Purpose and strategy: teaching intensive and extensive reading

Reading has traditionally been divided into two types: intensive and extensive. In broad terms, intensive reading may be described as the practice of particular reading skills and the close linguistic study of text.

Extensive reading, on the other hand, can be defined as reading a large quantity of text, where reading confidence and reading fluency are prioritized. Although this twin categorization of reading into two basic types can be

found in many teacher resource books for the teaching of English as a foreign language, it is not the whole story, as the student's learning history clearly pointed out. We need to extend the categorization. We can do this by adding, first, oral reading, or reading aloud in class, where considerable focus is put on correct pronunciation of the text and, second, text translation, where correct translation of the foreign language text into the learners' mother tongue is emphasized in tandem with the study of an array of grammatical, lexical and phonological points. This creates a four-way methodological categorization of reading in a foreign language, summarized in the following table [1; p.34].

Table 1. Basic Classroom Approaches to Reading in a foreign language

Methodological choice

Classroom focus


Students read a lot of text


Students practice particular reading skill

Oral reading

Students listen and read aloud

Text translation

Students translate from L2 to L1

The Intensive Reading Technique is reading for a high degree of comprehension and retention over a long period of time. It is a study technique for organizing readings that will have to be understood and remembered. One may have good comprehension while reading line-by-line, but REMEMBERING is what counts. Intensive reading is not a careful, single reading, but is a method based on a variety of techniques like scanning, the surveying technique of planning your purpose, and others.

Overview, purpose, questions, reading, summarize, test, and understanding are the seven procedures that cover the method, for very effective reading for detailed comprehension and long retention.

Some of the main strategies, skills and sub-skills utilized in extensive reading are as follows:

  • prediction;
  • skimming (reading quickly for the main idea or gist);
  • scanning (reading quickly for a specific piece of information).

Distinguishing between:

    1. factual and non-factual information;
    2. important and less important items;
    3. relevant and irrelevant information;
    4. explicit and implicit information;
    5. ideas and examples and opinions:
  • drawing inferences and conclusions;
  • deducting unknown words;
  • understanding text organization and linguistic/semantic aspects, e.g.;
  • relationships between and within sentences (e.g. cohesion)
  • recognizing discourse / semantic markers and their function.

Students need to be able to do a number of things with a reading text. They need to be able to scan the text tor particular bits of information they are searching for. This skill means that they do not have to read every word and line; on the contrary, such an approach would stop them scanning successfully.

Students need to be able to skim a text as if they were casting their eyes over its surface to get a general idea of what it is about. Just as with scanning, if they try to gather all the details at this stage, they will get bogged down and may not be able to get the general idea because they are concentrating too hard on specifics.

Whether readers scan or skim depends on what kind of text they are reading and what they want to get out of it. They may scan a computer manual to find the one piece of information they need to use their machine, and they may skim a newspaper article to get a general idea of what has been happening. But we would expect them to be less utilitarian with a literary work where reading for pleasure will be a slower, closer kind of activity.

Reading for detailed comprehension, whether looking for detailed information or language, must be seen by students as something very different from the reading skills mentioned above. When looking for details, we expect students to concentrate on the minutiae of what they are reading.

One of the teacher's main functions when training students to rend is not only to persuade them of the advantages of skimming and scanning, but also to make them see that the way they read is vitally important.

Teachers are often discouraged by the inefficient reading methods of otherwise fluent students. Many foreign-language students in secondary and tertiary institutions cannot keep up with their assignments and blame their slow reading speed. Despite our best efforts, we find students struggling word-for-word through a text, plowing on from beginning to end and stumbling at every unfamiliar item. Unfortunately, such slow and wasteful procedures are commonly due to a lack of reading confidence created by the very manner of their learning in EFL classes [2; p. 13].

The types of tasks set in reading classes frequently reflect wholly artificial objectives, demanding the kind of grammatical attention or total comprehension rarely required in everyday life. Such close textual scrutiny seems to increase the anxiety that inhabits the reading flexibility of many students. They come to believe that there is only one correct way to read, and this seriously hampers their students. The problem stems from the fact that reading classes are often used to teach language rather than reading. Texts are either milked of every drop of meaning by intensive study or employed as vehicles for presenting linguistic patterns.

Teachers must use reading lessons to develop students’ reading proficiency rather than improving linguistic competence.

The purpose of reading a particular text is the most important determinant of reading strategy. We do not always require the same level of comprehension, detail, or recall from our reading, and we have to convince our students that it is efficient and profitable to vary their technique and speed according to their purpose in reading.

To sensitize students to different reading purposes it is useful to get them to keep a log of everything they read in their L1 in 24 hours. This should include everything from cereal packaging to timetables or chemistry texts. We than need to elicit what the students hoped to get from their reading on each occasion, extracting from the many and various reasons for reading the actual type of information sought. This will create an awareness of these high-level purposes.

The next step is to show students that different tasks require different degrees of understanding and attention. While extremely useful in many study situations, the skills developed through intensive analysis of short texts are not always appropriate, and students may be surprised to learn that they do not have to read everything or give equal weight to each word.

This can be demonstrated by getting students to reconstruct closed texts or read passages with all “grammar” words removed. It is rare that a text will contain less than 20% of articles, connectives, prepositions, modals and so on, which are usually automatically skimmed in the L1, and by efficient native English speakers.

More importantly however, students need to realize that texts contain information of varying importance to the purpose in reading. To make students aware of the relationship between purpose and strategy, give them a series of different reading tasks based on some of the main purposes derived from the sample situations. For example, the following kinds of exercises might be used:

  1. Read a technical/scholarly text carefully to prepare for detailed exam questions on its context.
  2. Read a similar text to find the answer to a particular question without looking back in the text.
  3. Find one book containing the relevant material for a particular topic area from a 10-item reading list.
  4. Read several movie reviews to decide which one to see this weekend. Students should notice the actors’ names, general plot information, and the reviewer’s overall opinion.

These exercises can be timed and assessed for accuracy. If students’ scores for speed and comprehension in them are similar, then they are approaching all these tasks in the same way. They have developed the habit of reading every text from beginning to end and need to be taught the advantages of explicitly identifying their purpose before starting to read.

Reading efficiency means approaching every reading task with a clear purpose and with the flexibility to adjust reading strategy to the purpose at hand [3; p.88].

The burden is therefore on the teacher to provide reading tasks that exploit different techniques. Table 2 summarizes the relationship between high-level purposes and reading strategies.

Table 2: Ways of reading for main purposes




To obtain a general outline


Use reference and non-text data including typographical and graphical information.

Read first and last paragraphs and topic sentences.

To search for a specific idea, fact, or detail


Run eyes quickly down the page looking for a clue, then return to normal speed.

To extract key ideas and gist. Review reading


Eyes hurry across the page picking out the central information only.

Reading for recall or total accuracy

Various + Intensive reading

Survey structure, phrase read.

Close re-reading with note-taking and summary writing.

Reading for pleasure or relaxation

Phrase reading

Use of wide-eye span and fewer fixation points

Recognition of sense groups.

Because there seems to be some confusion about the main extensive reading skillsoften because they are merged together and their features obscured – a briefly review on them can be done below and some classroom approaches can be suggested.

Surveying is a strategy for quickly and efficiently previewing text content and organization using referencing and non-text material. Although specific strategies depend on the type of text, surveying involves making a quick check of the relevant extra-text categories:

  1. Reference Data – e.g.title, author, copyright date, blurb, table of contents, chapter or article summaries, subheadings, etc.
  2. Graphical Data – diagrams, illustrations, tables, maps.
  3. Typographical Data – all features that help information stand out, including typefaces, spacing, enumeration, underlining, indentation, etc.

In addition, surveying can utilize skimming techniques such as reading topic sentences and final paragraphs. The goal is to discover how the text is organized and what it is about.

Like most of approaches to extensive strategies, the actual reading exercises should involve time limits. In addition, students

should at first work on text below their ability level to give them the confidence to skip large chunks of text or develop the skills to pick out main points.

  1. Predicting content from titles (often tricky) and tables of contents.
  2. Matching texts with the correct summaries or diagrams.
  3. Predicting which chapters contain answers to given questions, based on chapter titles.
  4. Deciding which article can best answer a given question based on a choice of article summaries.
  5. Deciding which books on a reading list would be most relevant for a particular researched essay topic.

Efficient readers unreflectively skim most of what they read to some extent. Skimming is a more text-oriented form of surveying and refers to the method of glancing through a text to extract the gist or main points. Generally speaking, about 75% of the text is disregarded. This is a valuable technique for reviewing material or determining whether it is relevant for more detailed investigation.

Skimming involves knowing which parts of a text contain the most important information and reading only those. More than most kinds of reading, therefore, it requires knowledge of text structure. In particular, students should be able to learn something of the text topic from the title and any subheadings; they should know that the first and last paragraphs often contain valuable background, summarizing or concluding information; they should be aware of the importance of topic sentences and where to find them. Eventually, students can be introduced to the different functions of paragraphs (such as narrative, descriptive, defining, explanatory, etc.) in order to more effectively sense the pattern of the text and to recognize the relationship between main ideas and other information from lexical and grammatical indicators.

  1. Ask students to find the misplaced sentences in a paragraph. This develops awareness of topic sentences and paragraph coherence.
  2. Further practice can entail the reconstruction of paragraphs from component sentences.
  3. Provide several newspaper or magazine articles on the same subject, and ask students which ones deal with a particular aspect of the topic.
  4. Have students match a short text with a headline or picture.
  5. Ask students to give titles to short texts.
  6. Have students fit topic sentences with particular paragraphs.
  7. Provide texts with an increasing number of words removed to give confidence in selective reading.

Scanning is a rapid search for specific information rather than general impression. Scanning demands that the reader ignore all but the key item being searched for. It is a useful skill for data gathering, review, using reference books, or judging whether a text contains material deserving further study.

Although an easier strategy to master than skimming, many students do not scan efficiently, randomly searching and allowing their attention to be caught by incidental material. The reader must therefore, more than in other types of reading, fix the reading purpose clearly, perhaps formulating specific questions before systematically dealing with the text. Having a clearly defined purpose means that the reader can anticipate where to find the information and what form it will take, allowing rapid eye movements down the page searching for particular sections or clues, such as digits, common names, discourse markers, and various signal words and phrases that assist pattern recognition and anticipation.

Scanning exercises are familiar to all teachers and are easy to produce. As the essence of scanning is fast retrieval of specific information, exercises can be timed and competitively managed.

  1. The student races to locate a single item such as a word, date, or name in the text (e.g.indexes, dictionaries, or pages from telephone directories). Columnar material is easier to start with, as readers can be taught to sweep down the middle of columns in one eye movement.
  2. The student races to locate specific phrases or facts in a text.
  3. The student uses key words in questions to search for indirect answers.
  4. The student matches adjoining sentences, using supplied markers expressing relationships and logical patterns.
  5. The student fills in missing link words from a text or reconstructs paragraphs from sentences to help rhetorical pattern recognition.

While not strictly an extensive-reading strategy, phrase reading utilizes what are essentially advanced scanning skills and is a valuable reading strategy.

The two keys to proficient scanning and phrase reading are concentration and eye-span ability. Actual reading is done during the brief moment when the eyes fixate, or pause, as they travel across the page. The efficient reader is therefore one who makes few eye movements, comprehending several words at once by grouping a text into sense units. With regular practice the mind can be conditioned to both accept more material at each fixation and react more quickly to the meaning it conveys.

Such fixations are, however, automatically governed by the reader’s comprehension, and the foreign-language learner is handicapped by a relative lack of proficiency in phrase recognition. More than physical eye movements, therefore, a certain amount of linguistic expertise is required, and students should be taught to recognize sense units before building their peripheral vision control.

This involves helping students see that ideas are expressed in groups rather than single words and that some words are commonly associated. Students should therefore practice dividing paragraphs into meaningful groups of two or three words in order to develop their recognition of sense groups. Later they can be presented with texts in columns of phrases to increase their eye span. Eventually, students come to see that phrase reading not only increases reading speed over reading a word at a time, but also actually aids comprehension.

  1. Encourage students to cover previous lines to reduce regression, i.e.rereading by backward eye movements.
  2. Get students to read down the middle of a column of figures, slowly increasing the number of digits in each line to six.
  3. Do the same with letters, then words, building up to phrases. The point is for them to read by moving their eyes straight down the column, taking in each phrase in a single fixation.
  4. Ask students to make and use a mask that reveals only two or three words in a line, gradually increasing eye span.
  5. Provide a ‘pyramid’ text of gradually increasing width. This should be used with a card containing a centrally placed arrow pointing to the edge as a means of focusing the eyes on a fixed point while reading [4; p.61].
  6. Instruct students to identify phrases in a paragraph using slash marks, then to concentrate on these groups when reading the text.
  7. In addition, recent interest in describing the rhetorical structure of different text types or genres is directly relevant to improving extensive reading strategies. Effective comprehension depends on the reader’s ability to relate what is being read to a familiar pattern or schema. By enabling the reader to correctly identify and organize information into a conventional frame, knowledge of genres provides a kind of structural map that assists the rapid appraisal of a text and thereby increases skimming, scanning, and phrase-reading ability [5; p. 12].

Students can start with examining the types of texts they deal with, recognizing the ways that material is commonly shaped and organized in those texts. With this knowledge of how content in particular text types are arranged in familiar stages, the student is able to anticipate and predict more accurately. This allows faster and more selective reading for a general overview or to find specific information.



  1. Alderson, J.C. Testing reading comprehension skills. Paper presented at TESOL '88 Convention, Chicago, 1989.
  2. Fry T. Embracing Contraries: Explorations in Learning and Teaching. New York: Oxford University Press, 1963. – p. 12-19.
  3. Harmer Jeremy. How to Teach English. Addison Wesley: Longman, 1998. – p. 7390.
  4. Jordan R.R. English for Academic Purposes. A guide and resource book for teachers. Cambridge University Press, 1997. – p. 58-86.
  5. Омарова Г.Ж., Токтабаева Г.Р. Чтение как один из видов речевой деятельности. ИЯШ. 2007. № 3. с. 12-16.
Year: 2012
City: Oskemen
Category: Philology