Extensive reading – a circular approach to vocabulary acquisition

The benefits of extensive reading are well documented. It improves reading fluency, vocabulary retention, and helps one to absorb the language naturally, while enjoying a story. Ideally, the reader will forget they are reading in a foreign language, and become immersed in the text. One of the principles of extensive reading according to Bamford and Day (Reading in a Foreign Language Volume 14, No. 2, October 2002) is that “the reading material is easy”. “For extensive reading to be possible and for it to have the desired results, texts must be well within the learners’ reading competence in the foreign language.”

At I Talk You Talk Press, we grade our extensive reading materials according to CEFR levels, and encourage our readers to select a book which is one level below their actual linguistic level. This ensures that most of the vocabulary and grammar they encounter is known to them. From time to time, readers will, however, encounter words they don’t know. Using a dictionary in extensive reading is discouraged, so readers should try to understand the meaning from context, and move on. They may not have a clear understanding of the word, but they have encountered it in context, which acts as a primer for them to learn the word more thoroughly later.

This differs from someone who doesn’t practice extensive reading, and just tries to learn vocabulary from lists or vocabulary textbooks. They either know the word or they don’t. They have either learnt the word or they haven’t. When they come across an unfamiliar word, they don’t have the vague memory and vague understanding of it of someone who has seen it while practicing extensive reading. The latter, encountering a word they have seen when reading, is more likely to grasp the meaning of the word, as they have background context. Naturally, the more one reads, the more words one encounters. These words may be unfamiliar, but when encountered in numerous places and numerous contexts, they gradually move from the unfamiliar to the familiar. It is a circular process, one of encountering, and gradual understanding.

I experience this myself. I practice extensive reading in Japanese by reading novels. I enjoy detective stories and mysteries written between the 1950s to the 1970s. Occasionally, I come across words I don’t know. I don’t use a dictionary, because I read for pleasure. As Bamford and Day say, “Reading is its own reward.” I guess the meaning from context, and store these word away in my brain, where they wait to be encountered and recalled again. The more I read, the more I encounter them. I gradually come to understand them and commit them to memory.

The main purpose of extensive reading is not vocabulary acquisition, but it happens. This is an added bonus, and an enjoyable one at that.

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