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Extensive Reading /Intensive Reading

2006-10-31  leolaoshi

What is Extensive Reading?

November 17th, 2005 by Mark

In my last article, I talked about intensive reading. Hopefully, I’ve convinced some of you that languages are too complex to learn properly by memorizing new vocabulary and grammar structures. Now, I’ll describe extensive reading. What is extensive reading? In short, extensive reading is everything that intensive reading is not. It is not “hard” material. It is not tedious. It is not slow. Unfortunately it is also not very common in the ESL classroom, either.

What kind of materials are suitable?

The most important thing about choosing materials for extensive reading is that they are at least 98% comprehensible to the students. There should be very little new vocabulary and very little new grammar. One or two new words per page and maybe one new sentence structure per session would be ideal. If the students can already understand that much of the text, new words can often be learned entirely through context. If these few new words appear again and again through out the text, all the better. Words learned like this aren’t learned all at once, of course. Students start with a fuzzy understanding of a new word, which gradually gets clearer and clearer as they encounter it again and again in new contexts. This may seem like a slow way to go, but as I argued in my intensive reading article, there really is no short-cut. Translations accompanied by a few example sentences are never enough alone.

When choosing books for your students, one good test is to take a page from the text you are considering, give it to your students for a few minutes, and ask how many words they don’t know. Depending on how honest your students are, you’ll get a good idea of whether or not they could read the text. If you are worried they won’t admit what they don’t know, then cover up about twenty words scattered throughout the page, and photocopy it. You can then give the students a cloze test. If they can complete over 80% of the sentences with the correct words or reasonable alternatives, use the text. If they can’t, pick an easier one.

How much should they read?

Assuming, as I did in my last article, that they have an hour a day, they should read at least 25 pages a day. If they only have half an hour to spend on reading, then they need to read at least 10 pages. This may seem like a lot and, if the students are at a level where they can read normal paperback books with few pictures, it is. A native reader typically reads 40 to 100 pages per hour. There are two reasons for requiring so much. First of all, it forces them to use dictionaries sparingly. As any student of Chinese knows, every 5 minutes spent looking through a dictionary is another 5 minutes in which very little language is acquired. The second reason to read so much is that reading too slowly interferes with comprehension. In normal reading, there are certain neurological processes at work that depend on sufficient reading speed (Day and Bamford, 1998). According to Nuttall, “speed, enjoyment and comprehension are closely linked with one another” (1996: 128). When adults read in their own languages, they take in entire phrases at a time, not individual words. If an L2 learner reads too slowly, word by word, it is even possible to forget the meaning of the first few words in a sentence before reading the last.

What are the benefits?

It seems obvious that it is better for a student to learn 20 new words while reading 20 pages of a fairly easy and interesting text, than it is to spend 20 minutes memorizing the same words and then struggle through 2 difficult, boring paragraphs and then do various grammar and translation drills. (For a look at one such difficult text look at page four of this report.) However, I’ll outline the main points below:

  • It can provide “massive comprehensible input”
  • It can enhance learners’ general language competence
  • It can increase knowledge of previously learned vocabulary
  • It leads to improvement in writing
  • It can motivate learners to read
  • It teaches learners about the culture of the target language users, which will allow learners to more easily join the L2 speech community
  • It can consolidate previously learned language
  • It helps to build confidence with extended texts
  • It facilitates the development of prediction skills

How can these benefits be maximized?

Remember that newly acquired vocabulary is fragile. Therefore, the most important vocabulary to use is the vocabulary just learned. Obviously, you don’t want to introduce too much new vocabulary at one time, either. Aside from making sure that the difficulty of your texts is appropriate, it is also important to make sure that they are interesting to the students. The more interesting the texts are, the more the students will like reading (and the language in general), and the sooner they will start doing voluntary reading on their own. See this diary of a JFL (Japanese as a foreign language) learner’s extensive reading experiences.

What are the difficulties?

Using extensive reading in a classroom is, by nature, a difficult thing to do. Different students are at different levels. It takes some work to make a viable curriculum in which not everyone is necessarily reading the same thing at the same time. Some students, who have been studying a foreign language for a while in traditional a class, resist extensive reading at first. They feel that if it isn’t hard, it isn’t “real learning”. It is absolutely vital to explain the rational and benefits to them. Most difficult of all, particularly in an EFL as opposed to an ESL environment, is getting the appropriate reading materials. They can be expensive, hard to find, or simply unavailable, depending on where you are. It also takes some planning to effectively keep track of which students have which books and make sure they are all returned. In my next article on language learning, I’ll talk about some of the extensive reading materials that I have found useful.

What is Intensive Reading?

November 14th, 2005 by Mark

I’ve been promising an article about extensive reading for a while, now. Originally, I was going to write about ways in which it can be employed in the EFL classroom. However, based on the feedback I’ve been receiving, I’ve decided to write about intensive reading instead. The main idea of extensive reading is not to “spend a lot of time reading”. Instead, the goal is to read as much as possible in the time available. Extensive reading is most easily understood by contrasting it with intensive reading.

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.

Drawbacks

The biggest drawback, by far, is the large amount of time spent reading a small amount of text. noseWhile 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 benificial 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:


elephant

as for

nose

be
長い
long
が 
but

pig

as for

nose

be
短い
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, “bidung” is different from both “nose” and “鼻”:

Gajah
elephant
panjang
long
belalainya
trunk.its
tetapi
but
babi
pig
pendek
short
hidungnya.
nose.its.

As we can see, “nose” applies to people, but not pigs or elephants; “bidung” 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 mis-understandings? 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 ( 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.



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