Make your foreign-language reading more effective

How do you read texts in a foreign language you’re learning? Is it difficult? If you’re like me, and depending on your level, you’ll have experienced some of the following issues:

  • feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of unfamiliar words
  • frustration at almost knowing some words, e.g., knowing a word that looks very similar or seeing words you know in a new, strange context
  • fooling yourself into a false sense of fluency by reading too fast and missing important information
  • lack of motivation to read the text in front of you

Some problems we experience as language learners (especially the last one!) stem from reading the wrong texts, of the wrong level or at the wrong time, either of day or in our learning career. In my experience, beginners should limit their reading to functional texts and focus more on speaking and listening. That’s a gross generalisation, but I can say it’s worked for me, at least with Russian. I first learnt to speak and listen, and then I could read relatively complex texts – books, novels, whatever. This, of course, won’t go for everyone, but I think the lesson here is that you should choose reading material for your level.

Easier said than done! Many of my students (of English) just have to read English-language texts as part of their job. On top of that, I believe in pushing those who don’t need to read that much to do it anyway, as it can be good mental exercise and they might even learn some new words. But I don’t like to set them texts they will just breeze through; there has to be some sort of a challenge. How then, do I get both groups not to give up in despair at “not being able to read”, “not getting a text”, and so on?

One approach I’d like to develop, both on myself and with my students, is to put the old cliché of “just focus on the words you know” to work. Today I came up with this basic scheme, which you might like to try.

  1. Cross out the words you don’t know, either fully or in this context. That’s right: strike them out and move on.
  2. Read through the remainder of the sentence out loud (or write out the remaining words). Does this remainder make sense? Don’t worry if it doesn’t.
  3. Identify the most important word or phrase in the sentence and mark it. This could be a verb, a noun, etc. Whatever you think carries the main message of the sentence. If it’s one of the ones you’ve crossed out in step 1, try and guess the meaning based on other, similar words you know. If that fails, you can look it up in a dictionary (if you were in my class, this is the earliest stage you’d be allowed to use the dictionary at!).
  4. Take a step back and try to summarise the sentence in your mind (either in your native language or the language of the text, depending on your level). This might work, and it might not. If it does, you’re almost done and can maybe even move on to the next sentence with impunity. If not, see the next step.
  5. Identify key prepositions and conjunctions that join clauses and other sentence ‘chunks’. This can help you to reformulate the sentence in your mind as ‘X relates to Y’ or ‘A, B or C are the same’, even if you don’t know what the X, Y, A, B and C mean.
  6. If you still don’t get the thrust of the sentence at all, look at the crossed-out words and identify the most important of them. Try and guess its meaning, and, if you can’t, look it up.
  7. Go back to step 4 and keep repeating until you’re sure of the meaning of the sentence.

This is just a rough plan that is still very open to refinement, so your thoughts would be appreciated. Note that what I am trying to avoid here is plodding along from left to right and looking up each unknown or slightly unknown word in a dictionary. I don’t think that approach is very fruitful. Sentences have a level of analysis greater than the word: they have clauses, and identifying these and the relationships between them can tell you a lot. And although we do read left to right, the arrangement of ideas does not always reflect this. The most important information can be anywhere, not just at the end or beginning; the second-most important can also be anywhere at all, not just next to the most important bit.

Also, note that I am not promising a magic formula to make reading easy. Reading isn’t easy: it’s hard work, made habitual, but it’s rewarding hard work. Don’t shy away from texts that are a little difficult, as they will give you something in return. But do make sure you can understand them at least somewhat, to avoid totally discouraging yourself!

To sum up: forget your obsession with words, especially with words you don’t know. Focus on the ones you do know. Focus on clauses and how they interact. If what you’ve just read seems particularly difficult, force yourself to summarise it. And don’t forget to make copies to avoid destroying precious books with markings!

Some day I might get around to actually applying the technique above to something I’m reading – but don’t hold me to it!

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2 thoughts on “Make your foreign-language reading more effective

  1. I think your approach sounds like a smart – and very technical! – one. It may be a cliche to just focus on the words you know, but for me at least that is what has worked. I think it depends what you’re reading. In French class, we read a lot of classic literature: Voltaire, Hugo, Camus, Sartre, Baudelaire, Zola, Balzac. What actually helped me was focusing first and primarily on the spirit of the novel, the central ideas and overarching themes. I’d read a chapter, not stopping to look up words or anything, and then ruminate on it a bit in my head before going back with my dictionary. After that, I would actually read the corresponding chapter in a translated English version. I’m not sure if I was technically “supposed” to be doing this according to my profs, but it was a way for me to test how much of the original I had understood.

    However, if we had been reading, say, technical instructions or bureaucratic writing, I don’t think this approach would have worked at all!

    • I completely agree. You have to adapt your technique to the content. I generally read newspaper, magazine and internet-sourced articles with my learners and they are always fact-based and not fictional. So I don’t know yet if my approach would work with other texts. Certainly it wouldn’t with technical manuals or instructions, where every word is important. Thanks for the insight into your reading technique!

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