I is for Intensive Reading

Ken Beatty 1Dr. Ken Beatty

Many teachers cringe at their early memories of learning a language through the teacher-centered grammar-translation method. Rule driven, with a focus on accuracy over fluency, it’s the oldest formal methodology, dating back to the teaching of Latin in the 1500s. Over the centuries, other languages were taught in the same way, and when the first modern language textbooks appeared in the 19th century, they tended to use the grammar translation method as well. Internationally, it continues to be popular in many countries, in part because teachers, unless trained otherwise, tend to teach the way they were taught.

In the 20th century, dissatisfaction with the grammar-translation method saw the rise of many competing approaches through the 1960s. Since then, teachers have increasingly embraced variations of the learner-centered communicative approach or use a mixed methods approach, distilling the best ideas and features of different approaches and methods to find those that best meet their learners’ needs. One aspect of the grammar-translation method that lives on in modern classrooms is intensive reading.

Intensive reading is contrasted with extensive reading. In intensive reading, the focus is on a deep understanding of the text, which is usually pitched at a level that is slightly challenging for the learner. The intensive reading passage might be challenging in one or more ways. The vocabulary might be new, and/or the sentence structures and grammar might be advanced for the learners’ level. The subtleties of the text might be such that the learner needs to use considerable inference skills to decode what a paragraph, article, or story is about. The focus might be on genre, for example, understanding how a lab report differs from an essay or a short story.

Intensive reading focuses on shorter passages and is teacher-centered in the sense that teachers, for pedagogical purposes, select what they feel the learners should read. The teacher (or sometimes the textbook) carefully chooses a text that narrows the focus of what learners should be acquiring in terms of vocabulary, comprehension, or even strategies that will make it easier to read similar texts in future.

Assuming you are not fluent in Latin, look at the following paragraph and reflect on how much you understand.

Eodem die ab exploratoribus certior factus hostes sub monte consedisse milia passuum ab ipsius castris octo, qualis esset natura montis et qualis in circuitu ascensus qui cognoscerent misit. Renuntiatum est facilem esse. De tertia vigilia T. Labienum, legatum pro praetore, cum duabus legionibus et iis ducibus qui iter cognoverant summum iugum montis ascendere iubet; quid sui consilii sit ostendit. Ipse de quarta vigilia eodem itinere quo hostes ierant ad eos contendit equitatumque omnem ante se mittit.

No, really. Read it. I know you just skimmed it or skipped it altogether. Seriously, go back and have a careful look at the paragraph, reading it aloud. Even if you don’t read or speak Latin, there should still be several things that you understand.

Eodem die abexploratoribus certior factus hostes sub monte consedisse milia passuum ab ipsius castris octo, qualis esset natura montis et qualis in circuitu ascensus qui cognoscerent misit. Renuntiatum est facilem esse. De tertia vigilia T. Labienum, legatum pro praetore, cum duabus legionibus et iis ducibus qui iter cognoverant summum iugum montis ascendere iubet; quid sui consilii sit ostendit. Ipse de quarta vigilia eodem itinere quo hostes ierant ad eos contendit equitatumque omnem ante se mittit.

The paragraph consists of 76 words. Of those, ab, de, eodem, et, hostes, montis, qualis, qui, and vigilia are each used twice. You know that these are either function words, connecting more important content verbs and nouns in some ways, or perhaps some are important content words.

This Latin paragraph was written in 58 BCE by the Roman statesman, Julius Caesar (100–44 BCE). If you studied Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in school, you likely remember just one line, Caesar’s shock at the betrayal of seeing one of his friends among his assassins. He asks, “Et tu, Brute?” (And you, Brutus?), so you know et means and. Others among these repeated words look familiar because they seem similar to English words. Montis looks similar to mountain, as does another word used in the passage, monte. Perhaps one or the other is the plural? Close. Actually, monte is mountain, but montis means mountaintop.

Vigilia sounds like vigil or vigilant, and that’s the correct translation in English. However, although hostes looks like the English word host, it actually means enemies. This is an example of a false friend, from the longer French expression, faux amis du traducteur: false friends of the translator or, in proper linguistic terminology, a false cognate.

There are other words that seem to be related, ascendere/ascensus, esse/esset/est, ipse/ipsius, which might lead you to believe that they are conjugations of verbs. Yes, and no. Ascendere/ascensus and esse/esset/est refer to the verbs to ascend and to be, but ipse/ipsius are forms of himself.

There are many other things you might have noticed such as common suffixes like ante, pro, and sub. Punctuation and even spaces between words and lowercase letters were all developed long after this passage was written, but the modern rendition of the paragraph is structured in sentences with punctuation for modern readers. There are no exclamation marks or question marks, so the genre seems more like a story or an explanation. Nor are there quotation marks, so there doesn’t seem to be any dialog written as direct speech. The capitalization conventions follow those for the first letter of a sentence, with one exception: T. Labienum, which you might presume to be the name of a person. You’d be right: it refers to Caesar’s lieutenant, Titus Labienus.

By now you are thinking of other words and linguistic features in the passage that mean something to you. Among learners, this natural and typical curiosity is the beginning of strategy development, ensuring that they become more aware and self-directed in their learning. But intensive reading is seldom so open-ended. Instead, teachers select a passage to highlight particular features and ensure learners acquire them through tasks that force them to pay particular attention.

But although intensive reading can be used to focus attention on a particular language feature or features, its main purpose is to better prepare learners to read other texts on their own, either intensively using the same strategies or more extensively. Extensive reading tends to be more learner-centered, with the learner usually choosing the materials to be read on the basis of personal enjoyment or perhaps the material’s relationship to other studies. Tasks associated with extensive reading are often more difficult, forcing learners to think more broadly about ideas and issues.

As a ratio, teachers tend to spend up to 15 percent of class time reading instruction on intensive reading, particularly if the aim is to quickly increase vocabulary, with the balance on extensive reading. A danger of intensive reading is that students sometimes become addicted to reading at a slow pace instead of learning to read for gist.

With a teacher’s guidance, the extensive reading should build on the vocabulary and structures covered in the intensive reading. But the aim should always be to better prepare learners for reading beyond the classroom. As Seneca (4 BCE–65 CE) says, “Non scholae sed vitae discimus.”

We do not learn for school, but for life.

Tasks for Teachers
1.     Here’s an 1869 English translation of the Latin passage that would have been used with the grammar-translation method. It’s unlikely that you had a credible understanding of the passage based on the few words and features you recognized, but compare what you imagined the Latin text was about to the English translation. What in your intensive reading helped you understand portions of it? What did not?

Being on the same day informed by his scouts, that the enemy had encamped at the foot of a mountain eight miles from his own camp; he sent persons to ascertain what the nature of the mountain was, and of what kind the ascent on every side. Word was brought back, that it was easy. During the third watch he orders Titus Labienus, his lieutenant with praetorian powers, to ascend to the highest ridge of the mountain with two legions, and with those as guides who had examined the road; he explains what his plan is. He himself during the fourth watch, hastens to them by the same route by which the enemy had gone, and sends on all the cavalry before him.

2.     Look at the passage again. What features would make it a poor choice for an intensive learning passage in English? For example, there is unusual sentence constructions and punctuation. What are three criteria you would use to choose a paragraph, article, or story for your own learners?

Tasks for Learners
1.     Choose one paragraph from a textbook or a novel. Consider content words and function words. Content words include nouns, adjectives, adverbs, negatives (like no or not), question words, and verbs except helping verbs like forms of be, can, do, and have. Function words include articles, conjunctions, prepositions, and pronouns. Look at your paragraph. Is it easier to understand the paragraph looking at the function words or the content words? Why?

2.     Find a longer passage and look for a new word that is repeated several times. Look at the surrounding words. Does the meaning stay the same or change according to the words around it? How do the surrounding words help you understand the word you’ve chosen?

Caesar, J. (58 BC). Gallic Wars, Book 1, in W.A. McDevitte & W.S. Bohn (trans. 1869) The works of Julius Caesar. Retrieved from: http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/jcsr/dbg1.htm
Dr. Ken Beatty, TESOL Professor at Anaheim University in California, has also worked in Asia, Canada, and the Middle East, and lectures widely on language teaching and learning from the elementary through university levels. He has given 200+ teacher-training sessions in 25 countries and is author of 130+ textbooks, including books in the Pearson series Learning English for Academic Purposes (LEAP).




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