Ever tried to read a French book and come up feeling like you understood less than when you started?
Ready to move past Astérix and Obélix?
This is your chance!
Reading in French, like reading in any language, requires quite a few tools. Of course you need to have basic French comprehension, but even if you’ve been taking classes and practicing different grammar exercises, you’re likely not reading at native level yet. But we can fix that! Soon, reading French books will be the “B A Ba.”
“B A Ba” is a French expression used to mean the basics; the expression comes from when a child is first learning to read and discovers that B-A is pronounced Ba. It’s just the beginning, but it’s a very important skill!
So let’s start at the very beginning and see how far we can go with just a bit of time and effort.
5 Smart Steps for Learning to Read in French
1. Read Children’s Books in French
One of the best places to start when you’re learning to read in French is with children’s books. Children’s books use simple sentence structures and vocabulary, so you’ll be able to follow the books easily.
Here’s a great list of French children’s books to start with. But be aware, just choosing the book is only the beginning. When you’re reading in French, especially when you’re just starting out, you have to read smart to succeed. It’s not enough to just read the words on the page. Take notes, jotting down vocabulary words you don’t understand. Try to get to the root of different sentence structures that might be unfamiliar to you. Children’s books may be written for young audiences, but forms like the simple past, which you’re likely not used to seeing, are still common.
Above all, don’t get frustrated with your relatively low level of reading at this point. The important thing is to really understand what you’re reading, even if the level is for much younger readers. After all, it’s not your first language! Really embrace the simple stories now; once you’ve gotten the hang of children’s books, you’ll be ready to move on to more advanced reading.
2. Read Translations of Your Favorite Young Adult Novels
Once you’ve mastered counting to ten and meeting animals on the farm with children’s books, it’s time to move on to more interesting things. One of the best ways to learn new French words and get familiar with new French sentence structures is by reading books you already know in translation.
For this exercise, don’t pick the most advanced novels you’ve ever read. Try to choose a series that you liked as a teen or young adult: “Harry Potter,” “Gossip Girl,” “Twilight”… no one’s judging your taste, here! A series is a good place to start, as the translation will adhere to certain style models, and with each book you read, understanding will become easier.
The other good thing about reading something that you already know—or own—is that you can always compare the translation to the original. When you’re not sure of the exact meaning of a phrase, compare it with the original and see if that clears up any confusion.
With this step of learning to read in French, it isn’t as necessary to understand every single word, however. Try reading for comprehension first, and reading again to look for new vocabulary words. Much of French learning with this sort of reading will happen subconsciously!
3. Read Abridged French Classics
Once teen lit is within your sphere of knowledge, it’s time to move on to French literature. But don’t worry! We’re not making the leap from “Harry Potter” to “Les Misérables” quite yet. There are several versions of French classics that are published abridged, either for foreign learners just like you or for young French readers.
The former may have translations or definitions of outdated or difficult words, while the latter will likely be written in a slightly more timeless style. This will allow you to use the vocabulary you know instead of wondering what a redingote (riding jacket) or a carrosse (horse-drawn carriage) might be.
There are several different companies publishing abridged classics, but one of the best is undoubtedly Livre de Poche Jeunesse. These are the versions that are read by French students, so they’re the perfect blend of ease and authenticity. Try some of the following to get you started:
- “Les Misérables,” Victor Hugo
- “Notre Dame de Paris,” Victor Hugo
- “Le Tour du monde en 80 jours,” Jules Verne
- “Le Comte de Monte Cristo,” Alexandre Dumas
When reading these books, play close attention to sentence structure. The stories have been abridged for readers like you, so if you see a structure that looks unfamiliar, jot it down and ask a teacher or French-speaking friend for an explanation. Understanding simpler sentence structure in abridged versions of these books will help you move more quickly to unabridged classics.
4. Read French Classics
The time has come. You know the stories. You have the tools. You’re ready to read the French classics.
Start out with something simple. Balzac tends to be very straightforward in his storytelling, so you’ll have little trouble following the events of the book. Choose Marcel Pagnol’s stories of his childhood in southern France for a childlike perspective, or try Victor Hugo’s long but easy-to-follow classics.
If you find that classics are too difficult at first, choose one that you’ve already read in its abridged form, so that you know where the story is going and will have an easier time following the direction of the book.
With a bit of research into what was happening in the country at the time, Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist works and Albert Camus’s reflections on society are excellent more contemporary works to try, with simple language albeit complex ideas. Amélie Nothomb is one modern Belgian writer whose absurd stories will be interesting for a more advanced reader, and the prolific novelist will give fans more than enough choice!
Know that no matter which author you choose, you won’t pick up on everything during the first reading. But that’s half the fun! Pick up inexpensive used copies of the books and make notes in the margins. When you come back to the book in a year or two, it’ll be interesting to see how far you’ve come!
5. Reading French Poetry
Once you’ve mastered the French novelist, it’s time to embrace French poetry. As in any language, poetry in French is very figurative, which makes it much more difficult than prose for a foreign language learner to understand.
Start with prose poems from Charles Baudelaire. Many of his poems address his ennui, boredom and dissatisfaction with the world. The common themes are easy to identify, and the more you read of Baudelaire, the more extensive your comprehension of these sentiments will be.
Guillaume Apollinaire is a very interesting poet for French language learners to experience. Many of his poems are not only illustrative through language, but through structure as well. Apollinaire built his poems in the form of their subject, anything from a horse to a person to a bird.
Many French novelists were poets as well; Victor Hugo may be best known for “Les Misérables” and “Notre Dame de Paris,” but he was also a prolific poet. As you’re already familiar with his style, it’s interesting to spend some time with his poetry.
If you step back in time, you can examine the intriguing alexandrin, a French rhyme scheme that plays a similar role to that of iambic pentameter in English. An alexandrin is made up of 12 syllables, and they are often used in rhyming pairs. As opposed to ABBA or ABAB, which are more common rhyming patterns in English, in French you’ll often see AABB. Reading some of these older French poems aloud can help not only with your comprehension of them, but with your general pronunciation as well.
Grammar and vocabulary exercises are a very important part of your language learning, but don’t forget how important it is to immerse yourself in the culture of the language as well.
Reading in French, whether it be mere children’s books or advanced poetry, is one of the most interesting and excited ways to improve your French.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn French with real-world videos.