“Will I ever really feel confident reading in German?”
It’s a question that haunts many beginners to the language.
The prospect of learning to read in German can seem daunting at the outset, but break it into a series of actionable steps and you can set yourself up for long-term success.
Let’s look at a simple 4-step, no-sweat guide to help you quickly level up in this core aspect of the language.
How to Read German: A 4-Step No-sweat Guide for Beginners
1. Tackle Your Fear of Reading in German
Despite the many similarities between the languages, a surprising amount of native English speakers approach learning German with fear in their hearts. Nowhere is this more apparent than when it comes to reading.
Mysteriously shifting word endings, an unfamiliar sentence structure and terrifyingly long words can all present significant stumbling blocks for the beginner.
These fears aren’t new of course. As far back as 1880, Mark Twain was hilariously outlining his struggles with the exact same set of problems in “The Awful German Language.” All the greatest problematic hits were present even then: separable verbs, adjective endings, compound nouns and more. You’ll even hear Germans themselves talk up the difficulty of their language in common daily phrases such as Deutsche Sprache, schwere Sprache (German language, hard language).
If you’re serious about attaining fluency though, you must learn to read in German.
But don’t worry—it’s not as hard as you think, and we’re going to break through this mental barrier before we start reading.
If you compare listening, speaking, reading and writing, reading is by far the kindest. You’re free to correct your mistakes, there’s no social embarrassment to contend with and you can set your own pace.
Here are four further points worth bearing in mind if you still find learning to read in German too daunting:
- Children learn how to do this every day. German children are not all natural language savants, yet they somehow mysteriously pick up the language perfectly, like ducks to water. You will too. It just takes time, particularly if this is your first foreign language.
- Rome wasn’t built in a day. We’re going to tackle this step by step, bit by bit. So stop yourself from thinking of it as a huge undertaking, like “read a book in German.” Always break it into smaller pieces, like “read one page” or “read one paragraph.” Our simple steps will help you do this.
- Keep fear away. Anxiety in the face of a challenge is natural and healthy. But don’t let it morph into fear and stop you from even beginning. Keep trying.
- You’re never too old. Many people are put off by half-remembered anecdotal musings claiming that adult language learning (or indeed any type of serious skill acquisition) is next to impossible. This simply isn’t the case. Check out Gary Marcus’ experience with learning the guitar at forty for some informed inspiration.
So are you ready? You can do this! Leave fear behind and let’s get down to work.
2. Establish a Solid Base for German Reading
Trying to read in German without a solid base in the language is like trying to drive a car with the handbrake on. You’ll eventually move forward, but it’ll be an awkward, painful process. You can save yourself literally years of frustration by making sure you’re solid on the following basics first.
Alphabet and pronunciation
German shares the same basic 26-letter alphabet with English, so you’re off to a flying start. However, there are four extra characters (ß, ä, ö, ü) and numerous combined letter forms to contend with. Get familiar with these, particularly as they relate to pronunciation.
Speaking of pronunciation, take the time to learn the basics of the International Phonetic Alphabet and you’ll instantly turbo-charge your language learning abilities. There is a distinct set of vowel and consonant sounds you need to understand for German and defined ways of making them. Learn them. (This video will help.)
It’s also worth getting familiar with the concept of minimal pairs to help you confidently distinguish between similar sounds that often trip up non-native speakers.
The purpose of all this preparatory work is twofold. Firstly, you’re mastering core skills you’ll need anyway for speaking and comprehension. Secondly, you’re training the internal voice you use when reading. The words on the page become real sounds you know how to make rather than just intimidating jumbles of letters. You’ll find yourself starting to actually think in German as you read.
Don’t approach your initial German vocabulary in a haphazard manner. There are excellent frequency lists available for German online. Use them.
Research from Dr. Alexander Arguelles suggests that just 750 words constitute the core set of words in daily use for most languages. Learning roughly that amount of words will give you instant comprehension of over 60% of any non-specialized reading material. Here’s how you can do it.
Now 750 words might sound like a lot, but that’s just 30 days of learning at a very achievable rate of 25 words a day. One month’s hard work to be able to understand nearly two thirds of an average text? That’s time worth investing. Even if you learn just five words a day, it’ll only take you 150 days—around 5 months—to master the 750 words.
Learning a word for the first time is one thing, but making it stick is quite another. Make sure you’re using a flashcard system to maximize your learning efficiency.
A fantastic tool for this is FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
With your core vocabulary in place, you’re free to branch out at your leisure. Stick to topics you’re genuinely interested in and you’ll notice your reading comprehension improve dramatically.
Nobody loves sitting down to learn German grammar, but it’s an unavoidable part of learning any language. Skip this step and you’re condemning yourself to a lifetime of hovering just above the confident beginner level.
Start with a simple grammar primer and drill yourself regularly on the basics. From there, move on to a more comprehensive German grammar guide to deepen your knowledge. As with learning vocabulary, store what you’re learning in some form of flashcards and make sure to regularly review.
3. Commit to a German Reading Strategy
Ok, by now you’ve covered the basics and can confidently tackle simple texts. It’s time to put that excellent preparatory work to good use and commit to a German reading strategy that will take you to the next level.
All types of reading are not the same. We’re not talking about subject matter here. We’re talking about intent. Distinguishing between two basic modes of reading is essential to both maximizing your time and maintaining morale.
The first type is casual reading. When you’re doing this, focus on getting a solid overall view of the text rather than getting hung up on individual words or tricky sentences. The aim is improving general comprehension rather than progressing in a specific area.
The second type of reading is more structured and goal-oriented. This involves close reading and note taking. You’ll be poring over each sentence in detail, referring to grammar resources and dictionaries, and entering specific items into your flashcard system.
Alternate between these two reading modes to avoid burnout. And don’t try to run before you can walk. You want to stick to works that are at or just slightly beyond your current level. Don’t start with the collected works of Thomas Mann and expect to get anywhere fast.
So, with those points in mind, what should a targeted initial reading list look like? Here’s a sample progression:
- Phase 1: A collection of children’s fairytales graded by age. A collection that progresses through targeted reading levels gives you a straightforward way of ramping up your skills. Check out our list of other great children’s books here.
- Phase 2: Leverage the learning power of visual storytelling with modern Manga from Judith Park.
- Phase 3: Use the familiarity of classic crime to deepen your reading level with “16 Uhr 50 ab Paddington” by Agatha Christie.
- Phase 4: Take the plunge and dive fully into reading modern, colloquial German with Wladimir Kaminer’s hilarious “Russendisko.”
This is obviously just an illustrative sequence, but stick to the same pattern of gradual movement towards more complex texts and you’ll make rapid progress.
4. Maintain a Regular German Reading Practice
Congratulations! You’re well and truly up and running. The trick now is keeping focused while continually pushing yourself.
Keep a regularly updated list of books you’ve read and intend to read. And make sure you’re continually adding new concepts and vocabulary into your flashcard solution. Also, make it a habit to establish scheduled reviews throughout the year to keep track of your progress and current level.
Here are three further resources that are sure to engage even the most advanced reader for many years to come:
- Das Magazin: One of Germany’s most consistently readable publications since way back in 1924.
- Die Welt’s Fuilleton: The Arts and Culture section of one of Germany’s leading dailies is sure to delight all the culture vultures out there.
- 11 Freunde: Germany’s leading football monthly combines a love of the game with excellently written longform articles.
Don’t forget to also check out our guide to German magazines and run-down of must-read classic German literature.
No matter what your chosen material is, the key to long-term success with reading in German is making it a daily activity. The power of small, daily doses over time is astonishing.
Take a tip from Seinfeld, make reading in German a daily task and don’t break the chain. There’s any number of great habit tracker apps out there to help you out with this, but all you really need is a pencil and paper to get started. Keep it up and you’ll soon astonish yourself with your progress.
That just about wraps up our no-sweat guide to learning to read German. Stick to the plan above and you’ll be well on your way to getting to grips with one of the world’s great written languages and opening yourself up to a lifetime of reading pleasure.