Extensive Reading for Building Vocabulary

The question:

Can you build up your foreign language vocabulary by simply reading a lot?

The answer:

Yes, but…



Let’s dig into this a little more then.

Image Source

By Adam Jones [CC BY-SA 2.0], Image Source

What is extensive reading?

Extensive reading is a technique in which you learn a foreign language by reading a lot–a lot–of it.

The idea is to read for fun, not to learn. Don’t pore over every word or sentence you don’t understand; that’s called “intensive reading,” and is the exact opposite of extensive reading.

Simply read and try to get into the story, the way a child would, and guess meanings by context. The learning (or, if you prefer, acquisition) comes as a byproduct of all the reading you’re doing.

So that’s pretty much it. Read as much stuff as you can get your hands on–books, comic books, newspapers, magazines–and that you can reasonably understand. Improve. Repeat. Be awesome.

If you’ve been following the blog, you’ll notice that extensive reading lines up with Stephen Krashen’s input hypothesis, and for good reason since it’s a technique that he explicitly promotes.

I’m focusing on vocab in this article. In terms of vocabulary building, there are two main camps:

  • Those who believe that vocabulary should be learned be learned via some form of memorization, such as the keyword method, spaced repetition, or flashcard drills.
  • Those who believe that vocabulary should be acquired by extensive exposure, with meanings learned via inference and incidental learning.

Extensive reading is an idea promoted by people in that second camp. They say that it not only teaches you vocab, but does so in a way that helps you pick it up subconsciously. Also, since you’re seeing words in their natural contexts, you know instinctively how they are used.

Does it really work?

Surprisingly (for me at least) yes.

Several studies show that you can build your vocab by simply reading a lot, with no additional studying.

One was a study on Japanese students learning English. You can read the details via that link, but the bottom line is that in experiments on three different groups of students–including “failures” in English programs–extensive reading showed a statistical improvement in their vocab and general language abilities.

Image Source

By BreakdownDiode (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], Image Source

Another was a study on English students learning French. For these students, a single month of extensive reading resulted in “relatively widespread vocabulary acquisition.” Previous research had suggested only a moderate gain in vocab acquisition, but this study showed a much greater boost.

And these are just two studies. There’s a ton of research and anecdotal evidence out there that tout the benefits of extensive reading.

Is there a catch?

Yep. A few, actually.

First, extensive reading isn’t appropriate for rank beginners. If you don’t know anything past Guten Tag or Merci Beaucoup, you’re not going to get a lot out of staring at letters on a page. Extensive reading is definitely something for people with at least some knowledge of a language under their belt.

Second, I don’t think the studies on ER have paid enough attention to the aural components of language. In my opinion, it’s not a great idea to read before you know what the words sound like. You should at least have enough listening under your belt to be able to guess what a written word sounds like when it’s spoken.

Third, researchers suggest you’re eventually going to reach a limit with extensive reading. Since texts tend to contain the same words over and over again, once you’ve learned those words, you’re going to have a hard time learning new words past that.

Fourth, some research suggests that this method doesn’t build vocab any faster or more efficiently than traditional learning, and in fact may be a very slow, inefficient way to do things.

So what now then?

The nice thing about being a blogger and not a scientist is that I get to use a little common sense and personal experience with all this. The scientific method and the associated discipline that goes along with it is absolutely necessary, but I think when you focus on something with a magnifying glass you sometimes lose sight of the big picture.

In the real world, you don’t have to choose only to use extensive reading to build your vocab. Instead, it can be another tool in your toolbox. With extensive reading, yeah, there might be a couple things to watch out for. But there’s also enough evidence to prove that it is extremely effective at building and solidifying vocabulary.

Here’s what I like to do when I’m learning a language myself or when I used to tutor language students.

When I’m just starting out, I like to:

  • Do explicit learning activities, such as taking a course or drilling with flashcards.
  • Listen to the language to build my ear.

Then once I’m past being a complete beginner I like to:

  • Learn words via explicit vocabulary memorization, such as with the backwards method.
  • Reinforce those words and learn additional words with techniques like extensive reading or free listening. (Free listening is discussed in detail in my book Language Master Key.)

Last year when I was learning Spanish, a typical day might be:

  • Studying ten to twenty new words via a list or course
  • Watching a half hour of a Spanish-language television program
  • Doing some kind of transcription exercise
  • Reading a Spanish-language magazine or a translation of Harry Potter

With that approach, I got the benefit of both incidental and purposeful learning, and the well-balanced approach worked really well for me.

But if you don’t have time or the personality to do it all, and you just want an easy way to build your language skills at a steady pace, then extensive reading is not at all a bad approach to take.

  • Shawn

    Sweet! This is what I’m doing right now with Spanish with a bunch of easy readers. Trying to find the Spanish audio to go with the easier books or actually most current teenage/adult books seems to be the most difficult part of getting enough comprehensible audio input. Any thoughts on Spanish audiobooks? Also, I would love to hear your thoughts on L-R compared to extensive reading. Thanks, Shawn http://users.bestweb.net/~siom/martian_mountain/!%20L-R%20the%20most%20important%20passages.htm

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Hey Shawn. I think it sounds like you’re doing exactly what you need to be doing to improve. As far as L-R (with both L and R in the target language) I think it’s a good exercise. The only thing is, I think it’s great for building up your reading (and your vocab by extension) and also solves some of the problems I mentioned in the article. But I think if you’re trying to build up your listening skills, the text becomes a crutch and keeps you from letting your brain/ear to do their thing.

      So basically, L-R is great, but I suggest making sure you devote time to L and R by themselves too. Oh, and re: audiobooks. Those are awesome, but man, I find that when I try to listen to audiobooks by themselves, I can become lost very easily unless the text is extremely comprehensible. But if you *can* follow along, audiobooks are a great tool.

      • Tante Leonie

        Ron, the [free] Audacity program really helps with that — you can slow the audio books to a speed that’s comfortable for you.

    • Vanessa C

      A bunch of the Harry Potter chapters can be found with people reading them on youtube. You might have some success with that for popular books. If you have problems with the youtube reader being too fast or something, download the audio and play it through a program like vlc that gives you the ability to slow the audio down by 5%, 10%, 20% (but slow it down too much, and it starts just sounding bad).

  • Tante Leonie

    Hi Ron! I’m new to your blog and I’m looking forward to catching up on your posts.

    Regarding ER: I’ve made excellent progress using parallel texts. It frees me from the tedium of having to look up words in a dictionary, and the context is built-in.

    It’s my favorite learning tool, and it never feels like work to me.

    In fact, I never use SRS because I resent the time it takes away from my reading!

    For those out there with programming chops, here are some links for creating your own awesome parallel texts [disclaimer: I don’t program myself. My sweet husband makes the texts for me, as I’m barely computer literate].

    The tool is called Hunalign:



    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Hey, nice to meet you. Thanks for the info! Looking forward to checking those links out.

  • Nora Balogh

    I’m using the following technique to practice my German at the moment, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s fantastic: I have an audiobook version of the Tintenwelt series, Tintenherz, Tintenblut and Tintentod (a teenage book series at about the same level as Harry Potter). I also have the same in the original German and in English translation as paper books. I first listen to part or all of a chapter in audio and then go back and read it in English which allows me to pick up the bits I missed. The I re-listen to it in audio and/or listen to it in audio sentence by sentence while repeating it in. I do this while on long walks, not trying to go quickly, but trying to acquire as much of the language as I can in a fun way. At home, I also sometimes go through the German version of the paper book and look up anything I don’t understand in English. In the year that I’ve been working on it, now most of the way through the third and final book, my listening comprehension has gone from less than half the first time through to more than 90% (now I only miss a few words here and there, I fully understand the main ideas). And best of all, my speaking has really improved dramatically because I hear so many thousands of examples of words being used in context and good sentences being formulated.
    I personally don’t really like reading simple texts without a translated version available. I’ve done it when required, but I hate missing part of the meaning. I think it depends on your personality…some would probably be fine with sort-of-understanding something, whereas for me, it drives me crazy and interferes with my pleasure in it!

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      That is a fantastic method. I’ve done something similar with “Deutsch – Wieso Nicht?” courses, but not as extensively as you had. Thanks for sharing your experience!

      I think that patience is a skill that can be built, but I agree that personality does play a role in how much not-understanding you can tolerate. I think if you watch videos and read books with pictures in them, you can get enough context to help you follow along. But that’s not to take away from your experience, because based on what you’ve said it obviously worked really well for you.

      Out of curiosity, did you see an improvement in your speaking with this method?

  • Nina

    I knew that something was missing in my new approach to language learning, so thank you for this! I came up now with the idea to read literature on wattpad. It will really be fun, I believe! :)

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      I think that’s a great idea. By the way,I just joined Wattpad a little while ago and started writing some stories, in private. It’s a fun site.