Intensive and Extensive: 2 Ways of Reading That Power Language Learning

Reading is basic. It’s practical. It opens up worlds and broadens horizons

It’s also just enjoyable!

The great news is that not only is it possible to train yourself to read well in your target language, you can actually use reading as a method to teach yourself vocabulary, sentence structure and more.

With two different but complementary strategies—extensive and intensive reading—we can strengthen our reading skills and overall fluency.


Intensive and Extensive Ways of Reading

Intensive and extensive reading, named after a detailed study by Harold Palmer, are two distinct methods of reading. Both are useful for learning a second language.

What Intensive Reading Is

Intensive reading is just what the name implies!

It’s reading where testing, evaluating and increasing knowledge is the primary focus. Understanding the literal meaning of what’s being read is vital. Reading intensively often includes note-taking and attention to details.

In intensive reading, there’s an emphasis on deconstructing sentences to understand grammar and syntax rules as well as to extricate the details of the topic. It can also involve reading comprehension testing, such as finding answers to specific questions.

Some possible examples of intensive reading material are reports, contracts, news articles, blog posts and short pieces of text such as short stories.

What Extensive Reading Is

Extensive reading is a completely different sort of approach.

Know how it feels when you’re doing something simply for the joy of doing it? Like riding a bicycle or dancing, when you know it won’t matter if you don’t get the gears shifted perfectly or your dance steps don’t hit every downbeat?

Extensive reading is like that. It’s reading for fun. And it’s doing it as often as possible.

Fluency and total comprehension aren’t necessary for extensive reading. It’s great to read at or, even better, below a comfortable level of understanding. Most of the time, an unfamiliar word can be deciphered by the surrounding text and if not, that’s fine, too. It’s not vital to understand every single word in order to get the general idea of a particular passage.

It’s generally accepted that 90-95% of the words should be familiar in order to read comfortably in a foreign language. And most of us can get along pretty well even without having all that vocabulary in our toolboxes. Guessing, especially when reading extensively, does work.

The idea behind extensive reading is that increased exposure leads to stronger language skills. Think of the vocabulary you’re being exposed to when you read a lot. And seeing the structure, idioms and cadence of a language leads to familiarity, which leads to reading competence.

Think about dancing again. The more you dance, the better you get. Reading extensively is just like that—but without the tight shoes!

Possible examples of extensive reading material are magazines, graded readers, novels and, yes, even comic books!

How to Build a Learning Program Using Both Types of Reading with SMART Goals

One of the best ways to incorporate both intensive and extensive reading in your learning is by setting SMART goals.

SMART goals are goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely.

Let’s be clear on what this acronym means so we can see how it applies to intensive and extensive reading programs.

  • Specific is pretty clear-cut. It means just that, specific. “I want to read in Spanish” isn’t a specific goal. “I want to read in Spanish proficiently by this time next year” is a specific goal.
  • Measurable goals are a road map for getting to your final goal. They define the way you plan to accomplish what you’re setting out to do. “I’ll read one blog post and one chapter in my target language every day.” One post, one chapter. Totally measurable.
  • Attainable goals are less concrete than the others in that they depend on your level of commitment. Almost any goal is attainable, but are you willing to do what it takes to make it happen? Only you can answer that one. It requires putting your mind to doing something, then just doing it.

“I won’t read in any language other than my target language.” This is an example of a goal you might set in order to make the amount of reading you want to do realistic and attainable. An attainable goal must positively influence the overall outcome and also be attainable in itself, and whether or not it is will depend on your level of commitment. Setting attainable goals is helpful because they’re part of the actual “how to” process of your overall goal.

  • Relevant goals answer the question “why?” Why are you doing this? What’s your reason for tackling the overall goal? “I want to read well in my new language so I can plow through the bestseller list without stopping!”
  • Timely is definitely a no-nonsense part of the process. Set your timeframe and stick to it.

Now that we’ve got the whole SMART goal setting thing sorted out, let’s apply it to both types of reading.

Devise a schedule that will allow you to apply both methods of reading to your language study. Maybe alternate days for intensive and extensive reading. Or devote an hour in the morning to one type and another hour (or whatever time you have available for reading) to the other.

SMART Goals for Intensive Reading

Setting SMART goals for intensive reading isn’t difficult. An example of an intensive reading program using the SMART method might be:

Specific: “I want to read five blog posts each week.”

Measurable: “I’ll read one blog post a day.”

Attainable: “I’ll only read blog posts in the language I’m studying.”

Relevant: “I’m trying to learn how sentences are structured and pick up every detail of what’s written.”

Timely: “Every morning from 8-9, I’ll read intensively.”

Remember, this plan is just an example. Use it as a jumping-off point for your own intensive reading program. If you’re more of a news article person, substitute those for blogs. Honestly, there isn’t one material that’s best for everyone; it’s really a matter of personal preference. People tend to read more when they’re interested in what they’re reading. Me? I’ll take a fashion magazine over a dry textbook any day! Choose options that appeal to you, and insert them in the appropriate spots.

Also, the number of items on the reading list and times are suggestions. Tailor the plan to fit your schedule.

When you read intensively, ask yourself questions about the material and look for answers. Compile a vocabulary list and look up every word you don’t recognize. Read to dissect the structure of the piece and evaluate grammar rules so you can readily apply them to your own writing.

You don’t even need to stick to text-only resources. Reading materials are all around us if you know where to look. For example, the FluentU learning program might be based on authentic videos, but the interactive subtitles, full transcripts and multimedia flashcards are all ways that you can practice your intensive reading. FluentU also lets you make those word lists we mentioned above, and tests you on your vocab learning through quizzes.

In other words, reading is all around us! Find a way to read intensively that you’ll still enjoy.

SMART Goals for Extensive Reading

It’s far easier to set SMART goals for extensive reading because so many of the stressful challenges (vocabulary lists, searching for answers, etc.) are no longer factors. This is the type of reading for enjoyment, remember? But SMART goals can still ramp up this part of your language program.

A SMART goal strategy for extensive reading could read as follows:

Specific: “I want to read one book a week.”

Measurable: “I’ll read 30 pages each day.”

Attainable: “I won’t read any books that aren’t written in my target language.”

Relevant: “I’m doing this so I’ll be able to read well in this foreign language.”

Timely: “I’ll read every day from 4-6 before I eat dinner.”

Extensive reading simply requires you to read. Choose a favorite book and read for the joy of it. Recognize what you know, but don’t stress over missed words or phrases. Quantity counts in this exercise. Of course, the bigger your vocabulary, the easier it’s going to be to read, but it’s not essential to be fluent to use this type of reading to help achieve your reading goal.

Both intensive and extensive reading programs provide material for keeping reading journals. Keep track of what you read, how easily you’re understanding the material, and how your vocabulary is increasing. Before too long, the journals will reflect your SMART goal programs by showing an improvement in reading skills!

How to Find Interesting Reading Material That Works for You

Intensive Reading Material

Intensive reading materials are everywhere. Blog posts, news articles and any pieces of short text are ideal for intensive reading practice. Additionally, children’s books work well in the beginning of intensive reading programs.

Wondering how to track down some super-relevant intensive reading material in your target language? Easier than you might think.

Say you’re learning to speak (and read!) Portuguese. I Googled “magazines written in Portuguese” and within 10 seconds I had so many to choose from. Here are just a couple:

  • Planeta focuses on environmental, cultural and health issues.
  • The Brazilian edition of Elle magazine is just as sleek and up-to-date as the one I pick up at my local newsstand.

Both make me consider putting learning Portuguese on my to-do list, if only for the fun of reading their mags!

I tried the same line in my browser but substituted Italian for the target language. Italian is a language I read and speak so the huge assortment of magazines that came up was absolutely wonderful.

  • D la Repubblica is an Italian magazine with lifestyle, fashion, beauty and even cooking tips.

Both of these kept me reading and browsing much longer than I intended to be at my computer, but I’m not complaining!

Timely and interesting reading material? And loads of it? What’s not to love?

It’s a snap to do this for any language.

Remember, resources for both types of reading can come from internet downloads, a local library or any bookstore and, apart from the bookstore, a lot of it is free.

Extensive Reading Material

When it’s time for extensive reading practice, it’s more a matter of narrowing down choices than searching for them! Actually, there are so many options that it might seem a bit overwhelming, so we’ve narrowed things down a bit.

Here are some suggestions for beginning an extensive reading program:

  • Spanish is such a widely-read language that there are many books in all genres to choose from. “Harry Potter” always catches my attention. La hora de la araña” is the Alex Cross mystery by James Patterson “Along Came a Spider.”
  • Italian is such a romantic language, both when read aloud and silently. Honestly, I could read Italian exclusively and never grow bored. “Harry Potter” is super interesting in Italian, too! For something a bit less involved, “Ottavia e i Gatti di Roma” (Octavia and the Cats of Rome) is a bilingual picture book.
  • German-language books run the gamut from health to travel to spirituality—and include popular fiction, as well. “Der Kleine Prinz” (“The Little Prince”) is just as good in German as it is in other languages!
  • English-language books are, of course, readily available. Some of the ones from the bestseller lists are perfect for extensive reading. They’re pulling millions of readers into their stories so they’re an ideal choice for reading practice. Practice that’s riveting? Perfect!

“P.S. from Paris,” translated from the French, is getting a ton of book chatter, both in the industry and among readers. “Any Dream Will Do: A Novel” is filled with feel-good moments that are ideal for making reading time feel like pure enjoyment rather than part of a learning program. If you’re a non-fiction fan, there’s buzz about “Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon.”

More Material, and Choosing What’s Right for You

Keep in mind that what you choose for both intensive and extensive reading practice should be geared to your reading level. There are a few ways to gauge whether a book, magazine or any other type of reading material is right for you.

Extensive readers shouldn’t discount books they’ve already read in their native language. In fact, this is a very good option for choosing books, especially if you’re just getting started with reading practice.

If you’re reading a book in another language that you’re already familiar with, it won’t be a stretch to figure out meanings or decipher new-to-you vocabulary. Hey, you already know the gist of the story, and a filling-in-the-blanks adventure has a great place in extensive reading practice.

Ditto for any material that has side-by-side translations. They work for both types of reading but are especially helpful when reading intensively and focusing on determining critical answers or nailing down tricky grammar issues. Seeing the words in print, in their entirety, eliminates ambiguity.

There’s no shortage of graded readers and they work for both types of reading. Wondering what graded readers are? They’re books that have been graded according to vocabulary.

If you have any doubts about your reading ability or what level to begin with, why not check out graded reader offerings? They’re available in nearly every language and as you gain your reading chops you can advance to the next level!


  • Klett for German readers.
  • CDJapan for Japanese graded readers (some of these have fantastic artwork!).
  • The go-to spot for Spanish graded readers is European Schoolbooks Limited. I personally have several volumes from this site on my shelves, and a couple are very well-read.
  • Children’s Library offers graded readers in French, and again, the artwork in some of these books is delightful.

Don’t forget the Amazon previews, or “look inside” feature available with so many titles. If you’re not sure about a selection, peek inside. See how many words on the first page, or first few pages, you understand. Gauge your readiness with this feature and whether you’re really interested in a particular book, as well.

Skim through as many first pages as it takes to find material you can comfortably comprehend. But remember, extensive reading doesn’t demand that you know all the words, so give yourself room to grow and learn!

Remember: Reading Takes Time

We learn skills through practice. Reading isn’t any different; reading well takes lots of practice, so if it’s not going really well in the beginning, don’t get discouraged. And don’t give up!

Whatever language you’re studying, choose materials relevant to both types of reading. Keep at it, and expand both types of reading programs as competence—and confidence!—grows.

Create a reading habit. It’s a healthy one that will get you closer to fluency.

As with any habit, the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it.

Read, read, read—and then read some more!

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