reading in a second language

The Proven 5-Step Formula for Masterful Reading in a Second Language

How do you approach reading in your target language?

If you’re anything like me, up until now it’s all been a bit haphazard.

You’ve heard that reading is a great way to improve your vocabulary. You think you should really create a daily reading habit. You know you should match reading material to your level.

But which books should you be reading? How do you know if a text matches your reading level?

Luckily, help is at hand for “readers without a plan” like you and me. Researchers focused on second language learning have come up with some great ways to improve your reading skills.

Yep, you heard me right. There’s a whole load of researchers out there finding the best techniques for you to become a better language learner.

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The Proven 5-Step Formula for Masterful Reading in a Second Language

Reading in your second language can be as fun or as challenging as you want to make it. However, one thing that it isn’t is effortless.

You have to put in some work to get the most out of reading…but, boy, is it worth it when you do!

Grab yourself a book!

Let’s say you’ve found something in your target language that you think you might want to read.

Now what?

Whether it’s a book, a short story, an article or just the back of a cereal box, follow these 5 easy steps and you can’t go wrong.

1. Match Your Reading Level with This Powerful Technique.

First, you need to make sure that the chosen text matches your reading level.

“Yeah, right,” I hear you say. “People always say ‘match your level.’ But how do I do that?”

Well, it’s actually pretty simple.

Language researchers have shown that you need to understand at least 95% to 98% of the words on a page to read it comfortably. They call this a “lexical comprehension level,” but you can call it whatever you like.

How to calculate your comprehension level

So, pick up your book now and read through one page.

You should count:

1. The total number of words on the page (we’ll call this “TotalWords”)
2. The number of words you don’t understand (“UnknownWords”)

Here’s an example of what this might look like:

TotalWords = 250
UnknownWords = 10

Now, jump over to the percentage calculator and enter your numbers in the second row like this:

UnknownWords” is what percent of “TotalWords”?

Now, hit that big Calculate button! For example, I filled out the calculator so it looked like the following line:

10 is what percent of 250 ?

Answer: 4%

That means that I didn’t understand 4% of the words on the page, but did I understand 96% of the words (to calculate that, just subtract the number from 100).

Is the book too hard for me?

Here’s a little table which lets you know how difficult you’ll find the text based on all the numbers introduced above.

% words you understood % unknown words Example (250 words per page) How hard will it be to read?
less than 90% more than 10% more than 25 unknown words This will be very difficult. Try something easier and come back to this later.
90 to 95% 5 to 10% 13 to 25 unknown words This will be quite difficult, and you’ll have to use a dictionary quite a lot. Try using the “reading for challenge” tips later in this post.
95 to 98% 2 to 5% 5 to 12 unknown words This will be challenging at times, and you may need a dictionary. Reading at this level will be great for your language learning!
over 98% less than 2% fewer than 5 unknown words This is a good level to read at. You’ll enjoy it and still be learning new words, often using context to figure out their meanings (see below for how to do this).

I was once told by a language teacher “if you don’t understand more than 10 words on a page, then you won’t enjoy the book.” Turns out she was right!

2. Choose Between These 2 Types of Reading Material.

Now that you’ve calculated the reading difficulty of your chosen text, it’s time to decide if you really want to read it.

You need to ask yourself: “Why do I want to read this?

There are many reasons why you might want to read something, but there are 2 basic types of second language reading material:

1. Reading for fun.
2. Reading to challenge and develop your reading level

Researchers call these extensive and intensive reading, respectively, and we’ve introduced the benefits of both before.

It’s important to remember that it’s best to vary what you read. Sometimes read for fun, sometimes give yourself a challenge.

Each type requires a different approach.

3. Follow These 4 Rules When Reading for Fun.

Just like when you’re reading in your native language, reading for fun (extensive reading) in a second language is all about enjoying the story.

To maximize fun and learning while reading for fun, just follow these 4 simple rules:

1. Pick a book where you can understand around 98% of the words (or more).

Research shows that extensive reading is most effective when you start by reading a lot of easier books.

Now isn’t the time to challenge yourself. The first book I ever tried to read in Spanish was by Schopenhauer (the philosopher). That wasn’t a good idea! I couldn’t understand most of the words on the page and it totally discouraged me from reading at all.

Don’t make my mistake. Match your level (see step 1 above).

Sometimes you can find simplified versions of more classical books. These can be really good options if you’re not ready for the original versions yet, but still want to dabble in more complex texts.

2. Treat yourself. Read something you enjoy.

Fun reading should be fun! Duh.

If you like cheesy romance novels or popular page-turners in your native language then read these in your second language too. Nobody’s judging you (honest).

You could even find a translation of one of your favorite books. This has some added benefits: you’re already familiar with the author’s voice and the story’s plot, so you’ll understand more of the text.

3. Limit your look up words.

One of the quickest ways to lose interest in any reading is to look up every word you don’t know. Give the dictionary a rest and limit yourself to researching 2 or 3 words per page. Beyond that, just ignore that unknown word, take your best guess from the context and look it up later if the word appears again.

An e-book reader with an added dictionary makes looking up words faster but, even so, stick to only 2 or 3 words per page max.

4. Reward yourself for finishing

There’s nothing better than finishing your first book in a foreign language! Well, finishing the second one feels pretty good too. Give yourself a big pat on the back and go and buy yourself something nice. A new book perhaps?

4. Use This 6-Strategy Toolkit for Intensive Reading.

The other type of reading is to read for challenge (intensive reading).

This is where “reading strategies” come in. This basically just means that you have some sort of plan to read the text in an interactive way.

Researchers have identified a whole load of great reading strategies that foreign language readers can use to boost their second language reading skills.

Here’s a simplified toolkit containing 6 strategies which you can start using right now:

Pre-reading strategies

Use these before you read to improve your understanding of the text and get more involved.

1. Write your background knowledge on Post-it notes

Before you start reading, write down what you think you already know about the text (in your target language preferably).

Maybe you’re reading an article about French wine. On different Post-it notes, write what you think you already know about the country, culture and anything else related to the topic.

2. Ask yourself questions about the text

In your target language, write down some questions for yourself about the topic and try predict what the answers will be before you start reading.

Try to identify what you think the main ideas or concepts of the text will be. Make predictions about what the important details might be. Read the questions aloud to yourself. After you’ve finished reading you can come back to these questions and describe how your answers have changed now that you’ve read the text.

Reading strategies

These let you get interactive with the text, making you really think about what it says.

3. Annotate the text

You know how your parents always forbid you to write in books?

I’m giving you permission to ignore their rules. Annotating books is a great way to become an active reader.

There are many things you can annotate in a text. A few examples are:

a. Identify the author’s main points. Do this by underlining the key sentences, phrases or conclusions. Try paraphrasing the points and noting where evidence is used to back them up.

b. Mark passages which are unclear with a question mark (?). Note what you don’t understand.

c. Note how you react to the text. Write an exclamation mark (!) near passages you react strongly to and describe your objection, agreement or interest on a Post-it note.

Come up with your own annotation system. There are endless possibilities!

4. Guess the word meaning from context

All too often we reach for the dictionary before we try to work out what the word means from the context.

Look for clues about what the word might mean from the words around it. Take your best guess. If you feel reasonably confident with your guess then you can just keep reading and look it up again later. Even if you get the definition wrong, don’t worry. Psychologists have found that the process of trying to remember a word will improve your ability to remember the real definition later, even if you had to look it up!

Post-reading strategies

After reading, these strategies help to cement what you’ve learned into your brain by making you actively reflect on the reading material’s content.

5. Write a summary of the text

This lets you find out how much you’ve understood from the text and what might benefit revision. Summarise the main points of the text and also how you reacted to them.

Sites like Goodreads are great for this. They allow you to post online reviews (in whatever language you like) and also read reviews of others.

6. Talk to people about the book

Well, why do you want to learn a language? Don’t you want to learn how to speak with people?

Reading can be a very social activity—just think how popular book clubs are. Take any chance you can to talk about what you’ve read with other people. It’ll improve your understanding of the text and can also be the start of great conversations.

5. Give Yourself a Break and Beat Reading Anxiety.

Finally, the most important detail. Don’t get stressed out when reading in a foreign language.

Believe me, I know what it’s like to throw down a book in frustration because I can’t understand enough of the language. It can be really demotivating and makes you feel like you’ll never be good at the language. On the other hand, successfully reading a book in a second language can be one of the most rewarding feelings.

Although reading might seem like a low-stress activity, “foreign reading anxiety” is a real thing (there are studies on it!).

The remedy is pretty simple. When reading starts to make you anxious, stop, breathe and take a break. If you try to keep reading, your anxious brain will understand even less of the text, which will just make things worse.

Above all, start enjoying reading in your second language and you’ll be hooked on it forever!

Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)



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