Uh, oh. That book just came out.
Cancel all meetings. Postpone all plans with friends. Hire a dog/cat sitter for several days.
Do anything important now, because once that book is in your hands… nothing is going to get done.
Everyone has one of those books, right?
Books that you just cannot put down—no matter how much you try. You fall so deeply in love with the world the author has created for you, that you forget the actual world you’re living in.
This sort of pleasurable adventure is just as possible in a foreign language as in your native one. If you’ve been hitting wall after wall trying to drag yourself through a book that you hardly understand, give extensive reading a try instead.
In extensive reading you should know at least 98% of the words on a page. In other words, it should feel like reading. You should have that wonderful feeling of being wrapped up in a story, unable to set the book down even to eat.
Unfortunately many of us have come to associate learning with unnecessary suffering. All those late night cram sessions seemed to pay off, so why should it be any different with language learning? Well actually, language learning can be enjoyable and effective. At least some of the time.
Why Extensive Reading Is the Key to Your Success
Reading and being able to understand something is good. Reading and being able to understand something quickly is even better. How do you get faster at reading? Read a lot. One study carried out by St. Luke’s International University showed that students in an extensive reading program were able to significantly increase their reading speeds, while those in an intensive program—who read less but harder material—had zero gain in reading speed.
If that’s not enough, extensive reading also has just about every other advantage you can imagine. Research seems to support the idea that extensive reading can lead to better reading comprehension, a larger vocabulary and a higher level of motivation. That last one is by no means the least important, since motivation is one of the key factors in how fast you develop.
Now, you could just pick up a book (at the appropriate level) and go to town on it. But if you really want to maximize your time spent on extensive reading, there are a few activities that are super effective. Let’s look at eight of them:
8 Extensive Reading Activities for Language Learners Teaching Themselves
1. Prime your knowledge
This is a very basic activity that will make your extensive reading easier and more effective.
First, skim through roughly the amount of text you plan on reading. Maybe a chapter or two at a time. You’re looking for any unknown words, but mostly the ones that appear over and over again. These are the words that are going to make it easy to understand the basic plot elements of the story or the basic argument of the article. Look up a basic definition for each. Then you can add context and feeling to the definition as you read and see the word in a sentence.
Next, read over the dust jacket summary and take a good look at the cover illustration if you’re reading a book. If you’re reading an article, read the headline and the subheadings. From this information alone, make a prediction about what the story or article will be about. This requires you to gather all the relevant vocab and background knowledge you have of the subject, making it easier to contextualize and understand what you’re about to read.
2. Write book reports and book reviews
This one is probably self explanatory. When you finish a book, just write out a simple piece about it, including a basic summary and some of your own feelings about the text.
Writing something like this will help to create a personal understanding of the text by making you reread certain sections of the text to confirm that your understanding of the work is correct. Since this also serves as a test of your ability to recall details of the text, it’ll be much more likely that you’ll remember new vocab and grammar in the long-run.
To make sure you really put the effort in to comprehend what’s going on, try publishing your review on a site like Goodreads or Amazon.
3. Do timed readings
Extensive reading is already a great way to get your reading speed up, but if you’re still not as fast as you want to be, here’s how to get better.
The simplest task is a timed read. Choose a set number of pages and set a stopwatch for a set amount of time. Of course, texts vary a lot. Sometimes there’s a lot of dialogue and you can read it quickly without any problem. Other times it’s full of difficult descriptions and you have to struggle to make it to the end. So try to pick a time that would be reasonably difficult but possible—whatever happens in the text.
A tweak on this activity is to pick a section, read it and time how long it takes you. Then when you’ve finished, reread that section, only now try to read it 20% faster. It goes without saying that you should try to read it quickly the first time, or else the second part of the activity won’t be much of a challenge.
There’s one other activity that’s truly excellent for timed reads, but it can be a bit trickier. You’ll have to find a partner who’s learning the same language as you and is at about the same level of proficiency. Agree to read a set number of pages and race each other to see who finishes first. The person who finishes first should have to give a decent summary of what she or he read to prove that they really read it.
4. Join book club discussions
Just like in your native language, book club discussions can provide great motivation to make sure you actually read what you want to. They also allow you to hear other people’s thoughts on the book that might have never occurred to you otherwise. This can be a wonderful way to go over confusing grammar or just make sure you’re reading what you think you’re reading. Sometimes it’s easy to have an existential crisis about what’s really on the page when you’re reading a book in a foreign language all by yourself.
Besides the reasons above, book club discussions can be a great way to roll together speaking and reading practice. If you host your discussions in the language you’re learning, you’ll quickly be able hold a decent conversation about literature. And you’ll probably have to do some quick scanning for passages you want to use. Being able to switch back and forth between different parts of language is always a valuable skill.
To find a book club, Meetup is always a great place to start. However, since most book clubs around seem to be in English, you can either try to read the book in your target language, or start a new club where everyone reads in the target language. This is probably easier than you think. Are you a member of a language group already? Do you have friends who are studying the same language? All you need to do is convince two or three people to join you, and you have a book club.
5. Create chain stories
This is another activity that requires a partner at about the same level of proficiency as you.
You and a partner choose two different books. It’s probably more fun if they’re on wildly different topics. Begin by reading the first chapter or a set number of pages from one book and have your partner do the same from the other book. When you’ve finished, you each to have to summarize what you’ve just read to the other person as clearly and in as much detail as you can.
Now switch books and read the next section. Even if your partner made mistakes, hopefully you can figure them out and have some fun correcting them.
6. Work on your creative writing
Had enough of summarizing the story? Why not try rewriting it? Creative writing based on what you’ve just finished reading can be a highly effective tool for solidifying those gains in vocab/grammar that you’ve made.
Perhaps the most fun time to do this is when you’re faced with a terrible ending to an otherwise good story. We’ve all had this happen to us. We’re blissfully turning page after page. We see that the number of pages is slowly dwindling down, but there doesn’t seem to be anything in the narrative that suggests so. And then the story just ends, as if the author had never read an ending themselves. Now is your chance to do what needs to be done. Write what they should have written in the first place.
An enjoyable alternative to this activity is to take one chapter of a book and rewrite it in a different genre. Think “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” or “Android Karenina.” The result can be hilariously entertaining.
And if you’ve gone through these activities a thousand times, you can always write a letter to a character in the book about something you agree or disagree with, trying to assume the same tone as the book. Done well, it can give you an entirely new connection to what you’re reading.
7. Keep vocabulary journals
In addition to the vocabulary you pulled out from the text in the first activity, you can also keep a vocabulary journal for those words that you inevitably miss when you’re skimming the text.
A vocabulary journal doesn’t need to be fancy. When you see a new word or phrase that you think is important, write it down in your journal. If possible, add your own definition based on context clues and an example sentence. That way, when you look it up later you can see it in context again.
If you’re learning French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese or German, you can also check out the web version of the MosaLingua app, which gives you pre-selected content to learn with, including authentic reading material, and allows you to look up words and phrases instantly with a translator tool. You can also turn vocabulary into flashcards to ensure you don’t forget about it.
And when you’re all finished with what you’re reading, go back and try to write a summary that includes all of the words you recorded in your vocabulary journal.
8. Skim and scan
These two activities are for those with a dire wish to be able to read as fast as a native speaker.
For skimming, pick a chapter and read only the first and last sentence of each paragraph. When you’ve finished, write out a summary. Then read the text again slowly and see if there are any important details you’ve missed. If so, what strategies do you think you could use to skim the text more effectively without slowing down? Tinker with how you do your skimming until it seems like you can read anything in no time, and still be able to write the equivalent of a late night school essay.
But maybe you don’t need to read the whole text. Maybe you just want to be able to find answers to specific questions as quickly as possible. That’s where scanning comes in. For this, it’s best if you can find readings that come with questions. Often times books that have been marked for book clubs will include questions in the back. Otherwise, you might try generating some of your own questions based on the topic of the book or chapter.
You don’t have to try every one of these activities. Just grab the ones that stick out to you. After all, they’re to be paired with extensive reading—that wonderfully joyous way to spend a lazy Sunday. Or any other day for that matter. For once, you can let the pressure go and just have fun, knowing that you’ll be learning all the while.