Expensive reading?

dictionaries 03I’m about to embark on another long conference crawl, so I’ll be away from any direct contact with Spanish for two weeks. How can I maintain the momentum (that already seems to have been flagging since I took my intensive course at the end of the summer)?

One obvious answer might be to pop a novel or two into my carry-on luggage, and do some sustained reading. However, I have mixed feelings about the efficacy of the extensive reading that I have done to date. It doesn’t seem to have paid big dividends, given the time I’ve put into it.

Let me explain.

I read El País, a Spanish national newspaper, daily. At a conservative estimate, I calculate (on the basis of 200 words per 15 column centimetres) that I read around 5000 words a day. Subtracting the days each year that I might not have access to El País (fewer now that it is online, of course), let’s say I read 5000 words 300 days a year. That makes my annual exposure to written Spanish in the region of 1.5m words of running text (ignoring whatever other reading I might also be doing). What gains might I expect to accrue, given this amount of input?

Bill Grabe (2009: 273), citing recent research into the benefits of extensive reading, says:

If students read approximately a million words of running text a year, and if they know 96-98 per cent of the words, they will be exposed to 20,000 to 40,000 new words… If students learn one word in ten through context, they will learn somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 new words through extensive reading in a year.

It follows, therefore, that, in the 25 or more years that I have been reading El País daily, I should have increased my vocabulary by, minimally, 50,000 words. This would give me the (receptive) vocabulary of a fairly well educated native-speaker.

Is this in fact the case?

dictionaries 04Estimating vocabulary size is not easy (see a discussion at my other blog here), and there seem to be no freely available online tests (that I can find) that will help me do this in Spanish. So, instead, I did a fairly quick-and-dirty test using a learners’ Spanish-English dictionary. This involved simply counting the number of known words on every tenth page of the 385-page Spanish section, and then multiplying the result by 10. By ‘known words’ I mean the words that I could reliably translate into English. This gave a sight vocabulary of roughly 10,000 words (although of those 10,000 many are proper nouns, like Chile or Rusia, while even more are cognates or compounds that I don’t recall having ever seen in a text but which are easily unpacked on the basis of their morphology, e.g. inmutable, autoadhesivo etc).

10,000 words is consistent with Nation and Gu’s (2007: 103) finding that, ‘in general learners need to know around 9000-10,000 words before most texts become easily accessible for unassisted reading’. But it is a long way from the 50,000 I ought to have accumulated, according to Grabe’s figures. This is not to say that I didn’t amass these 10,000 words through reading. Only that there seem to be diminishing returns.

Why?  Are the texts too difficult? That is to say, do I know too few of the words I have been reading, i.e. less than the critical mass of 96% that are necessary in order to guess the meaning of the words I don’t know?

To check the percentage of words I typically know when I’m reading El País, I made a mini-corpus of 5000 words from the online version of last Tuesday’s edition, selecting from the world news, national news, local news, opinion, education and culture sections – i.e. a fairly representative sample of what I would typically read. Of these 5000 word tokens only 35 were unfamiliar, giving me a text coverage score well over the 98% that Nation and Gu (2007) argue is the prerequisite for ‘adequate comprehension’.

So, it seems that I’m well within the optimal zone for vocabulary acquisition. So, why do I feel that I’m not acquiring any more new words?

One answer might be, not that the texts are too hard, but that they are too easy: I already have enough words to get by and therefore I don’t experience sufficient ‘incomprehensible input’ to trigger noticing.  Or it may be that my reading is too superficial: because I’m normally satisfied if I get the gist of what I’m reading, problematic words are easily overlooked and not given the attention they require in order to register in working memory. They simply fall below the radar: an indictment of skimming and scanning as reading tasks, incidentally. Fluency comes at the expense of continued learning.

In the end, extensive reading itself may not be enough. As Nation (2001: 155) admits, ‘Vocabulary learning from extensive reading is very fragile. If the small amount of learning of a word is not soon reinforced by another meeting, then the learning will be lost.’  But he adds (p. 238): ‘Learning rates can be increased considerably by some deliberate attention to vocabulary’. Such attention might include dictionary use, and it’s significant that I seldom if ever consult a dictionary when I’m reading the paper, often because I’m reading on the train or on the bicycle at the gym, and don’t have a dictionary to hand. Moreover, the constant interruption that dictionary use involves would seem to run counter to the principles of extensive reading, defined as ‘reading in quantity and in order to gain a general understanding of what is read’ (Richards and Schmidt 2002: 193).

dictionaries 05And yet a dictionary might make all the difference. In a recent study, Ronald (2009: 94) found ‘substantial reliable evidence of the effect on a language learner’s vocabulary of monolingual dictionary use during reading’. Grabe and Stoller (1997: 119) make a similar point, based on Bill’s own experience of reading newspapers in Portuguese: ‘The use of a bilingual dictionary in a consistent and appropriate manner would appear to have a positive impact on vocabulary learning and reading development’.  Conversely, in a study by Horst, Cobb and Meara (1998) where readers were deprived of the opportunity to consult a dictionary, or even to linger on unfamiliar words, vocabulary gains were minimal.

So, I’m going to pack some Spanish novels into my carry-on. But I’m going to take a dictionary too. Fortunately, this needn’t add extra bulk. I’ve just uploaded a reputable Spanish-English dictionary on to my iPad. Let’s see if I use it!


Grabe, W. (2009) Reading in a Second Language: Moving from theory to practice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grabe, W. & Stoller, F.L. (1997) ‘Reading and vocabulary development is a second language a case study,’ in Coady, J. & Huckin, T. (eds) Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

dictionaries 01Horst, M., Cobb, T., & Meara, P. (1998) ‘Beyond a Clockwork Orange: Acquiring second language vocabulary through reading,’ Reading in a Foreign Language, 11(2).

Nation, P., & Gu, P. Y. (2007) Focus on Vocabulary, Sydney: Macquarie University.

Richards, J., and Schmidt, R. (eds) (2002) Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics (3rd edn.), Harlow: Longman.

Roland, J. (2009) ‘Repeated L2 reading with and without a dictionary,’ in Fitzpatrick, T. & Barfield, A. (eds) Lexical Processing in Second Language Learners, Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Special thanks to Tom Cobb, Steve Neufeld, and James Thomas, for advice on data collection and analysis.


About Scott Thornbury

I write books about ELT methodology and teach on the MA TESOL program at the New School in New York. I live in Barcelona. View all posts by Scott Thornbury

54 responses to “Expensive reading?

  • Scott B

    I think the problem with extensive reading is that once you have all of those common use words that make up the majority of the text the remaining words are too rarely seen to get the required repetitions necessary to sink into your memory.

    I also embarked on an extensive reading program of sorts, reading countless novels without looking up much vocabulary. However, I found that even looking new words up in a dictionary by the next time I encountered the word in a text I had already forgotten it. I had the sense of ‘I should know this word,’ yet be unable to remember what it meant.

    Now I make a point of looking up new words and adding them to Anki whenever I come across them. My passive vocabulary is indeed growing through this method, however the words are not necessarily available for recall in active use. But that is, after all, last weeks article.

    Thanks for confirming my own thoughts about the subject.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks for the comment, Scott. Yes, even since I posted that post, I’ve started to pay more attention to words I would otherwise have skipped over, and have looked up a few in my digital dictionary. The next stage is to keep a record of them. And review them!

  • Martin Sketchley

    How about you create a personal Wiki for your Spanish vocabulary? You’d keep a personal record of your language exposure and would also be able to review at the end of a week.

    I have always told my language learners to check the meaning of a word that they are unsure of in a monolingual dictionary, guess what the translation would be then check in their translation dictionary. It seems to improve learner’s confidence when dealing with new vocabulary and makes it more immediate.

    Finally, have you got any audio books or movies? They are wonderful and they can give further exposure with the language or you could end up developing a lexis of newspaper speak. It’s hard work learning a language and perhaps we don’t praise our learners enough.

  • Karenne Sylvester

    Hmm…. from experiences with trying to do extensive *expensive* reading, grin, I would go with Martin’s suggestion too, as given the fact that you are going to have many other things to be thinking about and other stuff to do during the next two weeks so perhaps downloading audio books, films or even short TV programs in Spanish on to your iPad might be a better bet.

    You are going to have time constraints along with environments such as waiting in airport lounges, sitting in hotel rooms etc and also shorter spans of attention available. There’s a lot “less” work involved in audio, your hands can do other things (e.g packing) and another reason is that in this medium you won’t want to stop and reach for a dictionary whenever you encounter a word you don’t know, which lets the context and the words you do know define the overall meaning of a chunk of text, also revealing some of the individual words as well.

    Also, perhaps, while out and about, you can try to seek out restaurant amigos who speak Spanish too and keep the output up?

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks, Karenne. I need to work on the audio input aspect, obviously. I never listen to music on headphones (feel uncomfortable blocking out the outside world), so it’s a major leap into ipods etc. But, as I said to Martin, I need to give it a try.

  • Brian

    The novels sound like a good idea to me. Getting most of your reading input from the same source, and here a newspaper which has its own self-limiting style guide, is probably not challenging you enough.

    I also used to read El País regularly, and noticed that because I got used to its format, familiar delivery, style, and obviously particular columnists that I enjoyed, it became very easy reading in the end. It was hardly necessary to do any noticing at all to extract most of the meaning.

    The greatest increases in my Spanish vocab have come at times when I was forced out of my comfort zone into areas where the language I was exposed to had a different flavor altogether. And OK, it’s not just reading that I’m talking about here – more like total immersion in new work or learning contexts. But maybe the same fundamental idea is still relevant – you need some novelty, variety and spice to ratchet up the noticing neurons a bit.

    I reckon the novels will be a bit of a slog at first but a step in the right direction.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks, Brian – I think you may be right, i.e. that, for the purposes of vocab acquisition at least, I need to ‘step outside my comfort zone’ and extend my range of registers. I wonder if what I need, in fact, is more ‘conversational Spanish’, hence contemporary novels with lots of dialogue might be a useful source of input.

      • Declan Cooley

        small suggestion: alternative source of conversational language are interviews in magazines such as Hello! (or here in Poland, another example is Viva !). Often interviews are transcribed (no doubt with some tidying up for the usual redundancies).

  • Amadeu Marin


    I’ve been reading this on my iPad mini, and while I was reading I’ve looked up a couple of words on the Oxford Dictionary of English, which the device offered as a download. I’ve checked and you can download the Diccionario de la Read Academia for Spanish, so that solves the hassle of juggling different books to check the meaning of words. For example, you could be reading El Pais online on your iPad and presss-hold a word, then tap on ‘define’ to read its definition and examples in monolingual dictionary; you could even open an app like Evernote and add copy-paste the word on a Vocab notebook there.

    Incidentally, I don’t think that regularly approaching the meaning of words by translation is a good idea, as it often limits your undestanding of the new word by anchoring it to a fixed translation, which is usually good for just one of the possible meanings of the word. The moment learners (that is, all of us!) associate a new TL word with an L1 word, it works like the little auxiliary wheels we add to kids’ bikes when they are learning to ride; this has been shown not to be a good learning strategy, as they don’t help children develop their balance, which has to be learnt from scratch the moment the wee wheels are removed; I hear it’s a better idea to remove the pedals so kids develop their balance, then add them back so they work on their propulsion.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Great tip, Amadeu. I downloaded the RAE dictionary, but in fact when you press on a word in El País it connects to another dictionary (El Diccionario General de La Lengua Española), which, although not as thorough as the RAE, gives not only a definition of the target word but an example in context. At first I thought this was a bit redundant, since I had already accessed the word in context, but then I realised that meeting the word straightaway in a different context could only be a good thing, in terms of increasing the chances of it becoming fixed in memory.

      Thanks, again, for the tip.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Hi Amadeu … I forgot to address your point about translation. Ina comment I made to a colleague off-list, who also questioned the wisdom of using a bilingual dictionary to check word meanings, I wrote:

      With regard to dictionary use, it’s perhaps not accidental that the two studies I referred to (Grabe and Stoller; Ronald) used different kinds of dictionaries (bilingual and monolingual, respectively) with equally positive results. As it happens, the online dictionary that is now linked to my Spanish newspaper reading is in fact a monolingual one, but I sometimes double-check on the bilingual one too. I think it doesn’t much matter in the end: what matters is the checking (and double-checking!)

  • philipquick

    You recommend using from your former blogs Forbetterenglish.com for collocations and Stringnet for chunks…..to improve vocab….have you been able to use such a thing in Spanish? Forgotten what was the 3rd website you recommended.
    STILL Its one thing to recognise the word, it’s another thing to use it…

    ps Was glad to see you ,you’ve started to pick up the Spanish sense of stylish dressing and seem to be moving away from the EFL Jeremy Harmer/Adrian Underhill/Jim Scrivener style of dressing

  • Nick Bilbrough

    For me reading in a second language has always been a bit of a chore. I always used to start out with good intentions of working with a dictionary and recording new vocabulary in a notebook but I find that these things take me away so much from immersing myself in the world of the book that I ended up losing the will to carry on.

    Recently I’ve tried out a few things which have been more motivating and have also helped me to learn.

    1) Reading a book in L2 which I know really well in English. I’m doing this at the moment with Remarque’s ‘All quiet on the Western Front’ which I’m reading in Spanish. I read this a couple of times in English more than twenty years ago and it had a big impact on me. I still find the Spanish quite hard going sometimes but I love it when I get to a bit that I recognise and it really feels like I’m able to notice more than if I was going at it cold.

    2) Reading screenplays. I’ve recently done this with the Spanish film ‘Hormigas en la boca’ (Mariano Barroso). As it’s pretty much all dialogue, I find it much easier to follow than descriptive prose and because it’s spoken language I also feel more motivated to learn it. Watching the film afterwards without the subtitles was pretty easy (I would have been totally lost without having read it first) and it was really interesting to see characters and scenes that I had imagined through reading being played out in front of me.

    3) Reading an author in L2 that I am very familiar with in English. I’ve read quite a few of the novels of Haruki Murakami in English and like his simple down to earth style. I was recently in a book shop in Copenhagen and found a copy of Sputnik Sweetheart in Danish. I’ve never read this in English, but flicking through it, I immediately got the sense that I could get into it, and took it home with me. I read almost half of it on the journey back to the UK and finished it soon afterwards. Even though Danish is my best second language, I’ve actually never read an adult novel in it before so it gave me a tremendous sense of satisfaction.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks, Nick – the suggestion re screen plays chimes with my earlier comment, about the value of reading dialogue in fiction. Is there a good source of Spanish screenplays online, that you know of? The idea of reading a familiar book is also a good tip. I remember that the explorer Sir Richard Burton, when learning a new language (and he learned lots!) would start by reading the Bible in that language. I’m not sure what the equivalent would be for me!

      • Nick Bilbrough

        I haven’t managed to find a source of screenplays online yet. Anyone else know one?

        How about finding someone who’d like to write their MA/PhD thesis in Spanish using your experiences learning Spanish as a case study? I have an article in Portuguese written by a friend of mine in Brazil which explores my Portuguese development and it’s fascinating to read, partly because it’s about an area that I’m interested in and uses language learning related language, but also simply because it’s about me! Would that work for you?

      • Scott Thornbury

        Yes, Nick, that would tick all the right boxes! Any takers? 😉

      • Ketutar

        Well… Sir Richard Burton didn’t read the Bible because he was so Christian, but because it is The Book to go to when one wants to learn languages
        That for two reasons:
        1) it is most translated book in the human history, available in many, many languages, not just the same old same old, and the translation is pretty accurate, as the translators were very intent on getting the message through.
        2) our Western culture is build on the biblical stories, so most of us are more or less familiar with them, especially Richard Burton (being a British Victorian gentleman). I consider the Bible part of the “general education” because of the literary value, not because of the religious significance of the book.

        Sure, it could be outdated words, forms and ideas, but there was nothing wrong with either Richard Burton’s or Giuseppe Mezzofanti’s language skills, wouldn’t you agree? 😀
        As Kató Lomb says, the irrelevant and obsolete words and forms will disappear as one uses the language.
        (Which is also the reason to why people won’t learn 50.000 words a year by reading a newspaper. The unknown words are rare and seldom used, so there is no reason why you should remember them, and if you can’t figure them out by the context, they probably aren’t that important to know either.)

  • Jean Sciberras

    Fascinating and thought provoking. I was about to suggest uploading a dictionary on to your smartphone which is certainly less bulky and always at hand. The only problem with that is that you can’t keep a record of the new words….although, come to think of it, the words you’d have looked up would still show up later on. Do it the old fashioned way and write them down on a nice notebook. On the other hand, the advantage of dictionaries is that you can highlight a word you look up and later in the week have a general revision. I find that using a new word as much as possible, forcing it somehow into your conversation makes it memorable.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Hi Jean… pursuant on your comment, I discovered, fiddling about, that the bilingual dictionary I downloaded (the Collins Spanish-English one) has a ‘history’ function, whereby you can see all the words you recently looked up. This is a fantastic tool for review: there were words there I’d already forgotten I’d looked up!

  • Ben Naismith

    Combining the ideas of Jean and Amadeu, I’d recommend lingro.com – I’ve started using it when I read la Nacion (Costa Rican) in the morning. You just plug the website into lingro and it lets you click on any word to see the definition and you can also save it into a personal vocab list. Today I’ve learnt that ‘zancos’ are stilts – probably not the most useful lexical item, but still…

    • Jean Sciberras

      Hi Ben

      I’ve had a quick look at lingro….does it only translate or can it be useful for EFL students looking up words in English and wanting a definition in English?

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks, Ben … I had been aware of this tool but somehow had ‘mislaid’ it, i.e. forgotten to bookmark it. I remember thinking, when I first came across it, what a brilliant aid it would be.

      I’ve just registered and started my first word list based on an article from El País. Brilliant!

  • hanaticha

    As a non-native speaker of English, I always find your observations quite fascinating, Scott. I’ve been exposed to English (in an L1 environment) for nearly a quarter of a century now, and as I teach English, I have a lot of practice (only up to a certain level, though). While reading your post I came across a word or two I had never encountered before (for instance ‘accrue’). I went on reading without paying much attention to the word because I could more or less guess the meaning from context. However, when I came back to it and checked the L1 equivalent and the synonyms, I discovered that my guess was not precise. The next step I took was checking the BNC for example sentences. So far so good. This is what I always do. Unfortunately, none of the steps guarantees that I will remember the word in, let’s say, two months’ time.The only thing that works 100% for me is that I use the word productively. So word cards, dictionaries, wikis, Quizlet, etc. are great tools for improving our receptive knowledge of L2 vocabulary, but for productive knowledge, I’m afraid, they do not suffice. To conclude, extensive reading yes, but it’s not ideal for vocabulary extension if not accompanied by other learning strategies, especially conscious productive use. Hana

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks for the comment, Hana, and I’m delighted that my blog should be a source of vocabulary input for you! (I’ll try to include at least one rare word in each post – just for you!)

      Yes, the fact that my vocabulary, however extensive, is primarily receptive rather than productive is a source of frustration for me, and suggests, too, that comprehensible input is insufficient for language production (pace Krashen).

      • hanaticha

        What an honor! This is a perfect example ‘personalized learning’ 🙂 Yes, I was influenced by Steven Krashen’s theory of comprehensible input for quite a long time but now I’m becoming more and more convinced of Swain’s theory of pushed output (and many more).

  • duncan foord

    In your post on your motivation, Scott , you identify a clear purpose, namely to be able to give a presentation in Spanish. The flagging motivation you mention at the start of this post may be related to the fact that you are not working towards that goal, or at least you do not perceive any progress towards that ideal self. I like Daniel Pink’s motivation model which has three elements: autonomy, purpose and mastery. Mastery refers to the idea that you need a bit of success to keep you going, in this case some evidence that, as a result of your efforts reading in the language, you will become more competent at presenting in Spanish than you are. I have personally found it difficult to motivate myself to read extensively in Spanish, though I have lived in Spain for 24 years. To find the will to do some reading in Spanish on your trip you might need to make an explicit link between the endeavor and the result you desire, the “presenter in Spanish self” , between the buck and the bang. Anyway,enjoy your trip!

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks, Duncan – yes, you’re right, I think, that there needs to be more consistency between the means and the ends, i.e. the reading I do and the goal of presenting in Spanish, and that do achieve this, I should be reading, not so much the news in Spanish, but stuff on applied linguistics, methodology, language etc. I might head down to Alibri (an academic bookshop in Barcelona) this afternoon and see what they have.

      • Jessica Mackay

        Re your ideal Spanish presenter self, how about setting yourself an achievable short-term goal? For example, the AESLA (Asociación Española de Linguística Aplicada) conference in Seville next year. Although the deadline for abstract submissions is the end of November, which seems scarily soon, the conference isn’t until April.
        But it might clash with IATEFL!

      • Scott Thornbury

        Gulp. Am I really ready for this?! I guess I could talk about this ‘experiment’ itself – something like ‘Recargando las pilas: un caso de desestabilización autodirigida’ (Recharging the batteries: a case of self-directed destabilization). How does that sound?!

      • jmackay

        Wonderful! I suspect that you’re far more ready than you think you are. What about AESLA 2015? That would give you time to draw some more conclusions as well as provide an incentive for your Spanish Ideal self. I for one would like to see that. Animo!

  • emk1024

    I once spent about two years reading about half an article a day in Le Monde. This did absolutely nothing for me. Maybe there just wasn’t enough volume to see the rare words often enough. Maybe my heart just wasn’t in it. Maybe I was reading the wrong kind of material.

    Later on, I signed up for an extensive reading & listening challenge. This involved 10,000 pages of reading and 150 hours of films/TV in 20 months. This time, I saw dramatic improvements. When I started, I had maybe 80% comprehension of French text, and I could understand small fragments of the news. Today, I’m about 95% through the challenge, and I just read Le pont de la rivière Kwaï, and only needed to look up one word every three pages or so. This is roughly 99.8% comprehension (though I’m usually closer to 98%). I saw decent improvements in listening, too—I still struggle with French movies, but I watch lots of TV series with ~80–90% comprehension. I do use Anki occasionally, but it accounts for less than 20% of the vocab I’ve learned, as far as I can tell.

    I know several other people involved in the challenge who’ve also made great progress. So there’s at least some subset of the population who really do benefit from extensive reading and watching.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks, Eric – I’m fascinated by the determination with which you’ve gone about improving your French – it’s enviable. I think that I need to do something similar, especially with listening comprehension, which lags way behind my reading comprehension. It’s only in the last five or six years that I’ve started the day listening to the news in Spanish rather than listening to the BBC World Service – I don’t know why I didn’t start sooner. But that’s only 30 minutes a day max, reinforced by the TV news in the evening. I have a friend who watched Catalan soap operas on a daily basis for a period of two or three years, in order to improve his Catalan comprehension, and it seems to have worked.

      • emk1024

        You call it determination, which is very kind, but I think the truth is closer to “procrastination in French.”

        Personally, I found TV and radio news to be a bit of a dead end. At first, all that Latinate vocabulary and current events helped a lot. But news stations change the subject every 30 seconds, there’s always too many people talking, and the pictures don’t help very much. It was basically the “first page effect,” over and over. So I plateaued quickly, and further progress was like pulling teeth.

        I had much better luck with TV series. This was sort of a “narrow listening” strategy, by analogy to the “narrow reading” I’ve seen Krashen mention. I’d buy DVD box sets on Amazon.fr and watch three to five sesons, all with the same voices, the same specialized vocabulary, lots of contextual help from the plot, and so on. Starting out, I could maybe understand 40% of Buffy contre les vampires (and 90% of the written “script”). After one season, I reached 70%, after 3 seasons, I could sometimes get 95%, and after doing the same with several other series, I could just turn on French TV and understand enough to have fun.

        When extensive activities work for me, I think it’s because I have lots of extra context somehow (from the story, from the subject under discussion, or from the pictures on the screen), and if I pay sufficient attention, that gives me a temporary comprehension boost. And then that temporary boost gets “locked in” by repetition. Progress is only an inch at a time—solidifying knowledge of a word here, puzzling out a new word there—but those inches add up.

  • mbenevides

    Hi Scott,

    I’d been waiting with interest for you to tackle the topic of extensive reading… so now I find myself a bit conflicted to pick at a couple of your premises, which are echoed by other commenters above. Yet pick I feel I must! 😉

    To start with, it is important to emphasize that ER doesn’t simply refer to reading a lot, but to reading a lot of *easy* texts. There must be high–indeed, near-total–comprehension, because ER is primarily about developing reading fluency, not about learning new vocabulary.

    Bamford and Day (2004: 1) start out their Cambridge Handbook with, “Extensive reading is an approach to language teaching in which learners read a lot of easy material in the new language. […] They read for general, overall meaning, and they read for information and enjoyment.” There is very wide agreement that these are the crucial tenets to the approach.

    ER’s effect on language development is more of a ‘locking in’ of gains, than it is an expansion of them. Although Grabe is usually fairly critical–mostly because he sees a paucity of valid research on ER–, he does recognise its aims in (2009: 311) when he states, for example, “One explanation for the nonpopularity of extensive reading, at least in L2 settings, is that fluent reading is often not really the goal of of a reading class or a reading curriculum; rather, the goal is the development of language skills, vocabulary, grammar, translation, or study skills.”

    Yes, Nation and others refer to incidental vocabulary learning, but they also always qualify it with caveats that readers might “learn one word in ten [unknown words]” through context (i.e. not a great rate!); and that “learning rates can be increased considerably by some deliberate attention to vocabulary” (Grabe 2009: 173), by which ER practitioners often mean ‘un-ER’ activities such as making word lists and using flash cards. In other words, the generally acknowledged and modest vocabulary gains from ER can–and arguably should–be supplemented by explicit non-ER vocabulary practice.

    Unfortunately I’ve got to run to class soon, so I’ll have to end with one of my patented Hokey Learning Analogies: Extensive Reading is like jogging every morning, and NOT like training for a marathon.

    Sure, there is overlap between the two activities, but the former is meant to be easy and fun–and to bring its benefits incidentally and over time. The latter is challenging and oriented toward a short term goal–but can incidentally be fun, if you’re the competitive sort.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks, Marcos, for your considered comment, and a valued one, too, given your investment in ER (literally as well as metaphorically!). Far be it from me to belittle the usefulness of ER, particularly in terms of developing reading fluency (which, I have to say, I sort of already had in my L1 – I just needed to break through the lexical ‘threshold’ that some writers argue is a prerequisite for skills transfer from L1 to L2 – and I think I have done that). Also, if it’s true that I have a sight vocabulary of 10,000 words, a great deal of these must have come from my reading, and that is a testimony to the power, over time, of ER. What’s more, I seem to do well in tests involving grammatical awareness (witness the placement test I did, and the accuracy score on the Versant test), and I suspect that this awareness was ‘imbibed’, as it were, from the millions of words of text I’ve been exposed to. It certainly didn’t come from conscious attention to grammar rules.

      I guess my disappointment, or frustration even, is that (a) the lexical gains seem to be tailing off (but I have no proof of this) and (b) more importantly, little or none of this sight vocabulary seems to have transferred to production (although I did consciously monitor the unprompted use of the verb indagar [investigate] in a conversation the other day, which is definitely one I picked up in my newspaper reading). Now, of course, most proponents of ER make no claims that receptive vocabulary will be available for production, and in fact (as you point out) make no strong claims for vocabulary acquisition at all. (The exception being Krashen, viz ‘Teaching vocabulary lists is not efficient. The time is better spent reading’ (2004: 19)).

      My feeling is that the time might be best spent reading and keeping (and reviewing) a vocabulary list. Given the accessibility of tools that now facilitate this, there seems to be no tension between easy reading/ reading for pleasure AND reading for acquisition.

  • Ted O'Neill

    That is an awful lot of reading of El País. Brian has already commented on the restricted style. Also, from my own experience, I often can predict the rest of a news story from having heard it somewhere else or because the outcome is predictable. Thus, I wonder how much I am really “reading” at a certain point.

    Let’s return to your motivation–to present professionally in Spanish–to try to remotivate. If you’re not already, maybe build up a good blogroll of educators blogging in Spanish. It doesn’t have to be ELT related. In fact, it might be better if it isn’t. Following some teachers and educators on Twitter in Japanese gives me some short doses of text in a mix of professional and personal (but I’m hardly systematic about it).

    Along with the novels, load up a good offline rss reader on your iPad with “blogs sobre la educación en español” and you should be able to find some reading that is engaging and in a voice much closer to presenting than El País. I’d expect you’ll get plenty of input of the kind of chunks that teachers will use to talk about teaching and the way they chat at a conference. It should also be relatively easy to copy those chunks into a list for later review without too much disruption.

    • Amadeu Marin

      Very good points there, Ted. I fully agree that El Pais, El Mundo, etc. can be prettey predictable and that following bloggers is, today, te thing to do; in fact I’d argue that reading blogs, tweets, scoop.its and the like must be amounting to most reading nowadays. (Of course I’ve got no data to confirm this, but that’s my impression.)

    • Scott Thornbury

      That’s excellent advice, Ted. As I mentioned earlier in this thread, I need to re-direct my reading to the field I want to be able to function in. (Or change the field! Maybe I should become a journalist 😉 )

      • Ted O'Neill

        I missed that earlier comment. (The perils of sometimes sketchy online reading?)

        But I wonder, is it possible to redirect towards your goal within novels? I can’t think of any novels set in the world of ELT (perhaps a better potential change than to journalism, there are certainly some entertaining stories to be told) but novels or memoirs set in schools or universities?

        But more to the point, how did you select your novels? I’ve been struggling with two SF young adult novels (one translated from an English original I read a while ago and one only available in Japanese). I chose them as totally unimportant “pleasure” reading in a genre I enjoy and because they were very popular.

        Are you going to share your choices and how you arrived at them?

      • Scott Thornbury

        Hi Ted, The two books of fiction I chose are in fact short stories, figuring that these would tax my (already depleted) attention span less than a full-blown novel. They are a book of very short pieces by Juan José Millás, whose often surreal column in El País every Friday I enjoy (although sometimes have trouble unpacking, due to their almost poetic concision) and three collections of short stories by Roberto Bolaño, gathered into one volume: Bolaño is not only a great writer, but was (he died in 2004) a friend of friends of mine: I met him on more than one occasion and this adds a certain extra motivation to the reading. Does that answer your question?

  • Language Garden (@DavidWarr)

    Hi Scott, I didn’t spot your pun on “ex t/p ensive” first time round (back again now to read the comments). I’ve just tweeted how I imagine the pun works. Just the one letter different. Can you think of any puns in Spanish like the one you made?

  • Richard

    Hello Scott

    When I was living in Spain, I found that reading a good, simple (not simplified) novel improved my Spanish more than the Spanish football press I read on a daily basis.

    Novels introduced me to a rich(er) lexical set – words and expressions which were recycled over 100/200 pages. This meant that the cost/benefit of anything I looked up (typically near the beginning of the book) paid off as they popped up again and again and words that resided in the depths of my passive knowledge began to surface and became more available in conversation.

    A Spanish teacher once told me – don’t worry about learning new words , just try using the ones you already know!

    Also, if I was really enjoying a book, I would talk about it more .In literacy teaching, I came across the notion of a ‘literacy event’ (Barton and Hamilton 2000) – that a text is ‘situated’ -it exists in a social context – to be talked about or acted upon.

    Perhaps joining a book club might help?

  • thesecretdos

    A fascinating area and an equally fascinating thread of discussion that has emerged. I do extensive reading activities with my class and this consists of three times a week devoting twenty minutes to sitting quietly in the classroom with individually chosen graded readers. The students start off somewhat sceptically but seem to grow to love it over the period of teaching. Perhaps, it has occurred to me, the greatest benefit is psychosomatic?

    I do feel that a reading session needs to end with the scribbling down of new lexical chunks (rather than words) and interesting grammatical arrangements. I also feel that once you reach a fairly low intermediate stage, vocabulary expansion requires some concerted effort. You could do worse than read “Moonwalking with Einstein” for some approaches to memory activities. I tell my students to have a mound of cards that are reviewed daily. At the end of the week, any chunks that can be effortlessly and accurately translated are moved into a weekly pile. This pile gets reviewed every Sunday. Any that are effortlessly and accurately translated are moved into a monthly pile and any that aren’t return to the daily pile. The monthly pile gets reviewed on the last day of every month and those which are effortlessly…move to a dark drawer. Those which are not return to the daily pile.

    You don’t want to be carrying a load of cards around the world with you, I imagine, so you can make use of some of the virtual flashcard sites and/or apps that are around. If you develop the discipline, I am sure that the development will come (hardly a scientific endorsement).

    Memorising short poems is also a great approach to cementing lexical chunks into the brain. @joe_kirkby has written about the benefits for him of learning poetry. He’s a UK state school teacher whose blog (pragmaticreform.wordpress.com) comes highly recommended.

    If you’re looking for Spanish titles that will keep you entertained while on your junkets, allow me to recommend:

    La Sonrisa Etrusca – Jose Luis Sanpedro
    El Hijo del Acordeonista – Bernardo Atxaga
    Si Dicen que Cai – Joan Marse
    Sin Noticias de Gurb -Eduardo Mendoza
    …and recommended to me by some Catalans who told me that it gave a fine insight into the history of Barcelona: La Ciudad de los Prodigios – also Eduardo Mendoza
    virtually any of the Manolito Gafotas novels by Elvira Lindo
    El Principito (a useful text for any language learning) – Author unnecessary!
    Que me quieres, amor? – Manuel Rivas

    …all by men. Not sure what to make of that, but Wikipedia lists Beatriz y los Cuerpos Celestes by Lucia Extebarria, La Hija del Canibal by Rosa Montero and La Nada Cotidiana by Zoe Valdes as among the top 100 books of all time. It also lists Como Agua por Chocolate by Laura Esquivel which I *have* read and enjoyed.

    I shouldn’t have entered this discussion. I can feel a spending spree coming on…

  • thesecretdos

    …oooh…and Caperucita en Manhattan by Carmen Martin Gaite…I liked that on a lot too.

  • thesecretdos

    …and one last one…The Collected Mafalda by Quino…

  • Scott Thornbury

    Breaking news: In order to calculate my lexical coverage of a typical day’s reading of El País, i.e. the percentage of words I know, I needed to create a wordlist from a small corpus of El País articles. Of course, I could have just gone through the articles themselves and circled every word I didn’t recognize, but I preferred to work from a list so as not to be influenced by context. At the time, no such wordlist tool (i.e. a tool that turns a text into a list) existed for Spanish, so, in the end, I had to work off the text. Since then, Tom Cobb, of the amazing Compleat Lexical Tutor has adapted his Concordance program so that not only does it accept Spanish, but, even more amazingly, when you click on any word in the concordance you get a definition of it. Brilliant! Thanks Tom!

    You can access it here: http://www.lextutor.ca/concordancers/text_concord/

  • Gary

    Hi, Scott.
    It seems to me that the use of the dictionary while doing your reading is somewhat similar to what I did when I was studying Japanese. I read articles, checking unknown words as I went. As people have pointed out above, the problem is that you may not come across the word again for some time and will therefore not remember it. The method I used to overcome this problem was simple. I read the article again. In fact at the time I was very motivated and I read it again and again. I also read it out loud and repeated it until I could read it at a faster than natural pace without making errors. Then I moved on to another article. Not exactly extensive reading, and I realise that the contexts I saw new words in were limited to the articles and the dictionary examples, but it worked pretty well for me.

  • Hillary Gardner

    Hi Scott,

    You write, “…there seem to be no freely available online tests…” to test your vocabulary knowledge in Spanish. You might try es.freerice.com/‎

    “Freerice.com: Play online, learn online and feed the hungry. For every correct answer you choose, 10 grains of rice are raised to help end world hunger through the World Food Programme.”

    Let me know where to find something similar in Catalan!

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks, Hilary. When I said ‘test’ I should have said ‘measure’ or ‘quantify’, i..e some way of quantifying your vocabulary size. There was a website circulating a few months ago that claimed to do this for English (i.e. telling you whether you had a vocab of 10,000, 20, 000 or more words of English). I’ve since mislaid it, but if anyone knows where it is (or an equivalent) let me know.

  • Rob

    Hi Scott (long after the crowds have left the plaza), for what it’s worth, I always had a dictionary on hand to look up every single new word while reading the paper or a novel during my time in Germany. I believe it helped me acquire new language items.


  • akismet-11af1ac3ed944e3c5ad29150f4d7c3d6


    Thank you for this interesting post, which, strangely enough, I found by doing a Google search for “extensive reading” and “Twitter!”

    Like Marcos I was pleased to see you tackle the subject of extensive reading, and I hope it’s not too late to chime in!

    I have a few observations. First, your vocabulary of 10,000 words is pretty awesome. I majored in Spanish, but I’ve been away from it for years, so I doubt I’m even close to that. Plus, these days I tend to mix my Japanese and Spanish now, saying things like, “Tabemos,” which is a mixture of “comer” and “taberu,” (to eat, in Japanese).

    Besides 10,000 words being pretty awesome, my other observation is that a vocabulary of 50,000 words would be HUGE! I’m not sure if there are that many native speakers of Spanish with that vocabulary size. I wonder if my English vocabulary has 50,000 words!

    But more interestingly, Rob Waring has done a funky, little set of calculations, which he calls. “A statistical analysis of the number of English words you need to meet (at given recurrence rates) to ‘learn’ that number of words.” Perhaps you’ve seen it.

    Forgive me if you have already seen this, but Rob’s calculations go something like this. Let’s assume that to learn a new word incidentally, you need to meet it 10 to 20 times. (At the last ER congress Paul Nation was saying 10 would be enough).

    So by Rob’s calculations, to learn the 2000th most common word, you would need to read 231,250 words of running text for 10 meetings and 462,500 for 20 meetings.

    Now jumping down to the 10,000th most common word, you would need to read 6,328,947 words of running text to meet it 10 times, and you’d need to read 12,657, 895 words of running text to meet it 20 times.

    This idea may have been commented on in the above discussion, but I didn’t see it. Though the calculations may be a bit different for Spanish, the principles will be the same, and I guess my point is that you’ll have to read huge amounts to incidentally learn those lower frequency words because they are going to appear so very infrequently.

    On the bright side, in September of last year, Paul Nation chimed in on this topic at the ER World Congress. I wrote a summary of his thoughts for my website, but I haven’t published them yet. Nation basically said that Tom Cobb was wrong and Krashen was right (caveat following). That is, Paul was saying that second language learners could learn the top 9,000 English words by doing ER alone, assuming 10 meetings for words. That, of course requires about reading 6,000,000 words, which most learners don’t do.

    The caveat was Nation said that Krashen was wrong in his separate view that deliberate study is not helpful. Obviously, Nation is going to say that deliberate and direct vocabulary study is effective, and we know that it is.

    At your level of Spanish it seems to me that extensive reading would be the best way to increase vocabulary and that direct study wouldn’t even be necessary, though I know many on this thread will strongly disagree with me. After all, when native speakers learn their 10,000th word, they don’t bring out the flash cards to learn more. They learn naturally. It seems that you are closer to the L1 or superior level than a regular L2 learner.

    Nevertheless, the good news is that we can do both ER and direct vocab study, and that you already have a pretty darn good vocabulary in Spanish, good enough to give presentations in Spanish, I think. Anyway, I’m curious to see how your progress continues, and you’ve inspired me to get back into Spanish!

    Thanks always for your thought provoking posts.

Leave a Reply to Scott Thornbury Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: