Is extensive or intensive reading faster for vocabulary acquisition?

What’s the faster way to learn vocabulary:

  • Extensive reading (i.e. without dictionary look-ups)
  • Semi-intensive reading (i.e. with dictionary look-ups)
  • Intensive reading (i.e. with dictionary look-ups and access to sentence translation, as in Sentence Mode)

I’m interesting in hearing people’s opinions, experiences, and/or any related research papers they would like to reference.


In my experience, intensive reading was effective at the beginner stage and semi-intensive one at the intermediate.
Truly extensive reading had very small effect on my VA honestly. I mean, it somehow worked, but I’m not fully satisfied with how exactly it did. I promise to myself I won’t be over-inspired by the Toby’s @noxialisrex spreadsheets and the Peter Bormann’s tips anymore, because these guys can run head first through brick walls not even noticing them or lift cars, but I just don’t have the same mental bandwidth or something, I need zoning out more often.


I share @S.I view, including brick walls.

The fact is that, if I use LingQ is because I do intensive or semi-intensive reading (using your categories). Otherwise I read everywhere else BUT the result is not the same.

However, since when I can easily TTS or Whisper everything, I would say that I mostly do semi-intensive reading + listening.

Even more, I would say that sometimes I slow down a little bit so I can better focus on orthography and sentence structure.


In my opinion “intensive”…but for me this may be dependent on the difficulty of the text and/or a particular sentence. For example, I’m reading a book currently that does have unknown words and some particularly tricky phrasing. Some sentences I can read without looking up anything, some I need to look up just a word, others I may look at the sentence meaning, or a phrase. And often, this is just to keep my bearings in the story. i.e. I’m not spending huge amounts of time deciphering. In other words, your definition of Semi-intensive and intensive is virtually the same (timewise).

Extensive reading, I just don’t see as a great vocabulary acquisition tool…in the sense of learning brand new words. You can often derive the meaning from context, but in many cases you can’t, or can’t with the particular sentence you come across. I do believe you can solidify and help speed up comprehension of words you already know, which is valuable. Plus, it can be more “fun” to get along without having to look up anything as well. However my version of “intensive reading” I feel is just as “fun”. I have look ups, but these are quick, thanks to LingQ…and in sentence mode, I’m also just a click away from reading the full sentence meaning if coming across a particularly tricky spot, or if the use of a given word has some usage that doesn’t make literal sense (i.e. it is a colloquialism or colocation). You could do all this very fast…less intensive. On the less intensive side, I may look words up quickly and if a sentence is tricky use sentence mode just to stay with the story, but quickly move on. More intensive side, I may read the sentence, if I don’t understand the yellow words, I may look them up, and or the sentence meaning as a whole. Then I re-read the sentence trying to visualize the word and the new meanings I looked up.

I have no idea whether this “less intensive” approach might be quicker, or the “more intensive”.

The other “tricky” thing with extensive reading, it seems to me is finding n + 1 material. Yes, there are graded readers, but sometimes not…and some of the stories may not be all that interesting either. So does one sometimes end up choosing something that is really just “n” or “n-x”, and they don’t gain any new words. Or do they sometimes end up with “n + 2” or higher? On Lingq one can kind of judge it a little, except it would be easier if it also included yellow word percentage.

Enough rambling from me. Definitely interested to hear other’s experiences.


I always transition from intensive → extensive reading in the same session, and look to transition from intensive → extensive reading on the same material within a day or two.

One of my children and I just read an Aesop fable in Ancient Greek. First I read the Greek aloud and my child translated it to me. We addressed any grammatical and vocabulary issues as we went through. Then my child read the whole passage aloud without stopping. Tomorrow we will review that passage with extensive read alouds and work a new fable intensively. On a review read aloud I never obsess about fine points of semantic nuance so long as the subjective experience is: “I read that and basically understood it.”

If had to only read a passage once, and I was reading it for vocabulary acquisition I would absolutely use a dictionary. Lingq makes it so easy and comfortable to do. You hardly need to interrupt the flow of reading. Back when it was paper dictionaries and notes in the margins I could see the argument for finding material that was easy enough to avoid the hassle of dictionary look-ups, but it’s harder for me to understand why I shouldn’t use the tool now.


My understanding is that extensive reading is the technique by which most people acquire the bulk of their vocabulary in their native tongues. If you’re lucky you learn maybe a couple of thousand words before you start reading and from then on it most likely comes from extensive reading. The idea is that children ‘ladder up’ always reading at the ‘right’ level, by using age-appropriate material and graded readers.
I don’t think it’s particularly fast, but why the hurry anyways? Especially if your comprehension is around the recommended 98% you are able to enjoy the content and gain knowledge from it at the same time as you are expanding your vocabulary.

This technique has obviously been adopted for second language acquisition, but it might take many years of sustained intensive reading to reach a sufficient level to extensively read non-trivial texts in very difficult languages. So, using a dictionary is probably inevitable. But I personally never liked it, it’s rather distracting and requires definitely more attention than just being able to focus on the story or content.
Since the 98% comprehension target is so difficult to reach, it can be helpful to read a translation first, be it at the sentence, paragraph, chapter, or book level. Reading books you have read before in another language seems to be a typical polyglot technique, a popular favorite is the Harry Potter series.
Another advantage of using a translation is that it reduces the mental load, for me reading a work of literature in Chinese is ridiculously hard and I can only do it for maybe 20 minutes in a sitting. It’s not enjoyable at all and since I can only take it in such small doses I tend to loose the thread of the story. Skimming the translation of that lesson in Google translate instantly reveals the story and frees up some mental resources.
But, regarding the question of efficiency or speed - I don’t really know. I often feel there is no choice but to engage in intensive reading.


If you count audiobooks as reading (which I do), then extensive reading. Listening to audiobooks/extensive reading mainly serves as a way for me to review, reinforce and memorize vocabulary that I first encountered through intensive reading. It’s the fastest way for me to say that I’ve really learned new words.

As my listening ability has improved it’s gotten easier for me to pick up new words by just listening. But I find that those new words are not easy for me to use until I see them in writing later. So really, intensive and extensive complement one another.


Maybe I should give it yet another try, I haven’t read already known books. It could have worked better if I’d put more effort into finding the right materials.


Definitely, I would add this in a sort of semi-intensive fast reading. As I tend to scan through the text afterwards in search of those words that I don’t know yet.

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It feels as if the second reading of the same material without any look-ups perhaps shouldn’t be classified as ‘extensive reading’. Idk. It just seems very different than reading material the first time round with no look-ups.

My current thought is that this method of repetitions - once as intensive reading and a second one with minimal to no look-ups - is probably what would produce the highest vocabulary retention, as you are really getting in the repetitions you need to memorise the word.

I guess a similar method, if you simply can’t handle the repetition, would be to (semi-)intensively study the first book or two in a book series, then move to extensively read the later books (i.e. encounter the words for the first time with a dictionary in the first two books, then drill them into your memory with extensive reading/listening in the later books). And probably even better, as @bamboozled mentioned, would be to go for books you already know the story of (eg. previously read, read the Wikipedia plot summaries prior, or maybe watched the TV series). Or do the same with a podcast series or what have you.

I concur that it does seem to follow that you change which method you use as you get better. I, too, stopped using Sentence Mode/intensive reading a long time ago, as it just didn’t feel necessary. For Italian for me, it’s main use was getting used to basic sentence grammar and several particles. After that, for Italian anyways, it’s generally just single verbs/adjectives, which stops from understanding the sentence, which a simple dictionary definition is all you need. And then once you reach an advanced/upper advanced level, to put words in @bamboozled’s mouth, you probably don’t care so much about vocabulary acquistion, as you are enjoying the content, so extensive reading suffices.

The rush, as you mentioned, is to get to this point, where you can almost effortlessly engage with the language (at least have the necessary vocabulary to do so, in this case).

One thing I do notice from using doing extensive reading over the semi-intensive reading on LingQ is that I can simply cover a lot more quantity of material. On LingQ, as you get a list of non-so-great definitions, this usually ends up in me writing my own definitions, which takes a hell of a lot of time. With extensive reading, I don’t have to worry about all the time-waste that comes with the way LingQ manages definitions. If instead it was truly a one-click definition, that’s a different question, but the practical side of the matter, is that personally I compare extensive reading compared to (semi-)intensive reading on LingQ. But maybe that’s just a me-issue.


FWIW, I do not keep LingQ or my spreadsheet up-to-date much anymore. I do it in spurts to help keep myself accountable to my goals, but I am now mostly at a place where I live my life and not worry about obsessively tracking stats. I might still be reading books about 2 hours a day and getting hours of input a day :slight_smile:, but that is easy when you already “ran through the wall”.

I think I’d only be likely to get so rigid if I were to begin seriously learning a new non-Germanic language (likely Finnish or Northern Sámi).


Yup, you’re right. My second reads are, properly speaking, not “extensive.” Though maybe the third read / audiobook listen, which comes around a few months later is kinda “semi-extensive” in the same way that reading a book in your target language that you have already read in your native language is.

This is also a reason to choose material you are interested in. I recently used one of my first audiobooks for passive in-car listening time, and it was really enjoyable. Multiple exposures to the same work is such a part of my workflow that I tend to look for material I anticipate can bear repeated reads/listens.


So I just ran the numbers for what it’s like for me at my current level in Italian:

  • Extensive reading while listening to books @ 11,400 words per hour (190 wpm)
  • Extensive reading while listening to TV shows/movies i.e. with subtitles @ ~4,200 wph (~70 wpm)
  • Semi-intensive reading while listening to podcasts on LingQ @ 3,300 wph (55 wpm)

For these scenarios, I listen to the audiobook/podcast while reading at an appropriate increased speed, while the TV shows are at 1x. Furthermore, the semi-intensive reading on LingQ is with ~8-12% New Words.

The LingQ wph is so low because I write my own definitions on LingQ, which takes so long! This is because there are very few good definitions in the Community Definitions for mid-frequency to low-frequency words, sometimes only Google Translate & DeepL. The issue is that words can have multiple definitions and Google Translate & DeepL only show one definition. They also don’t specify the grammatical notes, which I look for.

If we are looking from this perspective, with my statistics, the semi-intensive reading on LingQ really needs to at least 3.5x as efficient as extensive reading! Is semi-intensive reading really this much more efficient at vocabulary acquisition? I don’t know, but this number is no small amount.

Perhaps it’s time for me to reconsider how I use LingQ. Maybe it’s time to turn on auto-linQing and settle for that clicking on a word in LingQ sometimes gives you an incorrect definition and few grammatic notes. Hmmm…

What are the wph/wpm that others achieve with LingQ? How do others deal with this issue of incorrect definitions on LingQ, when not writing their own definitions?

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I think you must keep the balance, even in learning. The more any of these might cause people bored of learning.

Still, what to do with the distinction between “just consumed” words and “at least got familiar with” words? The math isn’t obvious for me in this case.

But your numbers make me want to reconsider my own approach to vocabulary aquisition.

As the extensive readers suggest, reading through already familiar materials in one’s native language could be the best solution to get both meaning of new words from context and huge amount of repetition and still spend less time without this exhausting looking up routine.


Yeah, what I meant was that with extensive reading while listening I read 3.5x more words than semi-intensive reading while listening on LingQ, because I need to stop all the time to write definitions. This means that in order for my LingQ practice to be better for vocabulary acquisition, it needs to be 3.5x more efficient. I.e. that looking up the words in the dictionary is actually worth the slower reading speed.

But this is just my LingQ reading while listening speed. If you don’t have to pause the audio all the time to open up the dictionary and write a definition, your LingQ reading while listening speed would definitely be significantly higher. When you do your normal LingQ session tonight/tomorrow for 30 minutes or an hour or whatever you do, start a stopwatch beforehand. When you’ve finished your standard LingQ session, stop the stopwatch and look at how many words you just read, according to your LingQ stats. Then you can get what your words read per hour was. If you don’t write definitions or even pause the audio, you can get a very decent speed.

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My current thought is that this method of repetitions - once as intensive reading and a second one with minimal to no look-ups - is probably what would produce the highest vocabulary retention, as you are really getting in the repetitions you need to memorise the word.

I agreed with you. I read approximately 8 books in this fashion for the same reason you are talking about. Retention of new words through repetition.
I was able to do this way of reading because I could borrow physical books from library. Hence, I did my extentive reading through physical books after reading them on LingQ.
I tried reading a book within 24h time window. I retained more words because meanings of unknown words were still fresh at the back of my mind. However, with another book I delayed the time period to a week I ended up forgtting meanings of some of the words that were still fresh a week ago.
For me, If I am following this approach I will do extensive reading right away more so with a physical book of the same title. Reading speed is faster with a printed book.

Additionally, With all those bugs I do not think I can read the same book twice on LingQ without having a heart attack.
Forutnately, those 8 books had interesting plotlines. I am not sure if I can read a less interesting book twice. (only negative aspect. It is time consuming. I am not sure if I can do this with every book)

Once you are reaching near C1 in reading basically all you do is extensive reading plus a little bit semi reading. Definitely not intensive reading.

For extensive reading I pick up less complex text which is within my comprehension rate. Furthermore, if I read a book about “Artificial intelligence” I will try to read my next book of the same theme of a different author (this is what Stephen Krashen called Narrow reading).


I just did my daily reading of light fiction and I read at a rate of 6300 wph (105 wpm). I had to make a few edits on definitions, use the wiktionary pop-up two or three times, deal with one or two interruptions, and was always reading outloud (very quietly). I clicked into a few pre-existing un-studied lingqs just to make sure I had the sense right.

I don’t know what this sort of reading is. “Semi-extensive” maybe? I am reading while leaning on Lingq, but I’m not treating looking up words as “I have to grasp the entire semantic nuance.” I am reading as closely as possible to the way I read English, but using Lingq as a support when my subjective sense of understanding is below a certain threshold.

This is why I love Lingq.

EDIT: I just did another quick session, not reading out loud, of some non-fiction in an area I am interested in (philosophy of history). Even clicking a few words and editing a definition or two, I read at about 11,000 wph (183 wpm). I was vaguely sub-vocalizing internally. Could I have read this purely extensively, with no dictionary? Probably. But I still like the trade off Lingq makes available to me so I keep the training wheels on.


But you don’t necessarily know the word from context with the extensive reading. So, in that case it’s just gibberish and that “rep” has done nothing for the vocabulary acquisition at all. So you have to base the calculation off the percentage of times that the meaning is evident from context, which to me feels a lot less than 50% of the time…maybe even 5-10% or less. So then you may have to come back later and do some lookups which adds time…so you probably end up at your “semi-intensive” level anyway?


I mean, even without writing definitions, just looking up the words, is it worth it comparing to reading extensively a familiar material or graded readers?

Before I discovered LingQ there was a point at which I did the math for how many seconds I would spend in the long run constantly looking up in the traditional way like using a physical dictionary or digital ones. So I decided I need a tool that allows me to look up the words along the reading process.

Now reading the comments, I wonder that this approach at its very core is at least questionable in the same sense. How many seconds I spend on non-essential accuracy of dictionary definitions even using such tool as LingQ or something like that.

For example, I didn’t care to get formal vocabulary defenitions for each and every word of 100K+ in my NL, I guess I’ve read like less than 300 definitions in Russian, mostly technical terms, in my entire life.

So, why do I do it in English? It’s just a rhetorical question, I’m doing it because I read whatever I want, instead of reading what I’m ready for in terms of my level.

Not that I struggle so much through reading, I think I’m solid B2 or even C1 at this, but I insist to look up the words that I encounter even if I get the plot.