What is Intensive Reading?

Nov 15, 2005 · 6 min read

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.

Intensive Reading

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.

Reading Strategies

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.

The meaning of a word can be broader in one language than another

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:

Elephants’ trunks are long but pigs’ snouts are short.

(elephant,as for nose, be long, but pig as for nose be short)

“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”:

Gajah panjang belalainya tetapi babi pendek hidungnya
(elephant long trunk (its), but but pig short nose (its))

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 its 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.

Words don’t have a 1 to 1 relationship between languages

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. From the standpoint of a Chinese learner of English, when the “get” in your sentence means 變得 (biàndé), then you use an adjective to modify it (ie. get mad). If the “get” in your sentence means 到 (dào), then you have to use an adverb to modify it (ie. get home quickly). Can you remember all of these rules while memorizing new ones? Maybe. It’s sure not the most efficient way to go about learning a language, though.

Learning collocations

Another issue with intensive methods popular in textbooks is that of collocations. There are certain words we tend to use together and others that we don’t. For example, if someone asks how you are doing, both “pretty good” and “absolutely fantastic” would be natural responses. However, “pretty fantastic” sounds a little unusual to many English speakers and “absolutely good” would be a very strange answer. The reason isn’t due to grammar. It’s just that we use some words together more often than others. More rigid examples would be “crystal clear” vs “glass clear”, or “painful reminder” vs “aching reminder”. With a great deal of reading and listening, these collocations become second nature, but brute force memorization is daunting, time-intensive task.

An effective reading balance

I recommend investing a small portion of reading time (10%-15%) into intensive activities and making the remainder extensive. This small amount of intensive work will regularly inject new words and sentence patterns into the curriculum and extensive activities provide a wide base of reinforcement, input to model and cultural background.

The Malay example is from the 1999 ALT-J/M paper

Originally published at toshuo.com on November 15, 2005.


Languages, technology, living abroad and learning as much…


Languages, technology, living abroad and learning as much as possible


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Entrepreneur, former language teacher in Taiwan, former software engineer in SF/SV, life-long student.


Languages, technology, living abroad and learning as much as possible