My Thoughts on Extensive Reading

Please check this link for all information on extensive reading. 

It’s funny that I posted a quick thingy about reading manga recently, and how I was avoiding words I didn’t know and just focusing on “the gist” of what I was reading. As I said in a previous post, I don’t want to study in a vacuum anymore, and I’m taking a little bit of time each day to read through other people’s blogs. Trust me, doing this has helped me quite a bit with seeing better ways to use my time, find better methods to feel “successful” and so on.

Success in any language is having 100% comprehension ( or damn near 100% comprehension ) of what you are reading. Now what affects a lot of language learners might not be their method, but the content they choose to read and absorb, which may mirror a supposed lack of success in what they are doing. 

The idea of extensive reading based on their casework, says that when students read about one million words in a language, native or otherwise, their comprehension of grammar, retention of verbs and phrases increases at a very high rate. The idea is comprehensible exposure that ensure success by reading at a level significantly lower that your ability to process. So let’s say I “can” read manga that might be on the intermediate side with some effort and a dictionary in hand, that process (for now) might be slow and mentally taxing. But if I read something that I can 90-100% comprehend without the need to look up words, then I am in the process of massive exposure and ensures the occurrence one important thing:

You will be  PWNING Japanese.

I’m not sure who reads this blog, but pWning anything in Japanese is a great feeling, whether its reading a children’s story, being able to navigate the menus of a video game, or watch an entire episode of something (without English subtitles) and follow what’s going on.

I say this because, just now I read three short stories.

赤い鬼と青い鬼、鶴の恩返、桃太郎。I’m hoping the names are correct, but it was three kids stories that weren’t too bad reading-wise and had a LOT of Kanji. First things first. I tried reading story three “Momataro” which is the famous the Boy & the peach story, earlier this year. I remember getting stuck, frustrated and even upset by my lack of ability to deal with the basic Kanji in that story. Fast forward to the present, and I could read most of the story without much difficulty. But the important thing, is that I noticed the following:

All three stories had similar words which were used quite often. 

Words like 素晴らしい(すばらしい-surprising)and 逃げる (にげる -escape)came up a lot. I also “got” a lot of grammar better because I wasn’t stopping to focus on looking up words. Of course there were tons of words I didn’t know, but I used trust old Rikaichan to look them up, and keep going. I’m also starting to really understand the structure of Japanese stories, and how people are quoted when speaking.

I happened to really try and find out about this whole reading thing based on a competition I saw called the “Tadoku” challenge, where people read as much Japanese as possible in a given time period ( a week to a month), and the results are posted on a website. Once I get more information about that, I’ll post a blog on it, and my findings if I enter. But what will become obvious is that, if you read tons of Japanese, you must get better at it, so little competitions or stuff like “extensive reading” only make sense.

What’s the catch? 

I’m not going to be following this exactly as the author of this blog/idea has been reading Japanese stories WITHOUT using a dictionary, learning in context by reading similar stories over and over and getting certain key words through sheer exposure. Now i’m all for exposure, but I don’t particularly like reading too many words i don’t know, which I feel can defeat the purpose of context entirely. Sure I can read a kid’s book with pictures and what not, but if i don’t know what is going on, i’m going to probably be just as frustrated as the guy with dictionary in hand slowly going through his favourite Manga. What I like about this concept is something i’ve thought of before personally, (reading easy stories in high quantities) but never implemented. What’s funny is that I did this almost two years ago pre-massive culture shock and subsequent disillusion with Nippon. I tried reading Kid’s stories and guess what? I couldn’t read anything! The Kanji was too much for me back then, even the grammatical patterns and so on. I am only able to even attempt “extensive reading” because of two main things:

1. Finished the Heisig method

2. Had a few thousand of hours of exposure to Japanese listening

So can I say this would be highly beneficial to someone fresh to learning the language? I think it would depend on your level of patience as an adult and so on. But seriously, I couln’t even imagine attempting this a few months back.

But It Wasn’t Always Like This

I have to add this part because I certainly didn’t have the patience or belief to really do certain things. For one, I HATED the idea of reading children’s stories a year ago. I couldn’t stomach reading about crabs having arguments about living with bears. I knew that Children’s stories were “easier” in a sense, but I didn’t have the attention span to handle it. Now because I can read through a few per day, I can see that it will only help me get to reading Manga (which is ultimately more interesting with the caveat of being harder to read initially) regularly faster.

So that site I posted up top has tons of links to literally, hundreds of children’s stories, which should equal easy, extensive reading.

As a kid, I had a pretty high reading level because I didn’t read the little kids books, I had several volumes of unabridged children’s stories which I read and re-read constantly. So I was reading about little mermaid being mute and turning into foam while everyone was gleefully thinking she got married and lived happily ever after. So I KNOW extensive reading can work, but i’m thinking i’ll have to tweak an aspect of it based on what i’m doing.

Tweak, Tweak

This isn’t really a tweak per se, i’m just not going to adopt extensive reading as my ONLY exposure to Japanese. That would set me back horribly, especially since I’ve been spending loads of time studying harder words in sentences in context, words that i’ve seen popup a few times in my brief reading binge of Slam Dunk anime, even the little kids stories. That said, I can see that reading through some easy stories is a good “pad up some Japanese” under my current system.

One Million Words

So hitting one million words apparently can be done in six months to two years depending on what sort of student you are. (I certainly dont’ want to take forever : p ) This roughly equates to 250 books, 500 manga or however you want to calculate it. I am still learning new words and vocabulary, so reading through easy stories for now and occassional manga I feel are good working points. This website I found has about 40 kids stories. Once I read those, I’ll try and find some more, and pick a solid set of manga to read.

I am just praying I dont’ get bored with kids stories, but based on the article posted at the top there are tons of resources for reading. So for now, my goal is to read say, 100-150 kids stories and 100-150 manga. That should put me at a reasonable reading level. It took me about fifteen minutes per story to read the kid’s books, so I’m guessing I can knock out all the stories in a week, then report. I’m already seeing the value of just three stories, as I was reading some Japanese just now and saw 沢山 (takusan – many)  which I read in one of the kids stories just now.

Lingering Question

I know the author wrote about this being a good form of vocabularly acquisition, but I’m wondering what this means for grammar? I’m at the stage now where I can hear and read what is being said in Japanese and understand most of the time what is going on, but on occassion a lot of the grammatical patterns make no sense to me. If someone is “extensively reading” grammar they don’t understand is that beneficial? Then again, i’m assuming a person would extensively read without learning basic grammar, which makes no sense. But that’s the only thing that popped up into my head.

Think i’ll be hopping on the Tadoku wago and trying to amp up my reading and exposure. Or just get discouraged and forget about it.


*p.s* I’m finished with Step 3 of the Core2000, about to start Step 4! In another few days I should be at my first 1000 sentences and by proxy, exposed to my first thousand words : D


About marcusbird

Writer, Designer, Filmmaker
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4 Responses to My Thoughts on Extensive Reading

  1. Lian says:

    This is great, I’m really glad extensive reading seems to have struck a chord in you ^^ The tadoku contest was fun, and I hope you’ll join in next time!

    About extensive reading and grammar, it’s a good question — I can only say for sure what my own experience has been, of course, and I learned Japanese in college, in a formal classroom setting, so I knew most basic grammar before I did much reading, extensive or otherwise. Still, there are quite a few grammar patterns I didn’t know before I started extensive reading that I’ve learned without having to go look for a formal explanation, because I’ve seen then so often and picked up on the context they were part of. I’ve also had the experience of reading, reading, reading and then going back to my grammar book and understanding a particular point much better. (This was before extensive reading for me, but it’s an example: I did not get the purpose or usage of the passive form just from the textbook, my poor teacher tried so hard to explain it to me but it was hopeless ^^;; I didn’t understand at all until I saw verbs in the passive form over and over in authentic Japanese.) It’s part of why I like extensive reading in general: if you’re reading something that’s far over your level, an unfamiliar grammar form plus all sorts of words you don’t know in the middle of other complicated sentences can really throw you, but if there’s just one part you don’t understand, it’s easier to make a guess at what it means, whether that’s grammar or vocabulary, or read it, realize you don’t understand it and skip it and wait to see if it comes up again.

    But you have to keep in mind that I considered myself at a low-intermediate level when I started extensive reading, and that I was at least familiar with most basic grammar structures; I think that extensive reading with authentic material would be pretty hard for someone who was just starting out, since Japanese kids’ books are designed for an audience that’s been steeped in grammar for a while. I don’t think it’d take too long, relatively speaking, to get up to speed: when I think about the textbooks I used, which were the Genki series and an intermediate textbook by the same publisher, most grammar I’ve seen in kids’ books was contained in the first two books, and after that point the major barrier is vocabulary.

    Reading without a dictionary took me months to even try, because I’m like you — I don’t like not knowing what I’m reading, not one bit ^^;; My Japanese friends who do tadoku kept recommending it and I was kind of like “It can’t be that important, can it?” But it is, it turns out! It took me about three months to get used to it completely and to develop the skill of being able to understand things just from context nearly immediately, but even from the beginning I was surprised at how much I still understood, and how much smoother it felt to read without interrupting myself. Read at your own pace and do what helps you enjoy it, but sometime, give a couple of stories a try without checking any English definitions — you can always look up things right after you’re done!

    Good luck and happy reading ^^

  2. Liana says:

    I guess you have to ask yourself, should I take advice of any sort from someone who can’t even spell her own name right? ^^;; I’m a little under the weather right now, is my excuse ^^

  3. John says:

    “I’ve also had the experience of reading, reading, reading and then going back to my grammar book and understanding a particular point much better. ”

    This is something I’ve found myself. If I go find the “grammar” AFTER I’ve already encountered a construction a few times and can *mostly* understand it from context, then it sticks a lot better. It’s like, “ahh, okay, now I get it”.

    • marcusbird says:

      yes exactly! For some this might seem counterproductive, but it’s essentially how we learn more complex grammar say, as a kid reading an adult novel. You might hit and expression a few times that you “sort of ” get in context, and then you check with someone or look up what it could be and then it makes perfect sense. I have yet to give solid observations on “seeing a pattern without knowing it and looking it up later” but I definitely agree that it is possible.

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