How To Read Effectively In A Foreign Language

how to read in a foreign language
If you’re learning a foreign language, and you don’t read regularly…

STOP!

You should be.

But do you know how to read effectively in another language, without getting overwhelmed by unknown vocabulary and complex grammar that doesn’t make sense?

In this article you’ll learn how to use reading to quickly learn new words and boost your fluency in your target language, even if you’re just getting started, and even if you’ve tried and failed before.

Let’s get started.

Why should you bother reading?

You’ve probably heard before that reading helps you to learn language.

But why?

What are the benefits of learning a language with stories, as opposed to with a textbook?

Understanding what reading is, and why you would do it, is the first step to becoming an effective reader.

The main benefit of reading is that you gain exposure to good quality, natural language. But you can read in different ways.

If you read a lot (for pleasure or study), this is commonly known as extensive reading. You read large amounts, and are concerned with enjoying the story or learning from the contents.

It might be natural for you to read a lot in your mother tongue, but this is very different from the kind of reading you might do in a foreign language textbook.

In your textbook, you read short passages of text, which you study in detail with the aim of understanding every word.

This is known as intensive reading.

With intensive reading, because you’re reading in so much depth, you can’t get through very much material.

Both approaches have value and are an important part of a balanced approach to language learning.

But it’s extensive reading where all the magic happens.

By reading lots of books, websites, magazines or newspapers (whatever you enjoy) in another language, you’ll quickly build up an innate understanding of how the language works, because you cover so much material.

Can you see how this is very different from what you get from your textbook?

So what’s the catch? 🙂

Well, in order to take full advantage of the benefits of extensive reading, you have to actually read a lot!

Easier said than done.

Why you find reading difficult

Reading is a complex skill.

In our mother tongue, we use “micro-skills” to help us read.

For example…

  • You might skim a particular passage in order to understand the gist.
  • Or you might scan through a long train timetable looking for a particular time or place
  • If I lent you an Agatha Christie novel, you would breeze through the pages fairly quickly
  • On the other hand, if I gave you a contract to sign, you would likely read every word in great detail

Here’s where it gets interesting.

When it comes to reading in a foreign language, studies have shown that we abandon most of these reading skills we take for granted in our mother tongue.

Instead of using a mixture of micro-skills to help us understand a difficult text, we simply start at the beginning and try to understand every single word.

Inevitably, we come across unknown or difficult words and quickly get frustrated with our lack of understanding.

Sound familiar? 🙂

So what can you do about it?

Well, once you’re aware of this, you can adopt a few simple strategies that will help you turn frustration into opportunity, and use reading to quickly boost your language skills!

How to be a smart reader

With this in mind, here is the thought process I recommend you have when reading books in your target language:

  • When reading books, enjoyment and a sense of achievement are vitally important because that keeps you coming back for more
  • The more you read, the more you learn
  • The best way to enjoy reading books, and to feel that sense of achievement, is by reading entire chapters from beginning to end
  • Consequently, reaching the end of a book is the most important thing… more important than understanding every word in it!

And this brings us to the single most important point of all…

You must accept that you won’t understand everything you read.

This is completely normal and to be expected.

The fact that you don’t know a word or understand a sentence doesn’t mean that you’re “stupid” or “not good enough”.

It simply means you’re engaged in the language learning process, just like everybody else.

So what should you do when there’s something you don’t understand?

How to deal with words you don’t know

If you find yourself stumped by an unknown word, here are five ways to tackle the problem:

  1. Look at the word and see if it’s familiar in any way. There is often crossover in the vocabulary of different languages. Take a guess – you might surprise yourself!
  2. Go back and read the problem sentence many times over. Using the context of that sentence, and everything else that’s happening in the story, try to guess what the unknown word might mean. This takes practice, but is often easier than you think!
  3. Make a note of the word in a notebook, so you can check the meaning later. Then keep reading.
  4. Sometimes, you might find a verb that you know, conjugated in an unfamiliar way. For example, in Spanish:
    hablar – to speak
    hablarán – they will speak
    hablase – speak (subjunctive)
    You may not be familiar with this particular verb form, or not understand why it’s being used in this case, and that may frustrate you. But is it absolutely necessary for you to know this right now? Can you still understand the gist of what’s going on? Usually, if you’ve managed to recognise the main verb, that is enough. Instead of getting frustrated, simply notice how the verb is being used, and then carry on reading!
  5. There will be times when you’re simply dying to know the meaning of a particular word. Fine – but if you stop to look up every word, you’ll never get anywhere. Instead, only look up words that seem to be cropping up again and again – they will be the key to understanding what you’re reading

Now that we’ve dealt with the big issue of difficult vocabulary, let’s look at the reading process itself.

The six-step reading process

  1. Read the first chapter of the book all the way through. Your aim is simply to reach the end of the chapter. Therefore, do not stop to look up words and do not worry if there are things you do not understand. Simply try to follow what’s going on.
  2. When you reach the end of the chapter, try to summarise what you’ve read – the characters, places, ideas, events etc. You could make a few notes in the target language, maybe writing down some of the main characters and events.
  3. Go back and read the same chapter again. If you like, you can read in more detail than before, but otherwise simply read it through one more time. As before, don’t worry about understanding everything. It’s a gradual process that can take time, and I call it “reducing uncertainty”.
  4. At the end of the chapter, continue to jot down notes about what you’ve read. This can be whatever is in your mind – it’s yet another way to help you process what you’re reading.
  5. By this point, you should start to have some understanding of the main events of the chapter. At this point you might like to continue to re-read the chapter, this time using a dictionary to check unknown words and phrases. Just remember – avoid the need to understand everything. Use the skills mentioned above to deal with words you don’t know and focus only on the vocabulary you think is vital to the narrative.
  6. Otherwise, if you feel you have followed the main events of the chapter, you should continue on to the next chapter, and enjoy the book just as you would in your mother tongue.

At every stage of the process, there will inevitably be words and phrases you do not understand or cannot remember.

Instead of worrying, try to focus instead on everything that you have understood, and congratulate yourself for everything you have done so far.  

Most of the benefit you derive from reading will come from reading entire sections through from beginning to end.

Only once you have completed a chapter in its entirety should you go back and begin the process of studying the language in more depth.

Becoming an independent reader

These steps are designed to do something very important: to train you to handle reading independently and without help.

The more you can develop this skill, the better you’ll be able to read.

And, of course, the more you can read, the more you’ll learn.

Remember that the purpose of extensive reading is not to understand every word, as you might be expected to in a textbook.

The purpose of reading is to enjoy the book for what it is.

So, when you’re reading, if you don’t understand a word, and you can’t guess what the word means from the context, the first thing you should do is simply try to keep reading.

It’s not easy.

And you’ll be tempted to reach for the dictionary at every turn.

But if you can learn to be content with not understanding everything whilst reading a foreign language, you’ll be developing a powerful skill, because you become an independent and resilient learner, who suddenly has a world of language at their fingertips.

Short stories for beginners

If you have read up to this point, you might be thinking:

That’s all very well, but how can I find books that are at the right level for me?

It can be a challenge.

So-called graded readers exist in most languages, but I’ve found that they’re not always so helpful.

They’re either too hard, too boring, or contain parallel texts which remove all the challenge of reading and make it too easy for you as the reader.

So I decided to make something different.

I’m creating collections of short stories, written especially for students from beginner to intermediate level (A1-B1 on the CEFR).

Each collection is designed to give you a sense of achievement and a feeling of progress when reading.

Stories feature:

  • A variety of compelling genres, from science fiction and crime to history and thriller
  • Stories broken down into manageable chapters, so you always make progress with the story and feel a sense of achievement
  • Realistic amounts of new vocabulary so that you’re not overwhelmed by complex words
  • Plenty of natural dialogues in each story, so you can learn plenty of conversational language
  • Regular plot summaries, comprehension questions and word reference lists, so you don’t have to fumble around with dictionaries and struggle through dense text

The books come in beginner and intermediate series:

short stories for beginners

Short Stories For Beginners, by Olly Richards:

short stories for intermediate learners olly richards

Short Stories For Intermediate Learners, by Olly Richards:

Happy reading!

Do you have any tips for reading in another language? Leave a comment below to let me know!

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  • Konzard

    Good guide. Thanks for the tips, I wasn’t aware of the micro-skills thingie.

    Reading is my favorite activity, the main reason why I learn languages and the main way I learn them.

    I basically learnt English just by reading, and reading, and reading.

    • Hi, thanks for the comment! I’m aware there are lots of people who aren’t interested in speaking, and enjoy reading most of all, so I’d like to create some more stuff along those lines!

      • Konzard

        Well, being able to speak is cool and everything, but personally I value more spending time reading than spending time learning pronounciation, I suppose there are a few like me.

        But, in the case of for example Japanese, being a Spanish native speaker, I wouldn’t mind not being able to read at first, because I find easier to learn how to speak it and to understand what I listen to.

  • Kevin Richardson

    Rings very true with what I’m experiencing of reading. I’ll be finishing Star Wars – A New Hope in Japanese this week. That’ll be the first book in a foreign language I’ve ever read.

    I discovered the joy of not looking up words when I was on a shinkansen. Not having internet access to look up words forced me to guess. I would circle the word in the text and given that Star Wars has loads of katakana words, and being aimed at teenagers, it has furigana next to the kanji, Additionally, I know the story and all the dialogue so well, that I could probably recite every line of the film in English if I watched it with the sound off.

    I would guess the meaning of a word and then I’d really look forward to checking my guesses next time I had access to the internet. From my perspective, what was really interesting, was that because I’d already guessed a meaning of a word, most of the time my guess would be either correct or pretty synonymous with the meaning. Correct guess were good, but close guesses where even better. The reason close guesses seem to be even better than correct guesses is because of that, “ah-ha … oh I get it!!!” moment … because the connection between the word and it’s meaning is made that bit stronger because you hadn’t guessed it right in the first place. Consequently, most of the time, the new words I remember are the ones that I didn’t guess correctly when I was reading!

    Anyway, I could write and write and write about what I’ve learned through reading. So many cool things have happened as a consequence of reading. I’m talking a lot more … and I’m definitely making much better guesses at the grammatical structure of what I’m saying when I’m talking … ah, the power of growing an innate understanding of the language just by being exposed to so much natural language that hasn’t been shoehorned into a structure to support grammar.

    Actually, one of the best things I’ve learned through reading is helping me in my listening too … it’s like I’m becoming better at not trying to understand every word.

    • Hey Kevin, good to hear from you! It’s even more difficult in Japanese as well, where there’s very little stuff out there to help people just learning to read kanji. What you’ve described is awesome, and I’m so happy to hear about your progress!

      • Hi olly if you need any suggestions to learn Japanese online , kindly have look – https://www.yomuzoku.com/
        This online Japanese course with examples will make you a communicator with mindful stories, gossips and helping you to read and understand the language with an ease.

  • Great advice Olly. I’ve actually started reading blogs in my target language to get some practice in (I don’t have as much time as I’d like to actually sit down and read a book). Congrats on your new book release!

  • Rachael

    This got me really excited to start reading. I only know about 500 kanji (~1500 vocab [learned from an awesome site: WaniKani.com), but I bet I can get started at reading more than I think. Thank you for this!

    • Cheers Rachael, and good luck! See the article on Japanese I mentioned in a comment above… it should help.

  • Thomas

    Great article. I was wondering whether you would recommend reading when learning Chinese as well?
    Thus far I’ve avoided the scripts when possible but would love to understand it.

    • Thomas, you certainly don’t need to read and write Chinese in order to speak it. However, if you have any ambitions to become literate in the language, or would like to enjoy Chinese writing (and there’s a lot of amazing stuff), you need to learn Chinese characters. It takes time, but the best time to start is yesterday! This guide should help: http://www.iwillteachyoualanguage.com/how-to-write-in-chinese/

  • Daniel

    After I read your book of short stories, I jumped right into a full novel and felt that same thrill of reading 2 books in Spanish after only 4 months of study. For the first few pages I looked up words in a dictionary, but I knew I’d give up reading if I continued doing that because it slowed me down so much. Your advice to just plough through it and take in whatever you can (without using a dictionary) is dead-on. Near the end of the book, I kept seeing the word “remolque”. I had no clue what the English word was, but I understood it was something being pulled behind the vehicle. After I finished, that was the only word I looked up. Apparently you don’t need to know the English word to understand! 🙂

    Haha…. I probably should add that Olly’s book of short stories is really good. The stories weren’t hard to read and showed vocabulary that I already knew in context (which I’ve been missing from just studying words).

    • Thanks Daniel, and it’s great to hear your experiences! Well done for ploughing on… it’s a great feeling reaching the end isn’t it!

  • Divya Singh

    Despite the soo long post, I loved reading it the whole and loved every single line you have told about reading and how one can read effectively the language that is unknown to him/her. I am currently learning Japanese and was stuck in between the Kanji, Katanka and Hirangana.

  • Leonidas Savvides

    Extensive reading….
    at least what level must have to start reading Russian magazines in computers and internet – my field -… I am upper beginner but still have significant nulls due … only with Skype teacher speak…well? Other readings… Also better read Russian old stories by old leaders in Russian literature or Modern stories that involve even mobiles and Internet. ..? What you prefer?

    • I suggest getting graded readers suited to your level.

  • Sebastian RC

    Hello everybody! What I do to manage a good reading is to read along with an audio, which is an audiobook. I do this because I don’t want to pick up bad habits with pronunciation and intonation. What do you think?
    Olly, thanks so much for this post.

    • You’re welcome Sebastian – and great tip about listening to the audio at the same time!

  • Thank you Olly for giving so much value. I now have more arguments to convince my students to read. 😉
    I remember finishing a children’s book in Thai language a few years back. I felt so proud to be able to read the Thai script even though I couldn’t really understand what I was reading at the time. It was such a great feeling of achievement.
    Thank you for the memories.
    Chaba

    • Hi Chaba, thanks so much… I appreciate your comment!

  • Nina

    I am currently training myself to just read in a language which I am learning, because I am not used to doing that besides in English and my mother tongue. That is, so far, the hardest part of learning the language for me. But.. with your techniques it is so much easier! I won’t yet try to read books, but more or less long articles will be sufficient. After that, when I gain confidence, I could read a little bit more challenging material, like books, which are a little above my level.

  • Adrianus Willem Thomas Van den

    Hi Ollie, I like the idea of setting up learner stories as you’re doing. Are there any more languages coming up?

    I think the major routes to become fluent in reading are through graded readers, where it’s said to read 1,000,000 words to become independent in reading (the amount of words you need to read to “meet” low frequency words enough times to memorize them), and the other method is flash cards (5000 words to get fluent, can be prohibitive, plus you’re not practising reading).

    I’m very much in favor of reading, but I get very frustrated at not having the correct translation of every word at my immediate disposal. Also when you need to learn 5,000 words by looking them up on average 5 times, to memorize them, every second counts (5,000 words x 5 x 5 second lookup equals 125,000 seconds, or 35 hours spent looking up words).

    Your method would avoid the needless looking up of words. I’m trying to do the same at learn-to-read-foreign-languages.com where I’m developing e-books with immediate word-for-word manually added pop-up translation. They have integrated software to practice words using spaced repetition. So with a limited amount of quality material and practice of low frequency words you go to fluent reading (and listening, as most of the e-books contain audio). If you’d have any advice please let me know.

    • Hi, thanks for your comment! That’s certainly what we’re aiming for, yes, smoothing over the process. You project sounds similar to Readlang have you seen it?

      Book in new languages will be released this week! Here’s where to find them: http://iwillteachyoualanguage.com/amazon

      • Hi Olly, yes I just went to readlang again to see whether anything had changed, and the first word I clicked was in the wrong conjugation (they building instead of they built). Third word “côtes” in “arriver sur let côtes nord” was somehow translated as “ribs”? Not sure what is meant. Also the lines jump down to make room for the translation? And you need to click?

        Don’t get me wrong, I love that idea, but when you need to look up 5,000 words on average 10 times to become fluent in reading, looking up times should be zero and meaning correct and immersive. For example like with InterlinearBooks.com.

        Then the spaced repetition included should create a “flash card” only when necessary (is it a low freq word, or will you encounter it enough times in the text), so that’s what our software calculates, and immediately (with a click it’s in your wordlist, and includes an example sentence).

        What we are setting up is on learn-to-read-foreign-languages.com is quality manually added word-for-word translation, immediately available by pop-up just by doing mouse-over, see .gif example, you might need to click it to start it moving. However it would be great to be able to discuss any weak or strong points with someone like you as you have more experience with different tools.

        I checked out your stories on Amazon (and just bought one for my girlfriend), and they’re exactly what students need to learn to read a language fast; quick vocabulary lookup and fun stories 🙂 People tend to drop out of language study because it gets slow, boring and unfulfilling, and this is fast, fun and gives you a sense of achievement, as you’re reading from the start. And I agree with the premise that it is good to know that grammar exist and that you can encounter different conjucations, but it’s much much easier to learn once you can read than when you start out with it.

  • jackie_o

    Hello Ollie!
    It’s really interesting what you say. We spend a lot of this kind of work in language school, where I was trying to learn Polish (if you want to know more, I attach a link: http://www.polishcourses.com). It’s really complicated language, but I think that in short time I did a good job and now I feel much more freely when I try to communicate in it. And reading was a really big part of it.
    That’s just my experience, I wanted to share with you 🙂

  • Hi Olly, If you create a book like this for English or Portuguese, I’ll be the first customer! I’m serious.

    On another note, very solid article:)

    Cheers from Sao Paulo!
    Shana

    • Hi Shana – English will be coming out in a couple of weeks!

  • Jovo Krneta

    I use this application translation-embedder.com which enables you to upload a pdf or txt ebook and download the same e book with embedded translations and text to speech capabilities. It will work on Android Chrome browser and will also work off line.

    • Sounds a bit like readlang.com, no?

      • Jovo Krneta

        I just visited reading.com. Translation-embedder.com will enable you to view translations while offline since it embeds translations into generated Html e book.You also need not install any software.I also like it’s text to speech features. But in general yes it does 🙂

  • Vincenzo Lagioia

    Hi Olly.
    Very interesting your article. I am amazed how things in language learning just happens by you focus the right thing. Keep doing this is where all the magic really happens.
    But I got a question. It concerns reading but, in general I refer to language learning skills.
    In language learning we got the four skills: listening, reading, writing and speaking. That being said and taking it account scheduling and goals definition, is there a way to develop all the four skills at once? or keep this strategic just takes to overdoe my learning and lead me to exhaustion ? I am learning Dutch now and I feel my listening is good as to my reading. Instead, my speaking is not yet in the momentum. So, I thought on more speaking and writing sessions, reducing my listening and reading. Strike a balance, so to say. But to what extent is this good? is there a method that I can use both method I can use the four skills at once?

    thank you

    • Hi Vincenzo, good question. I always find it hard to work on lots of things at once. Instead, I like to focus on one thing at a time. So, for example, if I thought my listening was weak, I would probably spend a few weeks focusing on that. There’s no need to always work on all skills at the same time, providing you pay attention to them over the long-term.

  • chiara elia

    Very interesting article Olly!
    I love reading books in their original language and even if I don’t understand every single word I feel it very satisfying when I get to the end of the story.
    This is also what my own blog chiaraelia.blogspot.com is based on!
    To help people practising and improving their Italian, once a week I write a short episode of a book that I am reading, mostly Italian novels. It is in my own words so an easier approach to Italian literature, and allow readers to comment and ask questions so that they can also practice by chatting with me.

    • That’s great, thanks for producing such great materials for people!

  • Jim

    Thanks for the great article. I wanted to take this approach to hopefully enjoy learning the language rather than just cramming. But having only only started a week ago I have basically no vocabulary. I am trying to read basic childrens stories but even there i do not know what is going on. The question i ask is, should I keep reading without any understanding whilst continuing my learning courses, or should i wait until I have some vocab before continuing to attempt to read?

    Thanks
    Jim

    • Hi Jim. I love your ambition, but yes, as you say, you need to have a little more of a foundation first or you simply won’t understand anything. I’d set a goal to work through a beginners textbook till the end (it’s a simple, tangible goal), and then start reading after that.

    • myriam

      hi Jim, I too have started reading simple children’s books in Macedonian. This helps because I know the story line. Like you I am a beginner. Good luck to you and hang in there

      Olly, great article. Thank you for sharing

  • AGNIESZKA

    Thank you Olly for that article. It looks like this is written especially for me. I read books in their original version, but sometimes I use a dictionary to look up unknown words too often. I don’t do that all the time , but it happens to me. So I am going to use your tips; – summarising of what I’ve read; reading the same chapter again; avoiding the need to understand everything; using the context of that sentence to take a guess the meaning of unknown words; enjoying the reading.I knew it all, but in practice it looked sometimes completely different. Time for changes!

    Cheers!
    Agnieszka

    • Good luck with it, Agnieszka! Let me know how it works for you!

      • AGNIESZKA

        I will! Thanks!

  • Sally A Logan

    Superb article, I haven’t tried reading a book yet as I thought I needed to know the language first! Will definitely now have a go with your method Olly, am excited by the prospect.

    • Thanks, Sally, pleased to hear it was a good motivator. Just to be clear, though, you do need some knowledge in the language… you won’t get very far if you’re a complete beginner. However, it’s certainly possible to read, enjoy and benefit from reading far earlier than many people tend to do. Good luck!

  • Bryan Davis

    Just want to say what a great article. I have been studying Italian and this has really motivated me to get more serious about reading but I there’s something on my mind. While finding articles to read online, I have read many opinions about how to go about reading. Some say to use no translation and others say to find a translation of what you are reading. I am wondering that in the beginning stages or when you first start reading should you find translations of what you’re reading to improve your overall knowledge of the words and how they are used, at least until your level improves and then cut out all translations or would using translations be defemental to your learning.
    Again great article.

    • Thanks Bryan, I appreciate the complement! As a general rule, there’s very little benefit (if any) to reading or listening to stuff you don’t understand. Therefore, as a beginner, stick with your textbook and work through the dialogues. That will get you a solid foundation. Once you’ve got that foundation in the language, I’d move on to the short story books I mentioned in the article — they’re specifically written to be accessible for lower level learners and have learning aids like vocabulary lists throughout, which help you avoid the need to translate into English. (Indeed, there’s no English translation in the books – only key vocabulary.)

  • mica hudson

    Sounds awesome any idea on a Japanese release date?

    • Nothing so far, I’m afraid 🙂 Join up to the the email list and you’ll be the first to hear when it does emerge!

      • mica hudson

        Im currently receiving emails from [email protected] so if its sent there im all set 👲🏽🤓

  • John

    Here is the inevitable question from the “spoken language” student… 😉

    I am studying Levantine arabic, and you are well aware of the difficulty involved with reading here. I have begun applying your advice in studying dialogues, so I am reading transcripts in Arabic script. Nevertheless, this is not exactly “reading a book”. Would I benefit from learning MSA once I reach a higher level of conversational fluency? I probably will learn MSA, regardless, but I wonder if you are familiar with this issue.

    Thanks! And this was an excellent article! I will be applying this to my Spanish studies when I begin that langugae.

    • It’s such a tough one. If you enjoy reading, and you think you *will* read, then sure… learn MSA. Actually, there are a number of novels and short books written in dialect, but I’m not sure what they are off the top of my head.

  • Whabadah

    I’m learning French and Spanish, my vocabulary is getting a lot better using Quizby on my iPhone and iPad, but I need some tips on grammar apps. Does anyone have some? (search for “Quizby Language Learning” on the app store)

  • Hellion

    Hi Olly! Nice article. I’m currently reading my first book in Spanish, a Roald Dahl book. It’s diffucult for me as my vocab is very weak and there are a lot of unknown verbs/adjectives. The structures seem to be OK for the most part and once I look up the words I can understand well. You say in the article:

    “Most of the benefit you derive from reading will come from reading entire sections through from beginning to end.

    Only once you have completed a chapter in its entirety should you go back and begin the process of studying the language in more depth.”

    Can this not work the other way around? As I said, I’m looking up a number of words per page and I AM trying to understand almost every word, but I don’t mind doing that tbh, it can be a bit of a slog (especially the first few chapters) but the vocab I’ve familiarised myself with in the first pages is used throughout this book so I’ve started to get through it a little easier as I’ve gone on. I haven’t tried to deliberately learn any words (I never do that), I’ve just gotten used to a lot of them after looking them up a few times. A lot still escape me and I’m sure I wouldn’t understand a lot of them in other contexts outside of this book.

    Anyway, I was just wondering if going back AFTER looking up each word and reading right through might work in the same way? I’ve revisted past chapters and read them again, without stopping to look up anything, as I can remember quite a few of the unkown words it seems. Is this not as efficient as doing it the other way around? I’m not so good with ambiguity and I’m not sure I could keep going having not understood a fair chunk of it. If I was using an easier graded reader I’d probably do it the other way, but I find the easier texts to boring.

    Cheers.

    • Great question. The main point is that the major benefits of reading come from extensive reading – i.e. Reading a lot! Stopping to look up every word simply slows you down too much, and you can’t cover as much ground. My preference would be to attempt easier texts, and aim to learn more from context than from intensive study of vocabulary.

  • Simon Thomas

    Hi Olly. Just read this post (as a result of receiving your email). I have recently learned Norwegian, Danish and Swedish and learned primarily in order read books, so it was very relevant. I find it’s useful to read at all sorts of levels: really easy text (which makes you feel good) to more difficult (to push yourself) – newspapers, website articles, novels, poetry, plays etc. Mixing it up gives you a real spread of experience. I read Stieg Larsson’s first book (known in English as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) in a Norwegian translation – couldn’t read Swedish at that stage – and am now reading the second book in Swedish. Because I am focusing much more on reading than talking the languages at the moment, my progress has been fast but it does take a lot of work and temporal spread is a factor, so you do have to be patient. Anyway, very good advice in this post. Thanks, Simon

    • Cheers Simon! What do you mean by temporal spread in this instance?

      • Simon Thomas

        Just that it takes time and I don’t mean a lot of time in one go but a long period of time. I have to keep reminding myself of that; no matter how many hours a day I spend on it, you need to assimilate over a long time. No quick fixes, although you can achieve a lot in a relatively short period of time.

        • Yes, I absolutely agree. I think it’s a very powerful realisation to have, that learning doesn’t necessarily have to be immediate. Taking that more patient approach helps to lower you stress levels and dissonance, and I think results in better learning.

  • Noor

    Thank you a lot, it’s really useful
    i’ll try to finish one chapter
    and i did use that way to complete reading without insisting on
    understand everything and i translate later and that was really useful
    and let you read comfortably without feeling bored.

    • That’s great, Noor! I’m pleased you’re enjoying the method!

  • Ann Marie Gardner

    Thanks for the encouraging article! I’m going to read the first chapter in your book several times and go from there!!

  • Mohamed abdi adam

    really
    this is good article and give me hope but my question is when i reading book i almost understood but when i try to speak and make sentence it is difficult to me so what i can do?

    • It takes time. Reading won’t make you fluent by itself, so make sure you’re speaking with people regularly, too.

  • Erik Alfkin

    A trick I find useful is listening to the audio version of the book while I read it. This lets me leverage my reading vocabulary while learning how words are pronounced.

    • Great approach, Erik! Highly recommended. In fact, I’ve produced audio versions of most of my story books for that very reasons. Thanks for pointing it out!

  • Virginia

    This is a great tip for language learning and reading. Do you have a story or book recommendation for a beginner in learning Korean?

  • Jane M

    I am working at level B1 in German and have really enjoyed reading your book, Olly. I am now finding myself reading and understanding in German without translating each sentence! It’s helped my confidence a lot and my progress has been noticed by my German teacher.

    It took some practice to move past a word that I don’t understand but most of the time, I can get the gist of what’s going on and check out the translation in the vocabulary section at the end of the chapter.

    Do you have any plans to write an intermediate story book in German?

    • Hi Jane, sorry for the delay in replying! Yes, actually, I’ve got a big expansion planned, and I’ll hopefully be able to give some news about that soon! In the meantime, I’m also working on listening comprehension material that follows in the same vein as the stories. There will be more info about that on the mailing list and in the Facebook group soon! https://www.facebook.com/groups/fluencymastermind/

  • Hylke R

    I just did it with reading a japanese bedtime story for my kids. Now I will grab the book once more to reread and use my “intelligent” or creative (uncertainty reducing) reading. Interesting article Olly!

    • That’s great, Hylke, and your kids are so lucky to have you doing that for them! You can be sure they’ll pick up a lot just by listening over and over.

      • At first I am understanding let’s say 50% and speaking the pronunciation of the full text, luckily it sometimes has furigana and mostly not too much kanji. The nice thing from reading bedtime stories for kids is that they love repetition, so the next day before reading the book together I look up some of the challenging words or grammar and we read it all over again. And they enjoy it! My reading is becoming more fluent everyday and it’s a nice moment for bilingual interaction. Reading for kids is a good motivator for me. Sometimes they correct me if I pronounce a word wrongly 😉

  • Екатерина

    Interesting article ! I will try . Thank you !

  • Noller

    I purchased both beginner Spanish volumes of your books about a month ago and love the method. I’ve been reading children’s Spanish books, but have not felt nearly as accomplished as when using your books and method. The stories and chapters are the perfect length, and I always feel like a genius when I read the story through the second and third time, and understand even more!

    • Thanks Noller, I’m so pleased to hear you’re enjoying them! If you haven’t tried the audiobook yet, it’s a great way to accompany the stories and improve your listening comprehension at the same time.

  • Barbara Archer

    I did think reading a book in Spanish would be a good way to learn but wasn’t sure that was the way to go. I will be doing it now, even if I start with quite a simple book

    • Hi Barbara, great to hear! Reading my first book in Spanish was a revelation. If you begin with a book of short stories for beginners (mine, or any others), you’ll be pleasantly surprised!

  • Dana J de Jong

    Alright, huge rant, but…The only reason I wrote all this is because I genuinely want to read in a foreign language, and I want to that in a manner than maximizes my learning efficiency. I WANT to be challenged on this because I want to refine my approach by considering as many perspectives as possible. Here it is:

    I’m skeptical about this approach. I feel like it can be more efficient.

    This is how I’d see this approach going:

    “1. Read the first chapter of the book all the way through. Your aim is simply to reach the end of the chapter. Therefore, do not stop to look up words and do not worry if there are things you do not understand. Simply try to follow what’s going on.”

    –> Okay, I’ve done that.

    “2. When you reach the end of the chapter, try to summarise what you’ve read – the characters, places, ideas, events etc. You could make a few notes in the target language, maybe writing down some of the main characters and events.”

    –> I didn’t know almost all the words, and I never looked them up. My notes about the plot are very limited, and I can just barely summarize some things.

    “3. Repeat step 1”

    “4. At the end of the chapter, continue to jot down notes about what you’ve read. This can be whatever is in your mind – it’s yet another way to help you process what you’re reading.”

    –> I didn’t look up any words again, so I still lack a grasp of all the concepts in the plot that hinged on those words — which constitutes most of the plot. My summary is perhaps marginally more detailed since I noticed some things I already understood before beginning to read, but had missed the first read-through. Perhaps I manage to infer so meaning in words.

    “5. By this point, you should start to have some understanding of the main events of the chapter. At this point you might like to continue to re-read the chapter, this time using a dictionary to check unknown words and phrases. Just remember – avoid the need to understand everything. Use the skills mentioned above to deal with words you don’t know and focus only on the vocabulary you think is vital to the narrative.”

    –> I do not understand the main events, because they depend on the context created by the words, the majority of which I didn’t know, and still don’t know because I never looked them up. I couldn’t infer their meaning from context, because I needed their meaning to have context.

    I go through the chapter again, with a dictionary. This time I track some of the words, but it’s a bit overwhelming since there’s so many to learn. I skip most of them and certainly can’t remember what the ones I looked up mean by just seeing them once in the dictionary.

    “6. Otherwise, if you feel you have followed the main events of the chapter, you should continue on to the next chapter, and enjoy the book just as you would in your mother tongue.”

    –> I still don’t really understand the events, although perhaps a little more after looking up some of the words. I continue on to the next chapter, and continue the process of confusion. I don’t enjoy the book because I barely know what’s happening at all, and reading through every chapter without an understanding multiple times is monotonous.

    Conclusion: I read the chapter 3 times, I looked up some of the words once, I don’t remember most of these words and I still didn’t understand the vast majority of what happened.

    This is how I would approach it:

    1. Read through chapter, marking words you don’t understand (perhaps not all of them, but a good percentage). Don’t worry about understanding what your read, just go through it. This should take about as long as if you didn’t mark said words.

    2. Summarize the events as best you can.

    3. Review the words you marked by actively writing some sentences using them so that you create an intuition for what context they’re used in. Try to combine as many words as possible into these sentences, form relationships between the words. Perhaps review them with some flash cards as well if you feel so inclined. This will take considerably less time than a complete second read-through of the chapter.

    4. Re-read the chapter. Mark any words you still don’t understand this re-through.

    5. Summarize the events.

    6. Repeat step 3 for the words you marked again. Move to next chapter.

    Conclusion: Read the chapter twice, developed significant vocab and therefore context, and as a result was able to understand a lot of the main events. I also worked my writing skills. All of this was accomplished in a shorter time than if I read through the chapter 3 times, only looking at some definitions the 3rd time through.

    In this solution, you aren’t stopping at every word, but you’re still putting in the necessary work to develop an understanding. I don’t see how this understanding can ever be expected to just ‘happen’ if you don’t specifically dedicate energy to understanding the words. Perhaps this works after a certain vocab threshold is overcome, but for a beginner in a foreign language I’m skeptical.

  • Andreia Sinta

    Interesting article! I’m still trying to read some Japanese books but it just seem too hard and almost all of it is in kanji. I read some of Dazai Osamu works and I’m not finished yet. Hopefully, I can put your article into work and can read Japanese with ease. By the way, do you have any recommendation of Japanese books for beginners?
    Greetings from Indonesia!
    Andreia

  • Yogesh Verma

    excellent… i like this artical so much.many thanks i struggle a lot in my reading. and this artical is very helpful.

  • Fintan Mc Gee

    Do you have plans for a Brasilian Portuguese set of short stories?

  • José Carlos de Souza

    This’s reading was amazing and helped me understand where I am with my level of reading. Thanks a lot i hope to read more a article like this.

    • Great, José! There’s a lot more like this on the blog 😉

  • Vadim Voronovskiy

    Great article. Thank you. Will use your thoughts in future.
    But On my opinion the best way to learn any language is to have constant speaking practice. In such case the best way is to find a tutor and native speakers. I can advise https://preply.com/de/Paris/deutsch-Nachhilfe for searching native speaking tutors. All other methods you can use as aditional way to gain new knowledge and practice already completed material.

  • David Massie

    Recently got turned on to your language support materials and I am finding them super useful! Just bought the three Spanish books for Kindle (cheap, like $3 each) and started reading the first one last night. So nice to have stories that are actually readable. But it’s only today that I read this article above and got a sense of what you believe is the most enjoyable and efficient way to learn from these stories. I’m really pleased to have come across your materials, Olly. I read your origin story and I gotta say, you’ve really committed yourself to sharing your understanding of language. For someone like me who moved to the Dominican Republic less than a year ago with no Spanish skills at all, it’s material like yours that has helped me acquire a solid foundation to build on. You really do need to commit to learning a language, it doesn’t simply happen with wishes. But once you do, there’s plenty out there like what you’ve developed to get you there. Thanks, brother. It really is greatly appreciated by folks like me.

    • Hi David, thanks so much for your comment, it means a lot to me to hear that. Best of luck with your Spanish, and keep it up!

  • Trisha Spinelli

    great tips and i hope one day i can tackle 100 Years of Solitude, which i have read 5 times in English, in Spanish! I live in Costa Rica so I read the Spanish newspapers every day and a lot of the pages on my facebook page are in Spanish. I do almost all of the things you suggested — especially trying to understand various verb tenses that I don’t regularly use.

    • That’s great, Trisha! When people are as active and independent as you in their study, it’s so much easier to make progress and be successful. Keep it up!

    • José Salazar (Blockkingdom)

      I’ve been speaking Spanish for 22 years and I still haven’t been able to read and understand the entire book.

      • Trisha Spinelli

        That’s why I had to read it 5 times!! Jajaja only because I now live in Latin America am I able to keep the names straight!

        • Carlos H. Castillo

          “Sus ventosidades marchitaban las flores”

  • moineau

    This has certainly been key to my continued fluency in French. I graduated with a degree in French in 1983 and had literally no practice except for the novels I read until 1999 when I finally visited France. Reading created and maintained my fluency. I’m so grateful to have discovered this secret early on. And I’m glad you are sharing it here as it can enrich one’s life so much.

    • Thanks for your comment Moineau, great to hear you’re doing so well with French!

  • Chintan Bilimoria

    I am really thankful to you for such a great article! I have just started reading books written in English. Yes, I am not native English speaker. I get stuck on each new word and phrase but after reading your article I think you got me a solution to my problem. Hopefully, I will be continuing reading a book with your suggested tips. Once again thanks a lot.

  • Russell Bagley

    Encouraging and motivating article! I have the Kindle version of Spanish short stories for beginners and tried reading it a few weeks ago with very little vocabulary and struggled. As in some of the other comments I paused my reading and focussed on increasing my vocabulary and understanding. Having read this article I will return to the book now and see how I get on by using the identified strategies, I will report back as to how I get on.

    • Good stuff – I hope it helps Russell! I think it has to be a combination of the two things – deliberately increasing your vocabulary through focused study, while also spending time expanding beyond the “micro” and just reading more extensively…even if it’s hard!

  • Daniel McBrearty

    Good advice. One thing I have found great is to read cartoon books (they called them ‘bandes desinées’ in France) – then you have a lot of visual clues, plus they are fun, and the text is not too dense. Some are really fantastic – works of art as well. Also – airline magazines – they very often have (not very good) translations to English alongside the native language text. Free parallel translations!

  • flootzavut

    My problem is that a lot of these kinds of things just aren’t available in my target languages. (Is the Russian reader going to get onto Kindle eventually? I can’t afford the paperback and I much prefer reading on the Kindle anyway.)

    Don’t suppose you know of any similar resources in Hebrew?