7 Mistakes about Extensive Reading

7 Mistakes about Extensive Reading

It’s no secret that I’m an advocate for extensive reading and I love talking about it everywhere I go. I also get a lot of questions and some skepticism. Sometimes I feel like a broken record addressing similar questions. In that light, I present to you seven (7) of the most common mistakes people make about extensive reading.

1. “Intensive reading is pretty much the same as extensive reading.”

not-equal-300x300BIG difference. Extensive Reading is reading at around 98% comprehension while Intensive Reading is between 90% and 98% comprehension, also known as “Study Reading.” Just a few percentage points don’t make a big difference, do they? Yes, they do! This can be the difference between stopping to look up a character every sentence versus every paragraph. Less frequent stopping means you are able to read more words in a shorter period of time. Reading more words accelerates your progress towards fluency.

I would also caution that even with the amount of technology available today allowing us to quickly look up a character with the simple touch of a finger, research has shown that there are better learning outcomes reading at higher levels of comprehension and too frequent use of dictionaries built into electronic devices can become a “crippling crutch.”

2. “Studying is more effective than reading.”

Conventional wisdom assumes that unless we are studying, we are not learning, or that teaching equals learning. However, this no different than assuming because you have a treadmill in your house you are losing weight.

We can distinguish between two types of learning: 1) Studying about language and 2) learning to use language. Most time spent in classes, textbooks, and sample sentences is studying about the language (vocab words, grammar, structure, usage, etc.). Reading books and conversing in the language is learning to use the language. While both are important, you will never ever become fluent without learning to use the language. Because few have the luxury or circumstances to live among native speakers of Chinese, reading in the language is the next best thing to build fluency.

3. “Children’s books are just as good as graded readers.”

the_very_hungry_caterpillarChildren’s books are written for native speaking children who already understand the language. Kid’s books are often filled with words and characters that a Chinese learner will never encounter unless they reach advanced levels or are frequently among Chinese speaking kids. For example, here are just a few characters and words from the Chinese translation of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”《好饿的毛毛虫》.

蝴蝶 – butterfly
– tender, soft
– to drill, dig into
– a chunk or length
– to salt, pickle
– a cocoon
– (onomatopoeia) pop

Of these, [蝴蝶, ] are at an HSK 5 level, [, ] are at an HSK 6 level, and [, , ] are non-HSK characters.

Barring unusual circumstances, it is difficult to see how these characters are important for any elementary or intermediate learner to study over more commonly used characters. Taking the time to learn these characters is less effective towards building fluency and functionality in Chinese. I can assure you that with just about any Chinese kids book you pickup, you’ll encounter similar obstacles. Kids books in Chinese are simply not suitable for you because they are not written for you!

4. “Quizzes and comprehension checks are important.”

Extensive Reading experts largely discourage testing and quizzes on the reading for a few reasons. Every minute spent completing a test or quiz is a minute the learner is not reading. Many teachers have noted that quizzes and tests in books used for Extensive Reading tend to de-motivate the reader and takes the pleasure out of the entire experience. Instead, many teachers turn the books into a tool for class discussion. Imagine how much more interesting it is to have a discussion in Chinese on how 李叶 (Mary Lennox) from “The Secret Garden” changes as she brings the secret garden back to life. You are guaranteed to get much more out of this than any comprehension check.

5. “I don’t have time to read. I have to pass this Chinese test.”

Don't be this guy. Please.

Don’t be this guy. Please.

Students who read in the language they are studying significantly do better on tests than students who do not. I don’t make this stuff up, check out only two of the studies, just for fun:

Study found reading in Spanish was a better predictor of Spanish competence but length of living in a Spanish-speaking country, formal study, and studying was not.

Ninth graders in Japan raised their English test scores comparable to students two years their senior through extensive reading.

6. “I need to read more difficult material to learn anything.”

Conventional wisdom states that in order to learn anything, there must be a lot of unknown words in the text that we have to learn. This results in selecting texts that can be much too difficult, sometimes tackling articles and books where you understand as little as 10% of the words. Regardless of what you read somewhere online or what a friend told you, this is not an effective method. You’ll do better with easier stuff!

7. “I need pinyin above the characters in order to read.”


Try to ONLY read the characters. How did that go?

Truth be told, this is perhaps the most “crippling crutch” of all. This method is largely a result of traditional Chinese education where students are taught to read characters FIRST and pinyin second. For us who can read any language that uses the alphabet, pinyin above characters is an immense distraction. It’s something that you just can’t un-see. The pinyin acts like a siren’s song pulling our gaze towards its warm familiarity and away from the rocky characters of which many a student has wrecked their penmen-ship. The only thing worse than this is having the English below it. If you really need the pinyin to get through it, then it’s probably above your level anyway and you should be reading something easier. If you can speak some Chinese but can’t read any characters, it’s easier to get by with only pinyin at the start but you’ll hamstring your learning in the long term.

Extensive Reading is a very simple concept and the closer we can adhere to the core principles, the more likely we are to experience the results that ER can bring. Happy reading!


  • Larry Lynch Posted March 6, 2014 1:10 am

    I couldn’t agree more about not displaying Pinyin above or below the characters and about the power of graded readers. I’ve been struggling with college-level texts like Integrated Chinese and New Practical Chinese Reader (which is in no way a “reader”). While both are good introductions to the language – and probably necessary to get started – I prefer IC because it displays characters, Pinyin, & translation on separate pages. NPCR also has the bizarre practice in later levels of omitting Pinyin but placing the diacritical marks alone over the characters – talk about distracting! I am currently and happily reading the adaptation of Sherlock Holmes and the Red-Headed League in the Mandarin Companion Series.

  • sarah Posted March 31, 2014 8:17 pm

    Absolutely agree! I do read Chinese children’s books and I always hide the pinyin but as the article says, many of the words are not really necessary vocabulary. Now my reading’s a bit better, I don’t worry about understanding every character, I aim to understand each page in general and if I can do that without pinyin I’m quite happy. Reading highlights features in the language that you may otherwise not be aware of, and it’s so satisfying to have read a book written entirely in characters!

  • Carly Posted January 29, 2015 5:02 am

    I agree with not having pinyin above the characters, but I find that for characters I’m not really familiar with, it can be difficult to remember the tone, so I sometimes end up hearing it wrong in my head and reinforcing the wrong tone. It would be nice if books for learners were colour coded, with characters having a different colour for each tone.

  • Dave Posted February 5, 2015 3:12 am

    When I was in high school, there was a German primer that started out with tons of cognates. It wasn’t part of the curriculum, but I picked it up for fun.

    Reading it, along with what classroom experience I had, (and my teacher was a real bore) made it fun to work through the primer. I went from simple sentences to simple narratives over time. It was fun and didn’t seem like work at all.

    Don’t have the luxury of leaning on the cognate crutch in Chinese, but have enjoyed reading 秘密花园。 Look forward to reading more and hope that the level of readers extends past even level 2!

  • Mark Posted March 22, 2015 7:36 pm

    #7 is the primary reason I strongly preferred reading children’s books published in Taiwan. Zhuyin (ㄅㄆㄇㄈ) written beside characters just doesn’t pull the eyes away characters like pinyin does. Example: https://abookflog.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/story1.jpg

    If you need to know how to pronounce the word, the information is there but it doesn’t jump out at you if you don’t.

    • Alisa Posted December 26, 2019 10:40 pm

      This is why I chose traditional chinese for my kids to learn. And zhuyin can be found up to levels like beginner chapter books whereas pinyin is only in young kid’s books. Also learning zhuyin helps pronunciation.

  • Lily Posted July 5, 2015 12:34 pm

    I can’t find simplified character version of The Country of the Blind on Amazon.

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