Most foreign and second language classes provide students with exposure to a variety of topics. Beginning level texts typically jump from topic to topic (e. g. “shopping,” “ordering food,” “families”), “readers” usually include several different kinds of short articles (e. g. “nonverbal communication,” “mind, body and health,”) and short stories, and introductory courses in literature usually give the student only one short example of each author’s work. Only later, in advanced courses, does a second language student “specialize,” e. g. by taking classes in “20th century fiction,” and only the most advanced students focus on the work of a single author. The assumption behind this is that exposure to different topics, genres, and styles is beneficial.
This may be all wrong. It may be that narrow input is much more efficient for second language acquisition. It may be much better if second language acquirers specialize early rather than late. This means reading several books by one author or about a single topic of interest. (I focus here on reading, but the idea of narrow input has been applied to listening as well; see e. g. Krashen, 1996; Rodrigo and Krashen, 1996; Dupuy, 1999).
The case for narrow reading is based on the idea that the acquisition of both structure and vocabulary comes from many exposures in a comprehensible context, that is, we acquire new structures and words when we understand messages, many messages, that they encode. Narrow reading facilitates this process in several ways.
First, since each writer has favorite expressions and a distinctive style, and each topic has its own vocabulary and discourse, narrow reading provides built – in review.
Second, background knowledge is a tremendous facilitator of comprehension. An acquirer of English reading a John Grisham novel who understands the legal system in the U. S.
will understand the book much better than someone unfamiliar with courts and legal procedures in the U. S. The reader with better background will also acquire more English from the novel, because it is more comprehensible. Narrow readers gain more contextual knowledge as they read narrowly: The more one reads in one area, the more one learns about the area, and the easier one finds subsequent reading in the area (and the more one acquires of the language). Reading one John Grisham novel will make subsequent John Grisham novels more comprehensible.
An example of this can be termed “the first few pages” effect (pointed out to me by Mari Wesche; see also Yang, 2001). Intermediate foreign language students, reading a novel in the foreign language, often report that they find the first few pages of a new author’s work tough going. After this initial difficulty, the rest of the book goes much easier. This is due to the fact that the context, the story, was new, and, in addition, the reader had not adjusted to the author’s style. Providing only short and varied selections never allows language acquirers to get beyond this stage. Instead, it forces them to move from frustration to frustration.
It may be argued that narrow reading produces only the ability to read in one area. This is not true. Deep reading in any topic will provide exposure to a tremendous amount of syntax and vocabulary that is used in other topics. Any technical field, for example, will use “subtechnical” vocabulary, words such as “function,” “inference,” “isolate,” “relation,” etc. (Cowan, 1974).