Saturday, June 15, 2013

The power of extensive reading in L2

One technique of learning a second language is extensive reading. It's been known for some time that it can create gains in language knowledge. And if anecdote is the singular of data, that's been my experience. One of the problems with extensive reading is that researchers didn't have much notion about how effective it was in terms of learning vocabulary. Enter Marlise Horst and her measurement study.

Her aim in 2005 was to find two things. 1. How effective is ER—that's so much shorter than extensive reading—for learning new words? 2. How can we test that learning?

I'm going to assume that you're not interested in the second part. Testing is its own thing, and I'm going to figure that most people are more interested in learning vocabulary anyway. I'm interested in ER for the simple reason that dead languages aren't learned by actual interaction with a speech community they way you can do with Tamil or Dutch. So ER is the way, so to speak.

Well, the answer is good news. Despite some problems in the study, all of which Horst acknowledged, there is good lexical growth going on with ER. However, I should add a caveat: the students in the project were not rank beginners. They had a good, though not perfect, grasp on the 2,000 most frequent words in English. And while she only shows that students picked up about 10 or 11 low-frequency words in her testing, they assuredly learned more.

So in practical terms, if you want to learn more vocabulary, you need to read and read widely. Why? There are claims—and I've got no reason to doubt it—that spoken language is much more heavily reliant on high-frequency words (though I think Nation has suggested that the top 5,000 to 7000 are needed for a broad-use spoken vocabulary but the point stands). The upshot is that the only way you'll get exposed to these less-frequent words is to read.