselves.
From the activity which has been mentioned above, we may also observe that the
5 teacher uses top-down processing and then bottom-up processing and then top-down again.
The pattern may also be seen as the combination of extensive and intensive reading styles to
facilitate the EFL students to feel more comfortable and more secure rather than just ask them
not to look the words up and ignore or guess them without any strategy instruction.
Tran (2006), according to her personal experience in her “modified” extensive reading
class, stated that she took English-as-a-foreign-language (EFL) courses through out her
middle and high school years, but she started her independent reading only during the last
two years in high school. She was not satisfied with translations of a number of American
short stories, but she did not have enough vocabulary to really enjoy the original works. So
she chose novels randomly and also prepared a bilingual dictionary and a Longman English
dictionary for English-language learners as her reference sources. Both of the dictionaries
used the IPA for pronunciation. She also recorded new words in a notebook and applied the
reading strategies: skimming in order to get general ideas of a chapter, rereading, recording
the meanings of unknown words in the notebook, studying them, and rereading the chapter,
and she repeated the same procedure until the book was done. It was a laborious task to finish
the first novel, however, since a great deal of words were used again from one chapter to the
next, she spent less and less time using dictionaries, read faster and faster, and felt more
absorbed in the story. The greatest impact of her self-taught reading plan was that the learning
task in her EFL class became quite easy. She also applied the same reading strategies to
French reading and gained similar outcomes.
Not like a native English speaker learning from the childhood, Tran started to learn
English as an adolescent; she had to learn vocabulary intentionally. Her approach to reading
was a modified pattern which involved extensive and intensive vocabulary learning.
We may conclude that both of the reading patterns have their setting or situation to
employ. Just like the motto says, “Every one would be stupid if you put him or her in the
wrong position!” Making an effective combination of extensive reading and intensive reading
according to different individuals and learning settings, students’ ability of reading may go
further and thus the habit of good reading may be developed to deal with the infinite horizons
of knowledge which are waiting to be explored.
In sum, no matter which kinds of reading patterns, the ultimate goal of reading may be
set as to help students develop a wide reading background, and also an ability of
discrimination, and the most important is the ability to think! How to apply different
approaches for reading students seems to depend on how an instructor uses them wisely and
skillfully, doesn’t it?
6 References
Carrel, P. L., & Carson, J. G (1997). Extensive and intensive reading in an EAP setting.
English for Specific Purpose, 16(1), 47-60.
Day,R. R., & Bamford, J. (1998). Extensively reading in the second language classroom. UK:
Cambridge University Press.
Good, C. V. (1926). The retention of extensive and intensive reading to permanency of
retention. Pedagogical Seminary and Journal of Genetic Psychology, 33, 43-49.
Harmer, J. (2001). The Practice of English Language teaching. Cambridge: Pearson
Education Limited.
Krashen, S. (2004). The power of reading: Insight from the research. Westport, Conn.:
Libraries Unlimited.
Lynne T, D-R. (2004). Teaching English learners: strategies and method. Boston: Pearson
Educational, Inc.
Nuttall, C. (1996). Teaching reading skills in foreign language. UK: Macmillan Publishers
Thomas, V. N. (1938). Extensive reading in practice. The English Journal, 27(7), 574-579.
Tran, A. (2006). Modified extensive reading for English-language learners. Read Improv,
43(4), 173-178.
7 Appendix A
You all get out of your cars. You are alone in yours, and there are three teenagers in theirs, an
older Camaro in new condition. The accident was your fault, and you walk over to tell them
Walking over to their car, which you have ruined, it occurs to you that if the three teenagers
are angry teenagers, this encounter could be very unpleasant. You pulled into an intersection,
obstructing them, and their car hit yours. They have every right to be upset, or livid, or even
As you approach, you see that their driver's side door won't open. The driver pushes against it,
and you are reminded of scenes where drivers are stuck in submerged cars. Soon they all exit
through the passenger side door and walk around the Camaro, inspecting the damage. None
of them is hurt, but the car is wrecked. "Just bought this today," the driver says. He is 18,
blond, average in all ways. "Today?" you ask.
You are a bad person, you think. You also think: what a dorky car for a teenager to buy in
2005. "Yeah, today," he says, then sighs. You tell him that you are sorry. That you are so, so
sorry. That it was your fault and that you will cover all costs.
You exchange insurance information, and you find yourself, minute by minute, ever more
thankful that none of these teenagers has punched you, or even made a remark about your
being drunk, which you are not, or being stupid, which you are, often. You become more
friendly with all of them, and you realise that you are much more connected to them,
particularly to the driver, than possible in perhaps any other way.
You have done him and his friends harm, in a way, and you jeopardised their health, and now
you are so close you feel like you share a heart. He knows your name and you know his, and
you almost killed him and, because you got so close to doing so but didn't, you want to fall on
him, weeping, because you are so lonely, so lonely always, and all contact is contact, and all
contact makes us so grateful we want to cry and dance and cry and cry.
In a moment of clarity, you finally understand why boxers, who want so badly to hurt each
other, can rest their heads on the shoulders of their opponents, can lean against one another
like tired lovers, so thankful for a moment of peace.
By Dave Egger
8 http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2005/apr/16/shortshortstories.fiction#send-email