Can you build up your foreign language vocabulary by simply reading a lot?
Let’s dig into this a little more then.
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.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.