woman reading book

The Power of Extensive Reading for English as a Second Language or Foreign Language

“I have lived a thousand lives and I’ve loved a thousand loves. I’ve walked on distant worlds and seen the end of time. Because I read.”  – George R.R. Martin, author 

Martin’s books are the basis of the HBO TV series, Game of Thrones.

I love reading! I have read my entire life. I thank my parents and my teachers for giving me a love of reading.  As a language learner myself, I realize how important reading is to developing my fluency in languages I have tried to learn. However, reading can be difficult and boring when you have to look up every other word to understand.  And then, you might understand the reading, but you don’t really remember the meaning of the individual words. Does this sound familiar?

As an English teacher, I want to encourage my students to read, but when it is not enjoyable, it is hard to motivate them.  Promoting extensive reading in and out of class has helped with student motivation and learning because it makes reading enjoyable.

What is Extensive Reading?

Extensive reading is the idea that you read for pleasure and focus on general comprehension of what you read rather than on discrete elements of language like learning a new word or analyzing the grammar.  By enjoying reading in a second language and focusing on what you can understand versus what you can’t, you expose yourself to a lot of vocabulary and grammar in context.  As you read more, you see vocabulary and grammatical structures repeated in real contexts. Eventually, you begin to comprehend more and eventually acquire the language you’ve read to be a part of your own productive language ability.

4 Benefits of Developing an Extensive Reading Habit

  1.       Increased vocabulary knowledge

Written work in any language, and especially English, contains far more vocabulary than you hear in conversation or other oral communication.  The more vocabulary you see, and the more times you see it, the better chance you will have to acquire it . Furthermore, acquiring vocabulary knowledge can come naturally because you begin to understand it through context without having to memorize lists of words. While spending time learning vocabulary from lists is also useful, it can be tedious. Reading brings language to life and helps you understand how words and phrases are used in language.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to say how many words exist in English, but the Oxford English Dictionary contains over 600,000 words!  Fortunately, you don’t need to know all of them to be fluent in English! If you are planning to study at a university in English, the current wisdom suggests that you will need at least 10,000 words to be able to comprehend the materials for study in most majors.

  1.       Exposure to large amounts of English “in action”

The more you see English in use, the more you learn.  You begin to really understand how English is used: words and phrases, grammatical features, and sentence structures. You develop your ability to use these contextual clues along with the broader idea of a reading to acquire English more meaningfully.

  1.       Development as a writer

When you are exposed to a model of behavior, you learn by seeing how others do things. Reading presents you with good models of writing, so you will become a better writer and communicator through extensive reading practice.

  1.       Increased reading speed and comprehension

The more you read, the better reader you become. When you read faster, your comprehension actually increases.  Additionally, being able to read quickly and understand what you read allows you to manage the demands of university studies, which requires a lot of reading!

Interested in developing your own extensive reading habit?  Read more on the practice of extensive reading.

Laura Shier has taught English as a second language for 30 years and has been a reader even longer.  She has tried her best to learn several other languages and still hopes one day to be fluent in at least one of them by working on her extensive reading practice in a second language.