5 Tips for Creating a Rock Solid Foreign Language Reading Habit

Wanna get hooked on phonics?

It’s easier than you might think!

Reading in a foreign language can be intimidating at first.

That’s understandable.

The good news is that once you start reading in your target language every day, you won’t want to stop.

Many language learners get discouraged at the beginning, and avoid reading practice at all costs.

There’s a reason why: they didn’t have us to start them off on the right foot.

We’ve got some awesome tips, resources and habit-forming activities that’ll get you in the foreign language reading zone, permanently!

5 Tips for Creating a Daily Foreign Language Reading Habit

These tips will help you steer clear of common pitfalls, and head towards all your language learning goals faster than ever. There’s nothing too complicated about them — they might almost seem too easy. You might be left wondering, “hey, why didn’t I think of that?”

Well, that’s the way it should be. We’re going to get you reading in a way that feels simple, natural, fun and easy. Before you know it, reading in foreign language won’t be a chore or an obligation — it’ll be your daily dose of entertainment!

1. Choose Fun Things You’d Read in Your Native Language

Don’t force yourself through boring materials you think are “important.”

One of the most common mistakes I see language learners make? When it comes to reading in a foreign language, they’re always forcing themselves to read through uninteresting topics and materials that they’d never consider reading in their native language.

For example, I’ve had many English students who painfully work their way through difficult articles in The Wall Street Journal or The Harvard Business Review because they think these materials are “important” for their English abilities, even though the content bores them to tears.

While such resources certainly offer exposure to lots of business-specific vocabulary, the value of this input is extremely low if one looks on the task as a chore instead of a treat. Our understanding and retention tends to be much higher when we read content we genuinely enjoy.

Which leads to the next point…

Find foreign language reading material about your existing interests.

Perhaps you (unlike some of my former English students) love The Harvard Business Review and are already a regular subscriber.

For you, it would make perfect sense to find a business-centric magazine in your target language. But if biz articles aren’t your jam, don’t feel obligated to read them. You’re in control of your language learning journey, so find reading materials that fit your unique interests.

Look at the blogs, magazines, books, cartoons and other materials that you read already and try to find foreign language equivalents. Read food and cooking blogs from Taiwan. Get yourself some Japanese car magazines. Buy a German book on carpentry. You name the interest, and there’s bound to be a blog, magazine, book or other piece of reading material that serves it in most major languages.

Learn a new skill or hobby in your target language.

In addition to finding materials about your existing interests, another great strategy is to pick up a new skill or hobby through your target language. The highly contextual nature of such learning will help you make lots of new linguistic connections without having to constantly rely on a dictionary, and will fill in gaps in vocabulary much more quickly than more passive forms of learning.

2. Choose Digital Materials Whenever Possible

I freaking love the look, smell and feel of physical books. But when it comes to learning a foreign language, the advantages of digital materials far outweigh the sensory advantages of print.

Digital materials are faster.

One of the greatest advantages of digital materials in language learning is the ability to instantly look up unknown words or characters, saving you precious study time that would be wasted looking up words in a paper dictionary. Paper books also require you to carry around a separate dictionary, a weight disadvantage I discuss more below.

  • If reading articles online, install a pop-up dictionary browser extension like the Firefox extension Pera Pera Kun for Japanese or the Chrome extension Zhongwen for Chinese.
  • In the Kindle app (available for iOS, Android, Mac, Windows and more), you can download dictionaries for most major languages. As you read Kindle books in your target language, you can then just hold a word to reveal its definition and pronunciation.
  • On iOS, select a word and then tap “Define” from the contextual pop-up. If no definition is shown, tap “Manage” and then download whichever additional dictionaries you want.
  • On OSX, select a word and tap with 3 fingers to bring up its definition. To add additional dictionaries, open the built-in Dictionary app, go to preferences and check whichever you want to add.

Similarly, saving new words and phrases for later review is much faster when reading digital materials:

  • The pop-up dictionary Pera Pera Kun, fore example, allows you save words you look up so that later they can be downloaded.
  • Some online dictionaries, Tangorin.com for example, allow you to save words you look up and categorize them in different lists, which can each be exported in a format that easily imports into the Anki flashcard app. Lots of exporting and importing involved there, but you catch my drift.
  • More simply, you can always just copy and paste words or phrases into an app like Evernote for later review.
  • MosaLingua, which offers apps for Spanish, French, Italian, German and Portuguese, has a web version that gives you access to specially-selected online native materials, such as e-books. In addition, you can easily take words and phrases you come across that you don’t know and make them into flashcards, which you can then review on the mobile app as well.

Last but not least, digital materials are faster than print since they allow you to instantly find specific words or passages using the search function. Instead of wasting hours flipping through a print book to find that quote you loved or that word you wanted to look up, you can just type in the search field and tap “Find.” Ah, modern convenience.

Digital materials are cheaper.

In addition to being faster than their print counterparts, digital materials are also cheaper, if not free:

  • Kindle books are usually fairly inexpensive on Amazon, while paperbacks tend to be twice the price.
  • Books in the public domain are available as free eBooks from sites like Project Gutenberg.

You can then put all the money you’ve saved towards tutor fees or a plane ticket abroad!

Digital materials are lighter and take up less space.

Bits are lighter than atoms. My back still doesn’t forgive me for all the harm I did hauling around textbooks, manga and massive dictionaries back in college. Had I begun learning a language today instead of in the relative “Stone Age” of the late 90’s, I could have carried all the reading and reference materials I ever wanted right in my pocket on a smartphone or tablet.

Today, you never need to choose which books to take and which to leave on the shelf as you can take them all with you wherever you go in digital form.

3. Listen to Materials You’ve Previously Read

Reading alone won’t improve your listening and speaking skills.

While reading is extremely important, it’s imperative that you keep your reading time balanced with the other three core language skills: listening, speaking, and writing.

While teaching English in East Asia, I observed that most students felt much more comfortable reading and writing, while they struggled greatly with listening and speaking. This makes perfect sense since language classes in that part of the world (if not the world over) tend to focus most of their time on reading tasks, translation and so on with very little time spent actively listening and speaking.

We get better at what we practice most, so naturally reading will make you better at reading but will do very little for your listening and speaking abilities.

You’ll improve retention when you consume the same content in multiple formats.

In addition to helping improve both your listening and reading skills, consuming the same material in more than one form of input will increase your retention of new words and build stronger connections between previously learned materials. It’s also more interesting to repeat the same content in multiple formats than it is to simply reread the same passage over and over again.

Listen to the content you’ve been reading.

So what’s the best way to listen to content you’ve previously read? Here are 4 suggestions:

  • Find podcasts with transcripts. Podcasts are some of my favorite language learning tools as they cover a wide range of interests, tend to be short and are almost always free. Many podcasters include show notes or transcripts right alongside the MP3 file that can be revealed with just a tap on your smartphone or a click on your computer.
  • Get both the ebook and audiobook version of your favorite books. While this may be an expensive proposition if buying copyrighted books, the benefits are well worth the cost. But keep in mind that you can also try finding ebook/audiobook pairs using Project Gutenberg and Librivox.
  • Get custom audio recorded. You can ask a native speaker friend or tutor to record a given piece of text, or you can use the power of crowdsourcing with a site like Rhinospike. You simply submit some text you want read aloud in your target language, you record something for someone learning your native language, and then you can download the MP3 you requested when your submission is ready.

4. Don’t Linger Too Long Over Details

Stopping and starting is difficult for building smooth comprehension. Try reading an entire page or paragraph before stopping to look up any words.

Avoid the “dictionary black hole.”

As I mentioned above, being able to quickly look up new words is a major advantage of digital materials. But this pro can quickly become a con if you allow yourself to fall into the “dictionary black hole.” This is when you look up a word which leads you to a related term, and then another and another, until you forgot what you were doing in the first place.

Don’t break the semantic flow.

Stopping to look up every other word not only makes it more difficult to follow the flow of a story, but it also significantly slows you down. While skipping unknown terms may mean that you miss a little of what’s going on, it offers many advantages:

  • It increases your reading speed.
  • It builds fluency.
  • It encourages you to make educated guesses.

5. Commit to a Painless Minimum Page Count Per Day

You are more likely to procrastinate on bigger goals.

As I discuss in my post on self-teaching languages like a rock star, simply setting goals isn’t enough. To have any chance of success, your goals need to be “S.M.A.R.T.” (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound).

To this end, I recommend starting with an absurdly small daily reading commitment.

For example, “I commit to reading 1 paragraph every day.” You’ll likely go on to read much more on most days, but starting with an easy task helps ensure completion. If you were to commit to reading an entire article per day, on the other hand, chances are good that you’ll put off the task, fearing the time and work involved.

Read small chunks any chance you get.

Just as you should commit to a tiny daily reading goal, you should use any tiny chunks of free time you find each day to fit in a little reading:

Don’t let yourself miss a day.

A key part of making reading a part of your daily routine is to not let yourself miss a day. The longer your unbroken chain becomes, the more you’ll want to keep going. But when you let yourself miss just one day, you’re that much more likely to miss the next day, and the next, and the next, until your reading habit has completely fallen out of your life.

So, keep the ball rolling with consistently good work!

See my article 5 Killer Language Learning Strategies Guaranteed to Help You Make Time for more about habit formation.

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