An ELT Glossary : Reading Strategies

Extensive and Intensive Reading

Extensive reading involves reading a text at normal speed to understand the contents without necessarily retaining all the details. It's the way we would normally read a novel, for example, or often an article in a magazine or newspaper, and is generally done for pleasure. After we've finished, we'll remember the general plot of the novel, but not necessarily particular facts - for example, if someone asked us "On p.64 Erica drove to the hospital. What colour was the car?" we're unlikely to remember unless the detail had been extremely important for the development of the plot.

Extensive reading contrasts with intensive reading, where we might read more slowly, go back and re-read sections, take notes etc. Intensive reading is the way you might read a textbook that you were studying for an exam for example. This time it is important that you not only understand the text in general but also retain the specific facts.  

Skimming, Gist Reading and Reading for Detail

An example of skimming might be looking through a newspaper. The reader would be likely to flick through the pages looking at the headlines and photos, and maybe quickly reading the opening paragraph of articles that look interesting. But only once s/he had decided that an article was definitely of interest or relevance would s/he start reading more intensively.

This, and the article in the last section, suggest that we often look at a text more than once and "read" it in different ways each time. If we are studying for example, the first time we might just skim read the text - ie look at the headings, glance rapidly at each section to identify key lexical items, look at illustrations and their captions, etc.  We might then go back to the beginning of the text and read for gist. This is very similar to extensive reading - reading at a fairly normal speed aiming to understand the main points but not necessarily retain the details. Finally, pencil in hand, we might go back to the beginning again and read through more slowly, this time reading for detail. As we read, we'd pause to think about the contents of the text, underline or highlight the points and details that we wanted to remember and /or take notes. 

Or would we? If we knew from the beginning that we needed to retain the information in the book, might we not read intensively, pencil in hand, from the beginning?

Scanning and Search Reading

There are times though when the text as a whole doesn't interest us at all - we just want to find one particular piece of information. 

Scan reading involves rapidly running the eye over the text, searching for a specific word or phrase that the text is known to contain. For example,  if I've collected some seeds from a marigold flower that has been growing in my garden, and want to know when and how to plant them, I might get one of my gardening books and turn to the index. I'd probably go to about the middle page of the index (because "m" is in the middle of the alphabet) and first run my eye up and down the list for the words starting with "m". I'd then run my eye up to the top of the "m" words (because the next letter is "a") and run my eye over those words till I found "marigolds". If there were sub-headings I'd then run my eyes down those till I found the word "sowing" and the page number. If not, I'd turn to the marigold page, and run my eyes over the text for the same word. Only then, when I'd found it, would I switch to another type of reading strategy.

Search reading, on the other hand,  involves looking through the text to find specific information, without necessarily knowing the exact words that will be used to describe it. For example if I am reading an article on the life of a famous person, the question in my mind might be "I wonder how/why he died?" I'd therefore skim through the article, almost ignoring most of it, until I found the section on his death, when I'd slow down and start to read more intensively.

What was your purpose in reading this article? Which of the strategies did you employ and, if more than one, in which order? How did your purpose in reading affect the strategies you chose? Think about these questions not only for this text but also anything else you've read today.

Recommended Reading

Wallace, C. (1992) Reading, Oxford University Press