Reading is the very first level of proficiency in any language. It is a passive process where you go through a simple process of recognizing vocabulary and using grammar rules to deduce their meanings.
After you have mastered the basic vocabulary list of 600 words and the basic grammar rules, you are ready to start reading basic materials. At this stage, I wouldn’t recommend reading an entire book or the newspaper. Instead, you can start off with some children’s book or simplified texts. You could also join an intermediate language course and bypass the groundwork that other people normally get stuck in.
Reading is a great first step to building your confidence in the language. You have the flexibility to do it at your own pace and you can get a lot of help from books and dictionaries.
If you are a fast reader in your native tongue, then stumbling during reading a new language can frustrate you. It is therefore important to constantly be motivated and to not get bored while reading. You won’t achieve anything by reading the “The History of Architecture in Modern Times” in French, apart from feeding a growing resentment towards the language and probably the subject as well. Unless of course, you’re an architecture enthusiast, or plan on impressing one. If however, you read the French language script of your favorite French movie, or a French comic book or magazine, you might stay awake long enough to reach the last page.
If you want to improve your reading skills then you’ll have to restructure your reading habits. If you were never much of a reader, then a new language is a great way to begin reading habitually. Constantly reading new material or even re-reading old material can be very effective as you are applying a language skill while learning new words and structures.
So how do you make reading a natural habit just as brushing your teeth every morning? Simple… always read! It’s not as impossible as it sounds. Just treat everything as a potential source of information, from a billboard ad to a candy wrapper. You have to constantly keep a look out for things to read in your target language. You can make this easier by surrounding yourself with reading material like posters, comics, books and so on, in your target language.
Get used to reading online. Technology has never done a better job at providing you with fresh, easily accessible content every day. Make it a part of your routine to read a book before you sleep or read a foreign language blog of your interest and make it a point to keep visiting the blog (e.g. subscribe to its RSS feed).
While reading you can constantly update your vocabulary list and this can be your personalized look-up table. And also, when you’re reading offline, there’s no need to disrupt your reading by constantly flipping through the dictionary. Just try to ignore the new words till you finish the book and enjoy yourself while at it.
Read up on as many different subjects as possible. The more exposure you get from reading, the closer you are to accomplishing the four skills.
Once you’ve developed that reading habit, don’t go about reading in a haphazard manner. If you can pick good materials to read then you’ll learn much more effectively. Read on a variety of topics, in different mediums and varying styles. This will expose you to different words, sentence structures and styles of writing.
It is very important to read according to your skill level or you’ll end up berating yourself needlessly. Start out with something as simple as children’s story books or school text books. You can make it fun and interesting by reading a foreign language version of your favorite fairy tale.
Children’s literature usually pays attention to the usage of vocabulary and grammar. They are also interesting and educational most of the time and can even teach you a moral or two. I strongly suggest that you memorize the text by heart. A good book I recommend is “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint Exupéry. I used to read all the versions of this book including the French, German, Dutch and Spanish versions.
And this is how I usually go about finding the text for a children’s book. Let’s use “The Little Prince” as an example. First I go to Amazon.com to have a preview of that book. I type out the first two sentences myself with “” and input this into the Google search bar. And before you know it, you just might find a webpage that puts the complete text at your disposal. I prefer adding a parameter “filetype:PDF”. This will return all the PDF documents of this book. Sometimes I get the original version as well.
Another good source of foreign books is the Gutenberg project.
Project Gutenberg has the largest collection of free electronic books (ebooks) and it serves as a veritable landmine of resources for language learners such as yourself.
However, you need to be aware that books are normally written in the past tense (for most languages where verbs change) and the written style could be very different from usual daily conversations. So in order to enhance your ability to communicate, do read conversation scripts found in textbooks or better yet, movie scripts. A simple search on Google with keywords like “script” or “movie script” plus your favorite movie title (these keywords should be in the foreign language you’re learning) will produce many results. After some digging I’m sure you’ll find what you’re looking for.
In the beginning you can focus on your favorite topics as these topics will fuel your interest and spur you on to read more. Also read material that is current and in a style that best represents real life usage. Try not to get bogged down by unknown words and confusing grammar.
Browse through online articles and pick out the most frequently repeated keywords. Consult a dictionary and note them down, together with their meanings. My experience tells me that if you do this consistently for 300 to 600 new words then you’d have almost no problem understanding a text.
Your next step is to locate some good reading materials. If you are able to get hold of some school text book in another country that’ll be great. If not, subscribe to or buy magazines and newspapers, or simply print out some online articles (most renowned magazines have online versions).
Read these articles whenever you can, and use a highlighter to highlight the important words (highlighter is way better than a usual pen and they are cheap. Do go to any stationary store like Staples and get a few with different colors.) Also remember to add the new words to your language notebook or “Word Bank” as soon as possible.
Reading may be the easiest language skill to master, but it has challenges of its own. In the beginning you will be slow, and you will probably be checking up almost every other word in the dictionary. A lot of other factors such as some mentioned below will also slow you down. Identify the more commonly made mistakes, and fix them to become a smart reader.
Here are some common problems exhibited by most language learners:
- Ask someone to check the movement of your eyes while you read. He/she will see jerky motion of your eye ball back and forth because the focal point of your eye does not move in a smooth, leaner fashion and this will cause you to overlook some important information while also slowing down your reading speed. A simple yet effective way to deal with this is to use your index finger as a pointer and pacer while you read. Just use your index finger to “underline” each sentence in a smooth fashion and you’ll suddenly find yourself at more ease when reading a foreign text.
- Do you have the bad habit of day dreaming while reading? People are especially prone to it if the material doesn’t interest them or is too hard for them. Unfamiliar foreign texts usually come under this category. What you need to do is to use a pacer, meaning using your finger or a pen to guide your eye movement along the lines in uniform speed. This will keep you much more alert and also improve your reading speed.
- You might not know this, but you probably frequently go back to the text you’ve just read to “ensure” your understanding. Research has shown in the process of “referring back” you do not receive new information. The technical term of this problem is “regression”. Instead, you should do your revision after reading the entire passage.
- Another common problem is spending too much time in the comprehension and decoding of sentences. To put it more technically, the foreign language readers read slowly not because they make more eye fixations but because they spend more time at each fixation. A useful technique to counter this challenge is to focus almost exclusively on vocabulary and to infer sentence structure and other grammar elements based on the likely relationship of words. It is sort of like piecing together a syntax telegram based on the few keywords provided.
Let me give you an analogy. Assuming you have just learned swimming, would you recklessly jump into the ocean? Or would you first take into account your proficiency, endurance level and the depth of the water?
Similarly with reading, you have to know your own reading ability and your limits. You must also be aware of what you are going to read and how it is structured. And after reading you have to be able to retain some of the information you’ve just read. So before diving into a passage of text blindly, equip yourself with the following reading know-how. All you need is a little patience and motivation.
Here are the techniques that you can use to become a better more effective reader.
- Read according to your skill level. Start with simple short passages and work your way up to books and bigger materials. In other words, try reading a simple grocery list before tackling an autobiography.
- This is a very important technique. The first time you read, don’t translate the entire passage. Study the sentences and words and how they fit. The second time you read through, translate the words. The third time you read through, understand the meaning of the passage as a whole.
- You can start reading simple things that are easily understandable but don’t get comfortable or stuck at any level, keep challenging yourself to move on to bigger and tougher things.
- Find out the structure of what you are going to read before actually reading it so you know what to expect. If it’s a story or an essay or a description then you’ll know how to tackle it. If it is an essay for example, then it will probably have an introduction, a body of points and a conclusion. So when you start reading, you will understand the points better.
- Browse through the material from the title to the end before you start reading the first line. You might have done this for exams to save time, where you actually read the questions first and then you go into the passage knowing what exactly you’re looking for.
- When reading, keep track of different words, grammar, sentence structures while also trying to absorb the content
You have to approach different types of content in different ways. If you’re reading academic or highly descriptive content then you have to apply more concentration and try to absorb as much information as you can, and you will probably have to read it several times.
If you’re going to read non-academic material for leisure, like short stories, then you can try to read faster with as little reference as you can manage. You should focus more on the style and the flow of the language instead.
Isolate all new sentence structures and words that you don’t know, and study them separately after you’ve read through the text once. You can re-read the text if you want, to fully comprehend the meanings. You might be tempted to keep referring to the meanings in the middle of reading, but this will just make you slower. Also, at the end of it, you might also think you’ve understood everything and not bother re-reading the text.
- Ideally you should know enough vocabulary to understand everything you read, but that’s probably too much to ask for up-front. A more “lenient” rule to follow is, if you don’t know more than 30% of the words you’re reading, then it’s time to go one step back and revise your vocabulary.
- Go back to your own “Word Bank”. As you read, don’t forget to add words to your list, especially the ones you find hard to learn.
Don’t write the English translations of words into your book because it is a bad practice. The next time you open the book, your mind will read and register the English word instead. Write them down separately in you vocabulary list if you have to.
You must always “take something home” with you after reading. Otherwise it’s just a lost cause. Even if you are reading seemingly useless information like a pamphlet advertising a hair loss product, you should still be able to get the gist of the information, the sentence structures, the new words being used, and the way it has been presented.
Summarize what you have read so that you will remember the key points. Even if it’s just in your mind, you will still retain something. Make this a regular exercise. The next time you read a book, try telling a friend or even yourself the story of the book. You don’t necessarily have to do it in the target language. You can even summarize it in your mother tongue, as long as you were able to absorb enough information while you were reading.
If your summaries sound like exact replications of the book, it probably means your memory is great but you’re not analyzing the information. Summarizing not only tests how much content you’ve understood, but also trains your ability to organize information logically in your target language.