The ultimate guide to practicing your reading skills in your target language
There are two types of language learners: people who love reading in their target language and people who loathe it.
No matter which category you fall in, reading in your target language poses several problems. Many people get overwhelmed by all the words they don’t know, the weird grammatical structures they’ve never seen before, and so on.
That shouldn’t stop you from reading, though! Reading is very important to build your vocabulary and develop a feel for a language. It’s one of the easiest ways to get massive exposure to your target language. And if you aspire to reach a very advanced level in your target language, I’d say reading widely is the only way to get there…
Even if your ultimate goal is speaking!
In this article, I’m going to demystify the whole ‘reading in your target language thing for you’ by giving you a clear framework for getting the most out of your reading time.
First of all, we’ll go through some preliminary questions you should ask yourself before you start looking for reading materials. You’re going to learn about the two types of reading in your target language, and how and when you should use them.
Then we’ll move into some decision-making questions to help you find the perfect reading resources that are interesting, enjoyable and that teach you a thing or two about your target language!
Finally, you’re going to learn two reading strategies to make your reading practice as efficient as possible.
Bring these three steps together and you’ll have a a framework for what I call Perfect Reading Practice.
No more guesswork, just efficient use of your time, pleasure and seeing your target language improve!
Then let’s roll…
STEP 1 - Before you start reading
Before you even think of reading in your target language, it’s important that you get some clarity on what you’re trying to accomplish here. Sure, you can just start reading everything the world (or the internet) throws at you, but chances are that you’re going to get overwhelmed, learn little, and give up very soon…
So let’s not fall in that trap and answer some questions first.
The two types of reading
This is the first question you should ask yourself. You know I like to divide language learning activities in two categories: Focused Study Time (learning Vocabulary, Grammar, practice pronunciation, going through a course book, etc.) and Exposure Time (the usual listening/speaking/reading/writing).
Exposure Time has a double purpose: on the one hand it serves as input for your target language (mainly through listening and reading) in which you can discover new vocabulary, grammar etc. that you then either absorb naturally, or internalise during Focused Study Sessions. On the other hand, you need exposure to practice your output too. That means that you put into practice everything you’ve learned from your input in conversations, writing, etc.
A logical consequence of this module is: the more input you get, the more you’ll absorb naturally from a language (= getting a ‘feel’ for a language) and the more material you have to internalise during Focused Study Sessions!
Now, reading clearly is an input activity. Which means that the goal of your reading is two-fold: read so much that you absorb the language naturally, and find important vocabulary to learn consciously.
And that leads us to the two types of reading in your target language.
First of all, you can do ‘casual reading’. That’s reading widely on a variety of subjects, mainly for pleasure, motivation and for developing a feel for the language. You would usually do casual reading with medium-long texts. An example of this would be reading fiction.
During casual reading, you’re not actively looking for vocabulary to learn. You’ll still discover new vocab and grammar, but it’s not your primary goal! Your primary goal is to enjoy the reading and let it all come naturally.
The other type of reading is what I call “intensive reading”. During intensive reading, you choose a very specific topic about which you want to learn vocabulary. Your goal here is to find as much vocabulary as possible, as many particular expressions as possible in the text.
Then you take that vocabulary and put it on flashcards/notes/whatever system you use for learning vocabulary so you can process it during Focused Study Time.
You’d normally do intensive reading with shorter texts, like newspaper articles, blog posts, podcast transcripts,… because… well, it’s so intensive! You’ll read much slower with this method, so it’s not feasible to do it with a whole book.
Now, here’s the thing. Ideally, if you want to progress quickly, you’d want to do some ‘intensive reading’ every week. It’s going to give you a wealth of new vocabulary and you’re going to pick up a lot of grammar this way too.
So that should be your main focus.
But it’s not a bad idea to incorporate casual reading in your routine too! That will give you a lot of pleasure and you’re still going to learn a lot about your target language.
Which topics should I read about?
Both with casual reading and intensive reading, think about your language learning goals.
- Why are you learning a language?
- In which situations do you see yourself using the language? On holiday? In the restaurant? In the airport? During business meetings? In a family setting? While Speaking? Reading the news paper? And so on.
- What interests me? What do I enjoy reading about in my mother tongue?
Make a list of all these situations, and you have a long list of topics to read about!
Questions 1-2 are the most relevant for intensive reading: these are high-value topics with vocabulary that you’ll likely need in your target language.
For casual reading, you can read about things you enjoy, just like you’d do in your mother tongue.
STEP 2: How and where to find your Reading Materials
Now you know about the two types of reading and you have a list of topics to read about, it’s time to get you some real reading materials!
Here are some questions you can ask yourself to hone in on the right materials for you.
Which level am I at?
Remember I talked about the importance of input before?
Well, there’s a caveat.
Not all input will help you learn and absorb a language.
Reading the equivalent of The Financial Times in Spanish isn’t going to help you if you’ve just started learning the language a week ago, right?
The input you need is what linguists call comprehensible input. That means: texts or audio that you understand for the biggest part, but that’s still a bit challenging: there are still things you discover, new vocabulary that you had to deduce from context, etc.
This is the input that’s really helping you make progress. It’s easy enough so you enjoy reading it, yet difficult enough so you learn new things.
I can’t tell you what comprehensible input is for you, of course. It depends from person to person. But I can tell you it’s something you feel. It’s also how textbooks like Assimil work. If you’re a complete beginner in a language and you open an Assimil book on lesson 85, you’ll probably be completely overwhelmed.
Go through lesson 1-84, though, and lesson 85 will now have become perfect for your level: some new grammar and vocab is introduced, but you understand most of the dialogue.
Look for this feeling in all your input. If it’s too difficult, don’t waste your time with it. If it’s too easy, you’re also wasting your time (though it probably feels good)!
Comprehensible input is what it’s all about.
If you still wonder where to find comprehensible input, keep reading: I’ll add a list of typical resources for beginners/intermediate learners/advanced learners later on.
Spoken or written language?
This might sound like a paradox, but it’s actually very important. You see, it’s not because you see something written down that it’s written language!
For example, a dialogue between two people that’s written out is still spoken language!
Usually, podcast transcripts are also spoken language.
And so are the lessons from a course book like Assimil (and many other textbooks).
On the other hand, newspaper articles, or novels, are real written language.
Why is this important?
Well, if your goal is to learn how to speak a language, it makes sense to learn the structures, words and word combinations that are used in spoken language!
Sure, you’ll pick up useful words and expressions from working with written language as well. But often, spoken language is a bit easier structure-wise, which is nice if you’re just starting out with a language. That's why I always recommend that you start out with spoken language and only move to literary texts (or newspaper articles,…) once you have built a solid foundation.
The only exception: if your only goal is to be able to read (e.g. if you’re learning a language to be able to read academic articles), then it makes sense to focus on written language from the very beginning.
What to read? Input sources
You can find reading materials in many places, but your main input sources will probably be the internet and libraries. Libraries are self-explanatory: I think most have a foreign-language section, so you might find something of interest there.
At a beginner-lower intermediate level, your options are a bit more limited, of course: full books, magazines etc. will probably be a bit too difficult. In that stage, you’ll have to limit yourself to materials specifically produced for language learners. Things like graded readers or books with parallel texts in your target language might be something you could use here. Children’s books are another good idea.
Very popular among language learners are also the Harry Potter books. But any book that you’ve read in your mother tongue will do. If you’re familiar with the story, reading will become much easier.
Olly Richards has also created some excellent collections of short stories in a number of languages, check them out here.
On the internet, you have massive reading opportunities too. There are magazines, news websites, blogs (some specifically for language learners), and so on.
Sometimes it might be hard to find good resources, though, because you're not used to navigating a part of the web that’s not in English (or in your mother tongue if it’s other than English). I’m working on some resource sheets for several languages to help you with this; you can download them on the lesson page.
Here are some tips for easy reading exposure:
- Change the language of your phone or Facebook to your target language. It’s a small change but you’ll learn some useful vocabulary right away.
- Follow a lot of news websites in your target language on Facebook/Twitter/… Their articles will show up on your feed (usually with a short summary) and you’ll find that you can’t help but read them! And if you see an article that interests you, you can either read it right away or save it for later (for more intensive reading). Double win!
- Read podcast transcripts! They often contain more informal, spoken language, which will help you more if you’re learning a language than very long, complex sentences that nobody would ever say out loud.
STEP 3: EFFECTIVE READING STRATEGIES
Ok, so by now you’ve learned about the two different types of reading, you’ve created a list of topics to read about and you’ve hopefully found some interesting resources. Time to get to the actual reading!
I’m going to give you two mindsets to make the reading you do as enjoyable AND efficient as possible.
One’s for casual reading. And the other one for intensive reading!
Casual Reading Mindset
As you know by now, casual reading is all about enjoying yourself. That’s not always easy though, if you’re reading a book and you don’t understand half the words on the page!
That’s why the following mindset changes will probably be helpful for you.
1. Skim first!
If you read a text in your mother tongue, you probably skim it first quickly to get the gist.
Try to do the same thing while reading in your target language. Read the title, the headlines, and quickly skim the page(s). It’ll help with your overall understanding when you really dive in.
2. It’s ok if you don’t understand every single word!
If you read something in your mother tongue and there’s a word that you don’t understand (of course, that happens in your mother tongue too!) you’d just read on and trust that you understand of the context.
Few people have the same mindset when they read in their target language. All of a sudden every single word they don’t know has become a huge road block that will prevent you from understanding ANYTHING!
This is nonsense, of course. You can perfectly read and enjoy a full novel and understand the story, even if you don’t understand every single word. The few details you miss out on won’t make the difference!
So if you don’t understand something, just keep reading. Don’t stop every second sentence to look up a word in a dictionary. Go for a global understanding. Remember, we’re doing casual reading here! Enjoy yourself!
3. If you feel that you don’t understand anything, then don’t bother
If you really feel that you don’t understand anything, then you’re probably not reading comprehensible input. This is not enjoyable, and neither will it help you at all with learning a language. If you find yourself in this situation, better to put the book/article/magazine/… aside and come back to it at a later time in your language learning journey.
PS. I strongly advise you to do this and really come back to the text! It’s an amazing feeling to read something that was jibber-jabber to you just a couple of weeks/months earlier, and now everything you read makes sense… Such an experience does wonders for your motivation.
4. Don’t look actively for vocab/grammar, but be curious
During casual reading your main goal is not to find new vocabulary. Sure, you might come across something interesting and write that down, but it’s not something you should do all the time.
But you should try to stay curious. That means, if you see an interesting word or an interesting construction, pause for a second and think: “Ah, so that’s how you say this in my target language!” I understand this, but I would never say this myself!
When you come across something like that and you genuinely feel like you’ve discovered something, very often your brain will absorb it automatically. That means that you’re getting more of a ‘feel’ for the language AND you’ll feel like you’re learning new things, even during casual reading!
Intensive Reading Mindset
Intensive Reading is a very high-yield language learning activity. Treat it that way! When you’re doing Intensive Reading, give the text your full focus and try to extract as much value as possible.
1. Skim first
Again, it’s always a good idea to skim the text first and read the title, headings, etc.
2. Take your curiosity a step further
Remember what I said about curiosity in the casual reading mindset? That applies here too, but during intensive reading, you take it up a notch. You now read every sentence and try to find patterns, vocabulary, grammatical constructions that you didn’t know before.
Once you’ve found something, you can note it down somewhere (or put it immediately on a flashcard).
The beautiful thing about extracting vocabulary from texts is that it gives you so much context! That’s why I always copy the full sentence when I’ve found some interesting vocabulary, and make a cloze exercise out of it. That means that if I read the following sentence:
Yesterday Fitzgerald was struck by lightning during a thunderstorm.
And I want to learn ‘struck by lightning’, I’d make the following flashcard:
Yesterday Fitzgerald was ______________ (door de bliksem getroffen) during a thunderstorm.
Yes, that language between brackets is my mother tongue, Dutch! And it means ‘struck by lightning’ .
So you take the full sentence. You blank out the vocabulary (preferably a chunk, a combination of several words) you want to learn and (optional) add the translation in your mother tongue.
That way you can learn vocabulary immediately in a sentence, which will be much more useful! These sentences I would then memorise during a Focused Study Session (see SE Framework).
For more information about this, I highly recommend that you check out the full ‘Vocab Cycle’ course. It covers the whole process of extracting vocabulary from input (both text and audio) in much more detail and gives you a full framework.
3. Use technology
If you’re reading online, there is some technology that can make it much easier to find translations for words you don’t understand. I don’t recommend you to use this during casual reading because you’ll be tempted to look up every single word, but during intensive reading they can come in very handy.
Readlang allows you to read any text on the internet, click on a word or a word group and then see the translation. You can then also store it on a flashcard and revise it later, or export it to Anki.
Another app that allows you to look up words while you’re reading and then revise them later is Lingq. They have a lot of tutorials on their website, so I’ve put a link on the lesson page; if you’re not familiar with them you can check it out there!
Alternatively, use dictionaries. Always use one that gives you example sentences for each word. In English there are dictionaries that actually show you how words combine in collocations and patterns, like the BBI combinatory dictionary or the Oxford Collocation Dictionary. They might exist in your target language too. When they do, use them!
Pro tip: When using a dictionary, you’ll often see example sentences with other uses of the same word/word combination. If you’d like, you could also learn these other uses! That’s a quick way to expand your vocabulary.
STEP 4: Bringing it all together: your Perfect Reading Practice Strategy!
There you go! A full system for choosing, finding and working with reading materials. Use it and the efficiency of your reading practice will skyrocket… and you’ll get fluent faster!
Here’s a quick recap/action plan for you. I’ve attached a worksheet to fill in too.
- Decide how much casual reading and how much intensive reading you’re going to do
- Decide on a list of topics you want to read about
- Gather 3 casual reading resources and 3 intensive reading resources
- Read! Keep in mind the best practices for casual and intensive reading
If you want to maximize the value of what you’re doing, incorporate this reading strategy into your full language learning routine. Ultimately, you’ll want your reading achievements carry over in the other skills as well.
For example, after you’ve done some intensive reading and gathered a lot of new vocabulary, follow up with a Focused Study Session to internalize everything. Then try to have a conversation on the same topic to implement what you’ve learned during Active Exposure Time! Or listen to a podcast on the same topic to solidify what you’ve learned and see things from a different angle.
You could also write a short text about what you’ve just read.
You see where I’m going here?
This is the real secret to fast progress in your target language. Good tactics for exposure and studying, AND having an overarching framework, a routine that ties it all together.
Ok, you’ve done enough reading in English now! Time to get some Perfect Reading Practice done!
And as always, let me know what you think in the comments!