LRC Week 5 – 20 minutes/day, Why Your Reading Habit Works

Indwelling LanguageThis week I’m very pleased to feature a guest post by Justin Slocum Bailey of Indwelling Language. If you don’t already follow Justin, I recommend you do so. He combines years of language teaching and learning, grounded in research and best practices, with a practical and easy-going attitude, to promote community and shared personal/professional growth.

Read Latin for 20 minutes each day.

Congratulations on making it to Week 5 of the Latin Reading Challenge! It’s been exciting and inspiring to see the tweets about your successes.

If you are participating in the Latin Reading Challenge (LRC), you’ve probably already noticed increases in your speed and understanding. It’s not surprising that reading would make you better at reading. But did you know that there are well-researched reasons for the effectiveness of the particular reading practice called Extensive Reading? (Extensive Reading is what you are doing in the LRC: frequent, continuous reading that is easy enough to understand without your having to puzzle over the language.)

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of studies published in the last twenty years either reporting the effectiveness of Extensive Reading when compared to explicit study or presenting linguistic and statistical arguments for making Extensive Reading a major part of any language-learning journey. You don’t need to know about the research, let alone the details of studies, to experience the benefits of Extensive Reading. But some of you like to know not just that something works, but also how and why. Others of you may find the research useful for explaining your own reading habits and, if you are a teacher, those you support in your students. Finally, these conclusions will be useful to you in your further selection of texts and development of habits. So, here are some of the biggest take-home points from the research, along with several resources for those who want to look more deeply into Extensive Reading.

1. Context matters.

Explicit study of words and forms would be an efficient language-learning practice if knowing a language consisted of being able to map individual words or forms to meanings. But, as Rob Waring points out in “The Inescapable Case for Extensive Reading,” “to really know a word well, learners need to know not only meanings and spellings, but the nuances of its meanings, its register, whether it is more commonly used for speaking or writing, which discourse categories it is usually found in, as well as its collocations and colligations [definitions below*], among many other things.” This is far too much to teach or learn intentionally for every word. The only way to internalize these things is through “massive exposure” to continuous text, which brings us to the next point.

2. Volume matters.

In order actually to internalize all these things, one needs to encounter and understand a huge volume of language–at least several thousand words a week–because otherwise one doesn’t (a) meet enough instances of any given word to internalize its collocations and other features, or (b) meet enough instances of different words that constitute the common written vocabulary of a language. The language samples in textbooks–and all language in textbooks, no matter how frequent or authentic, constitutes “samples” of the language–just aren’t enough. (A conservative estimate by Waring, based on statistical study of word frequencies, suggests that, in order to read everyday texts [articles, emails, books, etc.] by native speakers of English without having to “study” the text to decipher its basic meaning, a learner of English needs to have internalized at least 5000 word families [use, used, misuse, overuse, useless, etc., are all members of one word family]. Some estimates for English are higher; the required number is a bit lower for many other languages.)

3. Speed matters.

If you’re going to read as much text as is necessary for internalization of words and word-relationships, and to experience the benefits of incidental vocabulary learning, you need to read fast, or you simply won’t have time to meet enough input. The Extensive Reading Foundation suggests a target reading speed of “150-200 words per minute or a little lower for beginning students” (Guide To Extensive Reading, p. 2).

4. Easiness matters.

And, of course, if you are going to read that fast, the text needs to be easy enough for you to understand without stopping to puzzle over a sentence or look up a word. You don’t want to do either of those things because (a) they distract you from the overall point or plot of a text, which makes the rest of the text more difficult to understand, and (b) again, they keep you from having time to meet the volume of text you need. A common estimate is that, for a text to be suitable for Extensive Reading, the text should be 96-98% comprehensible when read at full speed, without assistance from another person or from resources such as dictionaries, grammar charts, etc. This means that the syntax should be almost transparent and there should be only 1-2 unknown words in every 50. (It’s fine for there to be many words that have not already been “learned,” but whose meaning is clear from context.) Important to note here is that all textbooks and graded readers present too little text at any given level before increasing the difficulty.

5. Interest matters

If you’re going to do that much reading, you’ll enjoy your life much more if it’s about something that interests you! Also, you’re more likely to bother reading in the first place if it’s about something interesting. Personally, I like to have several books going at a time, so that the chances of my feeling like reading a particular one at any given time stay high.

It can be hard to find texts that are long enough, easy enough, and interesting enough, especially at the lower levels, but I don’t mind joining the researchers in saying starkly that any attempt to become a proficient reader of Latin or any other language without Extensive Reading is unlikely to succeed. Many of us are working on sharing ideas about both texts and reading habits. I encourage you to connect with other learners and teachers through social media and through organizations that understand and support the practices necessary for becoming a proficient, joyful Latin reader, such as the Paideia Institute and SALVI (Septentrionale Americanum Latinitatis Vivae Institutum–North American Institute for Living Latin Studies).

Happy Reading!

Further resources:


Collocations: words with which a word is commonly found, e.g., “to brew coffee,” “strong coffee,” “coffee shop.” Although one could express basically the same things with “to cook coffee,” “powerful coffee,” and “coffee store,” these phrases sounds unnatural to an English speaker in a coffee-drinking culture.

Colligations: word classes with which a word or phrase is commonly found. E.g., the phrase “true feelings” is almost always preceded by a possessive noun, pronoun, or adjective: “my true feelings,” “her true feelings,” “Jacob’s true feelings.”

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