New ideas about literacy learning

What is more important in early reading: Intensive or extensive reading?

One of the best gifts parents can give to their children is leading them into the world of reading. Early reading benefits children’s development. It may help to promote children’s brain development by enhancing the links among brain cells and by forming new links. Also, attention span and concentration are improved through reading. In addition, the greater general knowledge and the expansion of vocabulary children get likely facilitate their later academic performance, which helps them to grow in self-confidence and independence.

Nowadays, more and more parents see the benefits of early reading. But a question that often confuses them is whether intensive reading, involving memory training, or more extensive reading, involving a focus on reading for pleasure more than learning, is more important in early reading skills development. Intensive reading in language learning means reading in detail or getting a full understanding of the materials. When it comes to children’s early reading, especially in Chinese families, it also refers to memorizing the material or reciting the whole story. Extensive reading, in contrast, refers to reading widely. It encourages children to read as much as possible, for pleasure or interest, rather than merely for learning particular language features (Coles & Hall, 2002). Many Chinese parents are proud of having their children reel off Tang Dynasty poems or reciting a story they read at an early age. Some of them are crazy about training their children into a memory genius. Others feel that reading as much as possible may be better for children. Here, we would like to suggest that parents prioritize helping their children to get involved in more reading materials and to develop good habits in reading, rather than prioritizing rote memorization.


Learning to read and to spell are not simply matters of memorizing words or characters, but in large measure a consequence of developing phonological awareness, morphological awareness, and orthographic knowledge. Extensive reading promotes development of this knowledge by providing children an opportunity to be exposed to writing, which is very important in the theory of statistical learning. This is based on the idea that children implicitly pick up patterns in a variety of domains from an early age. Even before formal literacy instruction begins, and even before they relate symbols to sounds and meanings, children apply their statistical learning skills to the outer form of writing. For example, researchers have found that Chinese kindergarteners tend to be sensitive to the orthographic and phonological regularities in Chinese characters (Yin & McBride, 2015; Tong & McBride, 2014). They detect statistical regularities in written language even before they receive formal reading instruction. That is, children can derive knowledge implicitly by simply being exposed to writings, words, and characters. In addition, extensive reading provides children with access to massive background knowledge, which is a vitally important skill in reading comprehension (McBride, 2016).


In contrast, there is little evidence showing that memory strategy training in early childhood has a significant influence on children’s later life. Using strategies may benefit memorizing performance. However, children are still developing their skills in self-control and attention. That makes it hard for them to concentrate on material for a long time. They may get tired or distracted easily. Required to memorize or recite things, they may even lose interest in reading. That is not what parents want to see.


Although we do not suggest rote memorization in early reading, we encourage rereading based on children’s interest. Adults may get tired of reading the same story over and over again. But kids like to spot things they may have missed the first time in the story or pictures of their favorite books. Rereading also gives them a chance to connect the words they see on the page with the words they hear. If children are interested in some of the books they read, encourage them to read them again.


Overall, being involved in a world of reading materials at an early age has a lot of benefits for children. It helps them develop the interest and good habits in reading while acquiring knowledge of words and spelling in an implicit way. Rather than rote memorization, we suggest extensive reading in early childhood and also rereading depending upon children’s interests.




McBride, C. (2016). Children's Literacy Development: A Cross-Cultural Perspective on Learning to Read and Write (Second edition). New York: Routledge.

Tong, X., & McBride, C. (2014). Chinese children’s statistical learning of orthographic regularities: Positional constraints and character structure. Scientific Studies of Reading, 18(4), 291-308.

Yin, L., & McBride, C. (2015). Chinese kindergartners learn to read characters analytically. Psychological science, 26(4), 424-432


This article was written by our guest blogger Miss YE, Yanyan. Miss YE is currently a Ph.D student of the Department of Psychology in Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her research interest is literacy development.

Our Guest Blogger

Miss YE, Yanyan

Ph.D candidate, M.Phil. (South China Normal University)

Department of Psychology, The Chinese University of Hong Kong