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Reading in a foreign language strategies

Strategies for reading in a foreign language

Reading is a great way to boost your language skills in a fun and brain-friendly way. However, it can also overwhelming and intimidating when you look at a text and have no idea what it might be about. In this article, I’ll introduce you to six strategies which will help you when you start to read in German or another language you’re studying.

1. Choose the right reading material

If you love reading, you may wish to read your favourite book in your target language right after getting started with your new language. This is a bit difficult, of course.

We all use more difficult sentence structures and vocabulary when we write. Well-known authors like the Colombian Nobel prize winner Gabriel García Márquez or Germany’s Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had a much richer faculty of expression at their command than the average reader, so starting with them when learning Spanish or German isn’t the best idea even you’ve already reached a B2/C1 level of the language. 

If you’re really into reading and literature, starting with graded readers is best. In my experience, the best ones are written by language teachers who offer them either on their websites or publish them independently on Amazon. 

Graded readers are usually available for the levels A1 – B2 with a focus on A2/B1 students. Once you’ve reached a high intermediate level of your target language, you are ready to start reading “normal” books. The tricky thing is how to find a book which uses relatively simple language and which is interesting for you.

Some people start with books for children. Personally, I find that approach totally boring. There are some good books for teenagers, though. Their narratives are often easier to understand than fantasy, science-fiction or mystery thrillers.

However, if you’re a science fiction or thriller fan who has never read anything else in their native language, stick to it. 

Reading a novel which you already read in your native language is another approach used by many people. Lots of my students told me that they bought the German edition of Harry Potter because they read the English original or watched the movies and therefore knew what was going on. 

If you bought a novel in your target language and realize after reading the first ten pages that you understand less than half of it, put it aside for a couple of months.

Happened to me with Gabriel Garcías Márquez’ “Cien años de soledad”. My first attempt to read the Spanish original was a huge failure but some years later, I could read it without much effort. 

2. Original version or translation?

I love to read original versions but it’s not a must. As I mentioned above, many people enjoy reading Harry Potter in their target language, for example. “The little prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is another favourite among language learners. 

You may sometimes stumble upon a bad translation but most popular novels have good translations. If you like to read digital books, you’ll often find the original version on Amazon or other online bookstores. 

If your favourite author is an American crime writer and you’re learning Spanish, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t read his next book in Spanish. Your reading skills will improve as soon as you start avoiding reading novels in your native language.

Personally, I rarely read a book in my native German but that doesn’t mean that I avoid German literature. I simply read the English, Spanish or Portuguese translations.

3. Intensive versus extensive reading

Let’s quickly talk about the difference between extensive and intensive reading when dealing with a foreign language. 

When we read books, we’re normally talking about extensive reading. We’re reading long texts and instead of trying to translate every single unknown word, we use the context to understand the meaning and follow the story. 

On the other hand, intensive reading means that we take a short text and analyze its vocabulary and grammar in depth. It’s something you shouldn’t try with a complete book as it’s likely to lead to exhaustion and will spoil your experience of actually reading the book. 

However, you may combine extensive and intensive reading using the same book. Just make sure that extensive reading is for pleasure and intensive reading is study time. If you’d like to try intensive reading with a book, choose a time when you feel ready for studying and go back to one or two pages you’ve already read. 

4. Make yourself familiar with the content

Before you start with chapter one of your new book, read the summary of the story carefully and make sure you understand it well. If the chapters have titles, read and understand them, too.

You may also read some of the reviews on Amazon or other websites. If you’re familiar with the general content, it will be much easier for you to follow the plot once you’ve actually started reading. 

5. How to expand your vocabulary

As mentioned above, many writers command a much broader range of vocabulary than the average person. That means that you will encounter words you have never heard of before. So should you make a list and learn all those new words? Well, it depends.

We all have active and passive vocabulary, even when we speak our native language. Active vocabulary are the words we frequently use when we speak or write. Passive vocabulary are the words we understand but we only use them when we make an effort. Our passive vocabulary will always be much larger than our active vocabulary. 

When you encounter a new word in a text written in a foreign language, try to understand its meaning from context. If that doesn’t work, look it up. Then ask yourself if you’d use this word yourself.

Can you think of a context in your own life where the word would be useful? If yes, write it on a separate paper or highlight it in your book. Not just that one single word, though. Copy the complete sentence and later on, try to think of a short and simple sentence where you can use the word yourself. 

If you read something which is very much above your current language level, don’t try to write down every single new and useful word. Limit yourself to a maximum of three words per page. Sounds little? Well, if your book has 200 pages, that’s already 600 news words. Apart from that, enjoying the process of reading a book and diving into a story should always be most important. 

Graded readers normally list the most important vocabulary before or after each chapter or on each page Those are words you should definitely incorporate into your active vocabulary. Well, about 90% of them. Although authors of graded readers avoid using complicated words which are beyond their readers current language skills, they sometimes will use words which aren’t that common but necessary for that particular story.

6. Does reading help with grammar?

If you’re a visual person who needs to see words to remember them, reading will definitely help you with grammar. 

The more you read, the more you are exposed to grammar in context. This includes use of tenses, declension endings if you study a language with cases, sentence structure, word order and many more.

Your brain will process much of this unconsciously but my eight years of experience as a German teacher have shown me that students who read a lot, normally make less grammar mistakes.

They may know less colloquial expressions than those who prefer to watch movies and just talk to people but in most of the cases, they make less mistakes when they speak or write. 

If you wish to improve your grammar actively by reading, try to read a couple of pages aloud. That also helps with pronunciation, by the way. Don’t exaggerate it, though.

Never forget that reading a graded reader or a book in a foreign language should be fun most of all. Enjoy the process and feel proud once you’ve finished reading your first book, no matter whether it’s a graded reader for beginners or a major literary work of 600 pages. 

Daniela is a native German speaker who has taught the language online since 2012. She speaks English, Spanish, Portuguese and some Hungarian. Currently, she's residing in Peru but maintains a traveling lifestyle as a digital nomad. In March 2020, she published her first book "Deutsch online unterrichten" for aspiring online German teachers and is now concentrating on writing fiction for German learners while pursuing some other small projects.

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