How to Learn More Vocabulary with Narrow Reading

Narrow reading and language learning: winning combo

Author and founder

You have probably heard that in order to expand your vocabulary in a foreign language you have to read a lot. You might have even tried reading stuff in your target language… just to realize that your vocabulary is not very expandable this way. Yup. Reading random things doesn’t really work.

But, hey, don’t get distraught. There’s indeed a way to do both things: read in your L2, pump up your word counts and even have fun while doing so. How?

Well, you want to try narrow reading.

What the hell is narrow reading?

Another weird piece of inexhaustive linguistic terminology… I know, sorry.

Nevertheless, the idea behind narrow reading is not that complicated. Basically, instead of trying to read everything that looks like written in your target language you’re narrowing your choice down to one genre, one topic or even one author. Oh, and wait for it… it still must be in a language you’re learning.

It will be very different from the typical extensive reading “for fun” that is usually prescribed to all language learners. Prescribed, since it’s believed that reading extensively on a wide range of topics allows you to get exposed to as much new vocabulary as possible. And, yup, you do meet a lot of new words. But… when the game is about vocabulary only this reading turns into the “exercise of deliberate decoding” as Stephen Krashen puts it. I’m sure you know this feeling: crawling from line to line and checking every second word in a dictionary, no?

Well, that’s a hell of fun.

Narrow reading helps to break the link between language learning and decoding?

The reality is that this kind of “reading for vocabulary gains” simply doesn’t work. Your brain won’t even bother to remember a word you’ve just checked and written down. You may come to the next paragraph, see this word again and still have no idea what on the earth it can signify. And research actually has bad news for you here: you need to encounter a word about 16 times in order to memorize it from reading.

Your usual reading routine will never provide you with such a high rate of repetition so that you could really learn a decent amount of vocabulary. And this is where narrow reading really stands in.

How narrow reading helps you to memorize vocabulary better?

Keywords and “author’s pets”

You know that every topic and every genre has its keywords. You’re more likely to encounter words such as “handcuffs” and “investigator” in a detective story… or maybe in Fifty Shades of Grey as well.

In any case, subject-related words will flash here and there all the time through a book. You still will have to check each of them twice or trice but after that, they’ll become so familiar to you that you’ll recognize them automatically. Moreover, as you’ll have met them in a variety of contexts, you’ll have absolutely no problem using them yourself.

And when it comes to narrow reading the same author, you get additional bonus points. Here, you discover that each person has its own writing style. Certain turns of phrase savored by one writer will never occur in a work of another. Furthermore, each person also has its own list of favorite words on all occasions. So, guess what? They will use them over and over again providing you a good base for a painless vocabulary review.

Author vs topic: how to narrow down effectively?

Reading one John Grisham novel will make subsequent John Grisham novels more comprehensible.

Stephen Krashen in “The Case for Narrow Reading”

Author-narrowed reading has proved to be more effective than topic-narrowed reading. So, again, everything is in hands of writers. Even if they write about the same piece of floating wood, one will call it “a boat” and another will jump from “a dinghy” to “a wherry” to “a skiff”. That’s why a topic-narrowed reading is somewhat a pig in a poke (however, a still more effective pig if compared with extensive reading)

Things multiply by each other when you actually narrow down both to an author and a topic. Confused? Come on. What about rereading seven books of Harry Potter in Spanish?

Background knowledge

When you read narrowly, whether author-narrowly or topic-narrowly, you automatically acquire knowledge about a chosen field. So maybe the first one won’t go that well because of “the first few pages effect” but should you read a little further and you enter calm waters where things go smoothly.

After reading the first book, you get more or less familiar with author’s style, learn a bunch of his favorite expressions and get really engaged with the story. Now, when you take the second book by the same author and/or on the same topic, it’s so much easier! Just because of your previous readings, you’ve got a much wider context to retrieve the meaning of new words.

So… you understand the follow-up much better!

And while you’re reading, your brain gathers new language samples and dusts off old ones. So you, my friend, unconsciously acquire new vocabulary and structures while reviewing already known stuff. Isn’t that a dream?


A bit later, another amazing thing happens: you get hooked to the story.

If you have ever read Harry Potter, Percy Jackson or Lord of the Rings (ok, Tolkien is probably not the best example for reading in foreign language), you know that it’s like Netflix. The story always ends at the most interesting place so you become obsessed with “what’s next?!” And if your curiosity is high enough, you’ll swallow the next book despite the lack of vocabulary or grammar competence.

I’ll tell you more. The real transformation happens when you depart from your initial goal of “reading for language learning” to “reading for fun and meaning”. At some point you start actually enjoying the book as well as the fact of reading in a foreign language. And the latter is a real self-confidence booster: you immediately feel yourself smarter than the half of the world population.

These feelings push you to read further. And as you start reading more you language proficiency automatically goes up.

Narrow reading: how to make it happen

These techniques can be really amazing, especially if you’re reading something that genuinely interests you.

But hold on a second.

Let’s say you’re very interested in finance and investment. Should you immediately buy all books by Robert Kiyosaki in Spanish?

Probably, no. If your Spanish is floating on A1-B1 levels, you might wanna put Kiyosaki on a shelf and grab something less demanding. Any comic book, or a romance, or a children detective story will provide you with a stable vocabulary base without giving you carpal-tunnel syndrome from excessive language journal writing.

Your self-esteem will suffer.

But in any case, clench your teeth and keep reading “El maravillosi mago de Oz”. Show some stoicism.

Also, the point of narrow reading is to read for interest not for learning 100 new words. So if it’s becoming too much just admit that the book you’re fighting through is too difficult for you. It would be the case if you’re still holding on to “Padre Rico Padre Pobre“. Whatever this book is: if you find it way above your level, close it and take something else.

Finally, just keep it around. If you don’t naturally identify yourself as a vivid reader you’ll tend to procrastinate and find excuses à la “I don’t have time”. Nevertheless, when you have this book stick to you wherever you go, you’ll find yourself reading a lot and in very exotic places.

Bonus: the narrow reading technique doesn’t apply to reading only. If you got the principle you can use it to boost any other language learning skill: like improving your understanding of speech!

Try it out when choosing language learning podcasts, or TV shows, or even YouTube videos. You’ll begin understanding speech of a single speaker way faster than if you had to deal with 10 different ones.

Author Details
Polyglot, Author and Founder of Linguapath
Hey! I am Alina Kuimova, and my long-lasting obsession with learning languages led to the creation of this site. Apart from being a grammar enthusiast, I enjoy reading smart books in any language available, finding easier ways for the brain to learn things and buffing productivity stats by 180%.
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2 years ago

Congratulations, Alina! Excellent text.

7 months ago

OMG! I’ve never heard of anybody else who does this! I learned Spanish by reading (out loud, so as to try to get my ear used to the sound). I didn’t specifically try this narrow reading, but maybe it’s what I was doing in retrospect. (I actually started with Pimsleurs, but when I got to the end of the lessons, I was like, now what? – I still don’t know Spanish, so I started reading.) I did pick vocabulary up by just reading. If I knew some percentage (high enough for basic understanding) of the vocabulary already, my head would… Read more »

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