Comprehensible Input vs Parallel Texts: What’s the Best Way To Read?

Olly in Himeji Japan

So you believe in the power of reading for learning a new language?

Good.

But you may have run into a big problem when you've tried to read in the past:

You can't find suitable reading material!

For example:

Whenever I give tips about  how to read effectively in a foreign language, the problem of finding suitable reading material inevitably crops up:

“Olly, I want to read, but I just can't find reading material that is suitable for my level.”

It's clear:

There's a lack of suitable reading material for language learners. And it's a very real barrier for anyone who wants to read more in their target language.

This has been on my mind, because I've recently been struggling to read as much as I want in Japanese.

So, in this article, I'll tell you how I'm currently thinking about the practical problem of getting extensive reading done in a foreign language, specifically in relation to:

Let's get into it…

The Invisible Barrier To Reading In Foreign Languages

the invisible barrier to reading in a foreign language

For two kinds of language learners, it's easy to find reading material:

But for everyone else in the middle (most people!) it's a different story…

Publishers and content producers simply don't go around writing engaging content (books, movie scripts, newspapers, blogs etc) for intermediate language learners!

If you're neither a beginner, nor super-advanced, you'll find that everything you do pick up and try to read is either too easy or too hard.

The result: You don't learn anything.

This feels like a very unfair problem, doesn't it?

It's like learning to drive and discovering that no-one's built any roads.

Is there seriously nothing good out there for me to read in my target language?

Comprehensible Input

Olly Richards inteviewing Dr Stephen Krashen

If you want to do reading properly – and learn from it – then there's a magical concept you need to know about:

Comprehensible Input.

You've heard me talk about Comprehensible Input before. (Quite a lot, in fact.)

Comprehensible Input is the idea that if you can understand what you're reading, you're in a position to learn something from the contents.

(As opposed to reading a difficult novel, for example, which is mostly incomprehensible, and therefore hard to learn anything.)

You can apply this concept with the simplified dictum: Read just above your level.

When you read just above your level, two things happen:

  1. You can understand enough to enjoy what you're reading, without getting overwhelmed and frustrated by the “wall of text”
  2. New vocabulary becomes easier to learn, because you have all that lovely context to help give those new words meaning

You know you're getting Comprehensible Input when 70-95% of the vocabulary is known to you. (70-95% is the range that most experienced learners describe Comprehensible Input.)

Here's what 70% known vocabulary looks like on the page:
reading 70 percent comprehensible input

(In this example, unknown words are highlighted in yellow.)

And here's 95% known vocabulary:
reading 95 percent comprehensible input

According to most experienced language learners, 70% is about the minimum “known words” you need in order for it to stay comprehensible.

There are still quite a few new words in the text at this level, which can make it hard going.

However, this struggle is also the benefit, because there's tonnes of new vocabulary up for grabs which you can learn. This can speed up your progress.

You can make reading easier by tackling material with more like 90-95% “known words”, but the trade-off is that there's less new vocabulary to learn, so your progress is slower.

From what I've observed, the most experienced (and efficient) language learners tend to gravitate towards the lower (70%) end of the scale, for the following reason:

“It's hard to read at the 70% level, but it's worth it. There are so many words you have to learn in a new language, that you don't stand a chance of learning enough vocabulary unless you're exposed to a lot of it. Reading at the 95% level simply isn't quick enough.”

Interestingly…

When I chatted with Steven Krashen (who coined the term Comprehensible Input), he told me that he prefers reading at around 95% “known words”:

You have to experiment to find the exact level that's best for you.

Either way…

What matters more than anything else is that you're studying with Comprehensible Input – a lot of it.

At the point I'm at in my language learning, my opinion is that:

Spending all your time reading and listening to Comprehensible Input is the single most effective thing you can do to improve your language skills (at any level).

Now…

Wouldn't it be nice if it was just that simple?

Where Comprehensible Input Fails

Here's the big problem with Comprehensible Input:

Finding your Comprehensible Input can be really hard!

Have you ever searched for material in your target language that's at just the right level

That beautiful comprehensible level?

Material that's also compelling, so you're interested enough to read it?

It's really hard!

So, it's all very well talking about Comprehensible Input as the Holy Grail of language learning…

But if you can't get a hold of it, it's no good to you.

As an educator, it's annoying to have to accept this reality – that the very thing that you know will help people most, might not actually be a practical solution.

It's not that there's no-one creating material with Comprehensible Input in mind – my recent books of short stories with Teach Yourself, and training such as Conversations are exactly that.

my short story books for learners

My friends at LingQ are another good example of people doing good work on that front.

It's just that it runs out pretty quickly and you're soon back where you started!

Anyway…

This is why, I think, people often bring up so-called parallel texts, and ask if they're useful. (Parallel texts are foreign language books that give you a full translation of what you're reading on the opposite page.)

My basic response has always been this:

“Avoid parallel texts. By giving you a translation of what you're reading, it removes the element of struggle. (And you need struggle in order to learn.)”

The only reason you need the parallel text is that the material is too hard for you in the first place. Far better to read at “Comprehensible” level, so you don't need the translation at all.

And as far as “good practice” goes, I stand by this viewpoint.

However….

What if you can't find good material – good compelling, Comprehensible Input – at your level?

What do you do then?

Not read at all?

Not so fast…

Read Extensively… One Way Or Another!

in front of Himeji castle in Japan

I struggled with finding compelling, comprehensible reading material in Japanese.

My Japanese is around a spoken B2 level, and “learner” texts are far too easy for me. (Not to mention dull as dishwater… Japanese publishers lack imagination!)

I've often tried to read authentic Japanese material (books etc), but it is usually impenetrable, because:

a) It's too hard

b) I can't read a lot of the kanji (Chinese characters)

Whenever I try to read, it's overwhelming.

So, what could I do?

Not reading is hardly a solution.

It's Catch-22.

Eventually, I realised that I need to compromise on my beliefs about learning – for purely practical reasons!

You might remember this from earlier:

There are so many words you have to learn in a new language, that you don't stand a chance of learning enough vocabulary unless you're exposed to a lot of it

So I was back to point that I've got to get the exposure somehow!

The alternative is to fall back on learner textbooks and beginner material, where you'll never meet enough of the words, phrases and grammar you need to learn the language to fluency.

And this brings us back to parallel texts.

And to how I'm changing my opinion on these.

Where Parallel Texts May Be Useful

parallel text japanese english

So far in this article, I've told you how important Comprehensible Input is for learning, but how it can be difficult to find it.

And in this (imperfect) situation, parallel texts offer a lifeline.

For all the problems with parallel texts (see above)…

If the end result of using them is that you end up doing hours and hours of reading…

Then that has to be a good thing.

This dilemma was put most brilliantly by the editor of a book of Japanese parallel texts I recently bought in Tokyo:

With Japanese…the chasm dividing the short example sentences of textbooks from the more intellectually rewarding world of real-world books and articles can appear unbridgeable… Either you master two thousand kanji characters with their various readings to achieve breakthrough proficiency and the capacity for self-study or you fail to memorise enough kanji, your morale collapses, and you retire, tired of floating in a limbo of semi-literacy. At a certain point, Japanese is all or nothing, win or lose, put up or shut up.

– Introduction by Series Editor to Japan Today and How It Got This Way  (James M. Vardaman)

So, after years of failing to do much reading in Japanese because of a lack of good material, I recently began a daily reading practice using two kinds of parallel texts:

  1. book of parallel texts I bought in Japan
  2. Reading the Japanese and English versions of the same book side-by-side

Now, this material is a bit too far above my level, and I come across a lot of vocabulary I don't know.

There's a big temptation to stop and look everything up!

The key to reading successfully has been to turn off my analytical brain, and simply read without worrying about not understanding something, or trying to memorise new words.

Read that last bit again and let it sink in – it's super important.

Because parallel texts are usually way above your level, you can get bogged down looking up new words forever unless you can be happy just getting the “gist” of what's happening.

A “gist-only” approach to reading allows you to cover a lot more ground, which is the main (only?) benefit of extensive reading. (It's the same advice I give in the introduction to my short story books… funny how it's easier to give advice than to receive it!!!!)

Anyway…

I have to say, it's been really helpful.

Despite the fact that it feels massively inefficient, it feels great to actually be immersed in real Japanese content that I can kind-of-understand on a daily basis.

And, inevitably, new things are starting to sink in.

(I remember fondly my Italian project where it was enough for me to simply read and listen extensively without any translations! Romance languages are easier for native English speakers, and parallel texts are best avoided throughout.)

Conclusion

Olly Richards reading by the canal in Venice

In this article, I gave you the following recipe for effective reading:

  1. You need to read extensively in order to reach high levels in a foreign language
  2. Extensive reading should be done completely in the target language (no translation), so you can get used to operating in the language
  3. You should search for Comprehensible Input – material that's neither too easy nor too hard, but just above your current level. However, this comes with a big caveat:
  4. If you can't find material at the right level, you've still got to find some way to read, otherwise you'll never get enough exposure to the language to make good progress
  5. Parallel texts, while they remove that all-important element of challenge from your reading, make reading possible by providing translations

In summary…

Reading is one of the best tools for reaching high levels in a foreign language. It's not easy, and you've got to do a lot of it – every day, over months and years.

And there are lots of approaches to reading the right way. But at the end of the day, the pros and cons of any specific method are subjective.

Whatever material gets you reading, and keeps you coming back day after day, is worth its weight in gold!

What are your thoughts on reading in a foreign language? Do you get comprehensible input through extensive reading? Are you like me, learning a language like Japanese with little in the way of comprehensible input beyond beginner level? Let me know your thoughts and experiences in the comments below. 

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