reading in foreign language

Take It Easy: 7 Useful Strategies for Smooth Reading in a Foreign Language

If you’re reading this, congratulations!

English is one of the most difficult languages to learn to read. From word to word, the same sounds in English are often spelled differently, or the same spellings are pronounced differently. Research has shown that English-speaking children take more than twice as long to learn to read as children who speak most other European languages.

But you’re not reading this article because you want to bask in the glory of being able to read English; you want to learn to read a whole other language!

The good news is that reading in whatever foreign language you’re interested in is probably easier than reading in English. The even better news is that reading in a foreign language can actually be the easiest thing you ever learn. With the right strategies, it’ll come much more naturally than getting down all that vocabulary or sharpening up your listening comprehension skills.

With the right techniques, language learning can usually be fun, but this is even more true of learning to read in a foreign language: basically all you have to do is read whatever you want, and you’ll get better at reading.

Of course, there are a few tricks you want to use along the way to make your “reading whatever you want” as efficient, effective and painless as possible. Here they are.
 


 

7 Strategies to Make Reading in a Foreign Language the Easiest Thing You Ever Learn

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1. Transfer Your Reading Skills from Your Native Language

If you can read one language, you can read them all—sort of. Studies (like this one) have suggested that to an extent, reading skills transfer from one language to another.

In other words, learning to read in a foreign language is partly just a matter of learning to read in your native language, learning to speak the foreign language and then putting the two together. However, the catch is that your reading skills only start to transfer in a serious way once you reach a basic level of proficiency in your new language.

Therefore, backloading your reading work is the way to go. In the early stages of your language learning, focus on becoming familiar with the language, expanding your vocab and getting a feel for the grammar.

Once you have the fundamentals down, start practicing reading more intensively. With a solid grasp on the basics of the language and reading muscles already toned from a lifetime of putting up with written English, you’ll find it’s not too hard to put two and two together.

2. Split Your Time Between Focused Reading and Relaxed Reading

You might think the fastest way to learn to read in a foreign language would be to always choose the hardest texts you can find and power through them with a dictionary. It turns out, though, that one of the most important factors in how well you learn to read is simply how much you read. And if you’re always trying 110%, you’re not going to have the stamina to do the kind of voracious book-guzzling that you need to polish your reading skills.

Learning to read in a foreign language is definitely a task where the golden rule of language learning applies: Laziness is the mother of all effective language learning strategies. If you’re working too hard, you’re just not going to make it through an entire language.

So the trick is to divide your time between the kind of intensive, grinding-your-teeth-and-clutching-a-dictionary reading that pushes the limits of your abilities and the kind of Sunday-afternoon-lounging-in-an-armchair-enjoying-a-nice-book reading that lets you put in foreign language reading hours while having a good time.

For the focused reading, pick material that will give you a good challenge, and take the time to untangle the bits you don’t understand. For the relaxed reading, the point is just to read as much as possible, so go for texts that are easier to get through and that are about topics you’re interested in.

You might want to plan out in advance how you’re going to split you’re time between focused reading and relaxed reading. For example, you might chill with some no-big-deal reading 80% of the time and going full-blown-language-learner-wielding-flashcards-and-not-afraid-to-use-them with a copy of “War and Peace” the other 20% of the time.

3. Do Group Reading

Reading is fun, but it can get lonely. After all, a recent study showed that librarians are twice as likely as people with any other occupation to list life-size blow-up dolls as their primary emergency contacts. (Just kidding.)

Doing group readings is a great way to make burying your face in a book a social activity. Just get a group of like-minded (or at least like-languaged) language learners together, and take turns reading aloud while everyone follows along the written text.

There are two big advantages you get from group reading. First, hearing someone read the words and following along visually at the same time connects your aural memory of how words sound with your visual impression of how they look on the page. Second, you can pause every few pages or so and do a group recap or discussion (in the language you’re learning!) covering what you’ve read so far.

If you want to emphasize the discussion part of things, another variant on this strategy is to have a book club. And if you don’t know anyone learning your language, don’t let that deter you from forming a reading group–this is the Internet age! Go looking on social media and places where language learners gather online, and there’s a good chance you’ll find people interested in either a real-life or virtual reading group.

4. Re-re-re-read

I’ve already talked about splitting your time between focused reading and relaxed reading, but the question remains: What exactly do you do when you’re doing focused reading?

One of my favorite strategies for parsing texts that stretch the boundaries of my reading comprehension is re-re-re-reading, which involves reading a text through four times, concentrating on different things each time through. The basic idea is to start off reading for the big picture, then work down to the details, then move back up to the big picture. Here’s how it goes:

Round 1: Get the gist of the passage

On the first pass through, read for the gist. Just get a sense of what the text is about and a general feel for what’s happening. Don’t get too hung up on words you don’t know. However, depending on how opaque the passage is, you might have to look up words here and there even to get at the overall meaning.

Round 2: Go over in more detail, looking up words you don’t know

Pass two is the bring-out-the-toolbox-and-take-this-thing-apart round. This is when you do want to get hung up on the details, looking up all words you don’t know and making sure you understand how the grammatical structure of the text is working. This is when you break the thing down into its parts and figure out how each of those parts works.

Round 3: Put together all the new details you understand

After breaking the passage down into its details, you now want to put those details back together into a unified whole. This pass through the text is about synthesizing everything you learned in pass two about what individual words mean and how the grammar fits together.

You can think of this stage as reading for the gist, like in step one, while incorporating all the new information from step two. You want to read quickly enough to get a birds eye view of the whole passage, but do take enough time to integrate most of the new knowledge you gleaned form step two.

Round 4: Do a final recap, aiming for speed

In the fourth and final run through of the text, speed is the name of the game. Now that you’ve broken down the text and put it back together, the idea is to go through grasping the meaning as quickly as possible. Try to push yourself on this one, both in terms of holding onto the things you learned in step 2 and getting through the passage faster than you thought you could.

5. Read Aloud

When working on reading, it’s helpful to keep in mind that reading is really just an extension of speaking and listening. This fact is key to making reading the easiest thing you do in your foreign language studies.

One way to take advantage of the link between spoken and written language is to actually speak and listen while you read. Just speak whatever you’re reading out loud to yourself as you read it. When you make connections between listening, reading and speaking, all three will improve.

6. Do “Less Slow” Reading

If you want to keep yourself on your toes and challenge your brain to parse the words you’re reading a little more quickly, try some timed reading activities. Speed reading doesn’t need to be your goal, just reading less slowly than you used to and setting new personal bests is the most important thing.

You can do timed reading either by setting a timer while you read so you can see how long it takes you to get through a given text and calculate your reading speed in words-per-minute, or by giving yourself a predetermined amount of time to complete a passage.

Besides pushing your brain to process the text you’re looking at a little faster, “less slow” reading will add a little excitement to your reading practice—which is never a bad idea, since boredom is the death of language learning.

7. Use Context

Context is the best language teacher you’ll ever have. Think about it: You learned your native language entirely from context.

When you’re reading, always try to take advantage of context as much as possible. Whenever you reach a word you aren’t familiar with, force yourself to guess its meaning before reaching for the dictionary, then look it up to see if you were right.

This is actually a good tip for all aspects of language learning, but it’s especially important for reading exercises, where you can find yourself reaching instinctively for the dictionary over and over. Forcing yourself to guess things from context turns language learning into a puzzle of sorts, and you’ll have a stronger memory for the words you can guess correctly from context than the ones you have to type into Google Translate to understand.

It can seem intimidating to be confronted with a wall of text in a language you still have a tenuous grasp on, but if you use strategies like transferring your foreign language speaking and native reading skills, balancing relaxed and focused reading, starting a reading group, reading out loud, re-re-re-reading and taking advantage of context, you’ll see that reading in a foreign language is a skill that just naturally gets better with time if you let it.

And if you ever find yourself getting frustrated, just remember—you’ve already learned to read English, you can do anything!

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