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Extensive reading for language learning

Why the 98% Rule Cannot Always Be Followed

Ирина Пономарева (Irina Ponomareva)

First of all, what is the 98% rule?

Well, the 98% rule is the rule that says that when you pick materials for extensive reading in a language you are learning, the number of known words in the text should be at least 98%.

Okay, so what is extensive reading? The answer to that is equally easy: it’s the method of learning foreign languages, which is very close to how we all learn our own native language, assuming we like to read. Extensive reading is reading large chunks of text (as large as a novel at times) without consulting a dictionary. The trick is to try and guess the meaning of the unknown words from the context, and it’s widely believed that if the 98% rule is broken, the reader will soon get distracted, bored, lose focus and finally put the book away. But there are problems associated with this rule, which make it at times impossible to observe.




First of all, how to calculate the percentage of known words with such precision? If you just count the words, one by one, it will take a lot of time, and that time could have been used more effectively; the whole point of extensive reading is to save time by not losing it with the dictionary, but now we seem to suggest another way to waste it.

Secondly, assuming you have solved the first problem somehow, where do you get the books that comply? Graded readers? Fine if you like that sort of stuff, but guess what? Some people detest all sorts of adaptations and surrogates, including the author if this article, and others just may not know where to get such books. Amazon doesn’t deliver their stuff to every corner of the Earth yet, and often you just have to grab what you can get and make the best out of it.

The good news

But there is a piece of really good news to lighten up what seems a desperate situation: the 98% rule doesn’t even have to be observed. Regardless of what you have been told, not all people get discouraged by high percentage of unknown words. Some exceptionally obstinate language learners will cheerfully wade through a text, in which they barely understand 30% of the words (been there, done that), and even find it funny to try and guess the meaning of the rest of them. Believe it or not, it is still possible to grasp the basic plot this way, though the details will, of course, escape you. But at about 70% you can start reading quite effectively, and with every new iteration the number of words you can recognize will miraculously grow, until you will find it a challenge even to get hold of a book that doesn’t comply with the 98% rule for you.