When you’re reading for pleasure, you’re focussed on narrative, atmosphere, character, action. The individual details (and words) may not be as important as the pervading message. This post is about how to smooth the flow of such “extensive” reading in your foreign language.
In the first post in this series on reading in your foreign language, we saw how important reading is even if your main aim is to speak a language well.
The second post was a call to approach reading in different ways, depending on our purpose.
Just as in our native language, we should practise reading for rough gist and scanning for one or two specific pieces of information. When every detail counts we should read a text “intensively”.
While you may take on the idea that there are different types of reading, you may at still at some level think of extensive reading, as “real” reading. I mean leather armchairs, roaring fires, labrador at your feet. Or should that be chick lit on the beach with a book or screen in one hand and a cocktail in the other?
Maybe extensive reading is also the most rewarding because it makes you “feel fluent” and gets you deep into the mental world of your target language.
How difficult should a text be?
When you want to do some “extensive” reading, find something that is at, just above or a little below your current level.
Something a little above that level will be great for developing your comprehension skills.
Research shows that people learn new skills best when they’re stretched. Yet for optimal learning you should not be stretched so much that you’re overwhelmed.
The magic happens when you’re in what’s called the “zone of proximate development” or the “deliberate practice zone”.
You need to be fully on top of the context to focus in on the “new” (which will then make more sense and be easier to remember precisely because it’ll be in context).
As a rough rule of thumb this means a text where only five to ten percent of the words should be new to you.
Again, something at your current level or easier could be good for consolidating the structures and vocab that you know already.
With the meaning already clear, the way will be more open you to get into the spirit and style of expression in the language.
Extensive reading alone is necessary but not sufficient
The linguist Stephen Krashen developed the “Input Hypothesis” of language learning: acquisition takes place when the student is exposed to copious amounts of comprehensible language – through reading and listening.
By reading, you will picking up vocabulary and grammar, perhaps subconsciously.
There is some debate around the extent that such reading needs to be combined with conscious study, though.
When you’re reading extensively you’ll probably achieve that understanding partly by working around things and guess some meanings. That’s a great approach that we should all use.
That said, as you plough ahead with your text, you won’t necessarily learn new structures and words in an optimal way.
The “noticing hypothesis” says that learning will be quicker and more efficient if new structures are drawn to our attention.
We have to “notice” them.
For this, you need more formal instruction or, at least, modified text which foreground the new (for example by using target structures more frequently and with more emphasis).
If this is true, it means that the successful language learner is not going to be reading or listening alone.
One thing is still sure: successful language learners do a lot of extensive reading and get a lot of listening exposure, too.
They know that mass imput of structures and words reinforce what they’ve already learned and – in my experience – the further you get – the more you can then just “pick up”.
Using texts in your coursebook
The obvious first place to look for material around at or either side of your current level is your coursebook.
I’m a big fan of the role of one or two coursebooks when you’re doing self study.
They’re never enough on their own, but they’re great to provide you with a ready-made study plan and materials.
As you work through the chapters for the first time new stuff in each chapter and you may understand very little at all of the texts. There may well be pre-reading exercises or other tasks around the text to help you pull it apart in an intensive way.
However, you can go back to the earlier chapters.
You should in any case be reviewing the material you’ve covered regularly and rereading dialogues or short texts is one way of doing this.
That said, textbooks can contain rather stilted conversations. After all, the authors are language teachers rather than creative writers.
Plus, the new structures and vocab introduced at this point in the book need to be flagged and practised in context.
You may get bored with excessive repetition of the same texts and you need to be exposed to variety appropriate to your level.
Using graded texts
If you’re a beginner or a lower intermediate learner, you’re going to understand less than 95% of the average “native speaker” text. It will be way beyond your “proximate zone”.
You’ll therefore need to use adapted texts if you want to avoid being lost in the wood rather than circling round a new tree or two with interest.
But where to look?
Seek out additional, free-standing “graded readers”.
These are texts that have either been composed specially for learners or are simplified adaptations of native writing.
This is your way out of wooden textbook reading material and your inoculation against the boredom of repetition.
As the great polyglot Kato Lomb said: “I can recommend adapted texts with all my heart”
Often graded text have new words at the bottom of the page or in a word list at the back of the book.
If you’re aware of where you are on a language attainment scale such as the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, that will help you chose texts graded correctly (i.e. those in which you already understand about 95% of the content).
As you read, the idea is that you’ll rely on context to understand the words, don’t be afraid to guess….for the time being.
You can underline a word or phrase that you don’t understand. That should help with “noticing”, whether or not you come back and make a list of “new” stuff later on.
Keep reading for the time being, though, as you may well find that what you didn’t understand either becomes clear, or wasn’t so important to the narrative.
Only interrupt your flow to look something up if you’ve lost the plot because of it, or it keeps coming up and you still can’t work it out.
Remember too that there’s no need to overface yourself with extensive reading Even if you can only fit in – or have the stomach for – a couple of pages a day – it will all add up.
Maybe leave a book by your bedside or take it with you on your commute.
Children’s literature as an alternative to graded readers?
What about if there are not many graded readers available?
You could try children’s literature. But be careful. Don’t assume it’s either appropriate or particularly easy.
Stuff aimed at very young children may leave you with a lopsided vocab of animals and the noises they make, plus an ability to discuss things that happened “once upon a time” in various magical realms.
A better option might then be material aimed at tweenies and younger teens. Fiction will be great for dialogue. Factual and “how too” texts may help for expanding your vocabulary in practical areas.
A personal “graded reading” confession
I’m keen to advocate graded readers but, I have to admit, I haven’t always made as much use of them as I possibly should.
I often like to launch myself into native level material even as a lower intermediate learner.
When I was learning Welsh I shunned graded readers entirely.
I saw them as not the “real deal”, something “childish”. I preferred to spend more time on the flashcards with vocab and throw myself in at the deep end with adult, native speaker texts.
I guess it was partly because I was then young, driven and extreme (now I’m just old and extreme 😉 )
I didn’t use them earlier in my journey in my other advanced languages (French, German, Russian), either.
I have used them a bit for Basque, though.
That said, as soon as I can, I try to get on to extensive reading “real” texts, even if I understand as little as half.
I appreciate this may not appeal to all and, as the research shows, may not be the most efficient approach.
I guess it comes back to personality….and to purpose.
For me, unlocking the language in its written form is always one of the main motivators for reading and I always want to dive in at the deep end.
What’s your view?
Now, over to you! Are you doing much extensive reading and what are the challenges it poses for you?
Do you find graded readers patronising and prefer to do more abstract work on structures and vocab for longer?
Or, do you find them a great way into reading, either as a – maybe even the – goal of your language learning or as a way to help you develop better vocab and enrich your speaking and writing?
If you’re a fan of graded readers, are there any individual titles, authors or series that you recommend?
Let me know in the comments below and look out for the next post in the series on reading – a set of quick-fire reading tips.