Before “War and Peace”: 4 Strategies to Learn Russian Reading from Page One
If you know how to do it, you do it every day.
Usually without even thinking about it.
In fact, you’re doing it right now.
What are we talking about? Reading, of course.
Reading isn’t just an important part of daily life, but also a crucial skill for foreign language learners.
Whether you want to dive into one of the Russian classics or just navigate your way through the streets of St. Petersburg, you’ll need to learn how to read in Russian.
Well, read on!
Why Do Russian Reading Skills Matter, Anyway?
Developing your reading skills opens new doors of communication like newspapers, magazines and social media. These are essential to understanding daily life and pop culture in Russia, which ultimately prepares you for richer interaction with native Russian speakers.
And given how many literary allusions are common in everyday Russian conversation, a greater knowledge of Russian literature will improve your conversational understanding, too.
So developing Russian reading skills is important. Let’s be real, though, Russian presents some unique challenges when it comes to the written word. So what’s the best way to learn to read Russian? Here are three key strategies to help you along the way.
What Should I Read in Russian?
As the Russian proverb goes, Если книг читать не будешь, скоро грамоту забудешь. (If you fail to read, you’ll lose your literacy.)
Many of the reading strategies that we’ll cover in this post can be employed continually and with all kinds of Russian texts. So, where should you look for actual Russian reading material?
“Russian reading” may bring to mind thick books by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but happily, these days there’s a lot more to read in Russian besides the literary giants. The key is to focus on a variety of Russian reading sources, to build a diverse vocabulary and expand your understanding of Russian culture. Plus, as you’ll see below, some of these sources let you “sneak” reading practice into your life.
- Websites about your hobbies. Like to cook? Read recipes in Russian. Find a simple Russian recipe and give it a try. RussianFood.com and AllRecipes in Russian are two good places to start. And if you like cake, give this recipe for шарлотка (apple cake) a try.
Maybe you’re a news junkie? Set your homepage to yandex.ru or BBC in Russian. Read the headlines every day and pick one story per week to read in full.
Or perhaps you’re a social media addict? Look for Instagram, Facebook or Twitter accounts with Russian sayings, motivational phrases, etc. Add these to your regular rounds of social media to increase your reading practice without noticing it!
- FluentU: Did you know it’s possible to learn Russian reading from music videos and funny YouTube clips? Well, it is with FluentU.
Each video comes with interactive captions you can click for an in-context definition and visual learning aid for any word. You’ll also get a native pronunciation and links to other videos that have the word. That means you’ll associate written words with their pronunciations and you’ll naturally learn how to use them in real-world contexts.
FluentU also provides flashcards and exercises so you remember what you’ve learned when you’re done watching. The videos are organized by genre and learning level, so it’s easy to find something that works for you—plus, FluentU personalizes the experience with adaptive quizzes that test you on the material you struggle with most.
Anxious to get reading and listening to all kinds of fun Russian content? Check out the full video library for free with a FluentU trial.
- Reading practice apps: There are some great ones to help you sneak in reading time on your commute or in the dentist’s waiting room. You can get started with Russian kids’ reading apps like Учимся читать — слоги и буквы (Let’s Learn to Read — Syllables and Letters) or Читай сам по слогам (Read by Yourself Through Phonics).
Then move on to a book-reading app that includes access to Russian language books, such as Read Books Online or iChitalka.
- Don’t forget the print options! But you don’t have to pick up “War and Peace” to get in some reading practice in print. Look for Russian language-magazines and newspapers at your local public and/or college library. And check out kids’ books or authors that use simpler language, like Сергей Довлатов.
4 Steps to Learn Russian Reading from 0 to 60
1. Start with the Cyrillic Alphabet
There’s no getting around it: learning to read in Russian requires mastering the Cyrillic alphabet, just like you started learning to read English with your ABCs. Luckily, there are lots of apps and other resources to help you learn A to Я and everything in between in no time.
For example, this article recommends seven apps that’ll teach you to recognize and write the Cyrillic alphabet. And this article breaks down the process of learning the alphabet into manageable steps.
You can also use this cheat sheet to identify individual letters and their sounds. And, good news, Russian pronunciation is pretty straightforward. Once you know where the stress falls in any given word, you pronounce most of the letters as they appear. No silent e’s or “through” pronounced like “thru” to trip you up.
2. Memorize “Sight Words”
Depending on how long ago you were in kindergarten, you may’ve encountered “sight words” as you started to learn to read. These are short, simple words that kids memorize and then are able to recognize as they begin reading.
Develop your own list of Russian “sight words” from words you see regularly and can sound out easily. Good candidates for your sight word list are any words that have a consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel repeating pattern—they’re usually the easiest to pronounce, making them more memorable whether you’re reading in your head or out loud. Flashcards with common Russian words are available online to help build your sight word list as well.
And don’t overlook the value of cognates, or words that sound the same and have the same meaning in both English and Russian. Keep your eyes peeled for cognates as you read, since they’re both easy to sound out and to comprehend. This list of Russian-English cognates can help orient you to common cognates as you read.
3. Do the Chunky Monkey
No, it’s not a dance move. The Chunky Monkey is a reading strategy that encourages you to break up larger words into “chunks” that you know. All of us used the Chunky Monkey when we learned to read words like “playground,” “weekend” or “anywhere.”
So when you come across long, seemingly complicated words in Russian, do the Chunky Monkey! Split them into smaller chunks that you can recognize and then put them back together to get the pronunciation and meaning.
- водопад — You know that вода means water, and you may recognize пад from падать, “to fall.” So the Chunky Monkey here is: вода-пад, or “waterfall.”
- кинозал — Кино is probably one of the first Russian words you learned, meaning “movies” or “cinema.” And зал is what it sounds like, “hall.” Put them together and what do you get? Movie-hall, i.e., movie theater.
- морепродукт — If you’ve covered a chapter on Russian food, then the two “chunks” in this one, море and продукт, should be quite familiar already. море means “sea,” and продукт means “foodstuff.” Putting them together, we get “seafood.”
- трудолюбивый — Finally, you may be familiar with the words трудно (hard; laborious) and любовь (love). Tack on an adjectival ending, -вый, and you’ve got “hardworking.”
See, you can master the Chunky Monkey (and those long, tricky Russian words) in no time!
As the last example, трудолюбивый, showed, learning common prefixes, suffixes and root words really helps you apply Chunky Monkey more broadly. Think of these as the building blocks for your Russian reading skills. Some of the most common prefixes, suffixes and roots are listed below, but you may want to keep a running list for yourself to refer to as you read.
Common Russian prefixes:
- B — in
- Вы — out
- До — up to
- Не — not
- От — from
- Пре — before
- С(о) — with; together
Common Russian suffixes:
- ый, ий, ой — generally denoting an adjective
- -ть — generally denoting a verb in the infinitive form
- ик/ица; ник/ница; чик/чица — added to a word to make it a person, for example, учить (to learn) + ник = ученик (student)
Common Russian roots (find even more on Quizlet):
- Вер — belief; faith
- Дав — give
- Дар — gift; talent
- Пад — fall
- Прав — right; truth
- Род — birth; lineage
- Ход — walk; move
4. Build Word Families
You’re cruising along, mastering the shorter words and using the Chunky Monkey to work on the longer ones. As you pick up new root words in your reading, don’t just add them to your root word list. Build a word family from them, too.
What are word families, you may ask? Word families are groups of words that have a root in common, but have different prefixes and suffixes added to create new words with various meanings.
An easy example in English is the word family for “write:” to write, writer, to rewrite, writ… you get the picture.
As you learn new Russian words in your reading, identify the root word and spend some time with the dictionary to develop a word family around it. You’ll be surprised how quickly you start seeing the new words you’ve learned in your reading.
Word families are useful because they rapidly expand the number of words you can understand by sight. Rather than memorizing lots of little individual words, you can recognize related words as you read any Russian text with much less effort.
With these strategies, brushing up your Russian reading skills really is as easy as 1-2-3. So what are you waiting for? Get reading!