How to efficiently read a foreign text
Reading a foreign text can be intimidating, especially for a beginner. But as with every aspect of language-learning, strategy and deliberate practice are the keys to improvement. WordBrewery makes reading in your target language much easier and more pleasant by displaying only one sentence at a time, showing only sentences that are packed with useful (high-frequency) words, and giving you immediate access to definitions of individual words, translations of the sentence for when you get stuck, and additional example sentences containing each word to help you master those words in context and understand how they are used. That said, most learners will eventually want to read pieces longer than a single sentence, including the original articles from which our sentences are pulled. Here are some of WordBrewery’s suggestions for improving reading skills in your target language by tackling longer texts.
- Start small, and choose texts appropriate for your level and interests
When you’re ready to try something longer than the sentences on WordBrewery, we suggest starting with articles, essays, poems, or short stories rather than entire books. Newspapers and magazines, especially those aimed at young adults, teens, or non-native speakers, often include articles that even a beginner can put together. Young-adult fiction, short fiction, essays, and poetry are also useful, but intermediate learners will find it easier to parse the complex syntax and advanced vocabulary that often characterize literature.
If you are a beginner or intermediate learner and you like fiction, try short fables and fairy tales. Many students of German read the tales of the Brothers Grimm (Rapunzel and Cinderella for example); students of French often read The Little Prince; and students of Danish have direct access to the master of the genre, Hans Christen Andersen (The Little Mermaid and The Ugly Duckling, for example).
Once you choose your text, these steps will help you read more efficiently and reduce frustration:
First, quickly look through the text for words you know or recognize, especially proper nouns (names of persons, places, things, or events).
It is helpful to get some broader context about a text and start with some idea of what it is about. Starting with what you know is essential. When you have some idea of a piece’s content and immediately recognize some of the names and other words it uses, these bits of knowledge serve as a scaffold around which you can build your understanding of the text. For the same reason, some of the best pieces to read are those which are about a subject you know.
If you are reading purely for language learning and not for content, it is particularly helpful to read a text which you have already read in your native language. For example, some friends of mine who studied classics had a reading group at the University of Chicago in which they read Harry Potter in Greek. The wonderful website Omniglot offers comparisons of different languages by providing translations and audio recordings of the first chapter of the book of Genesis from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament).
- Divide and Conquer
Start with the first sentence and read it carefully. If the sentence has several components, try dividing it at the commas and semicolons and taking it one phrase at a time. If needed, put parentheses around prepositional phrases and descriptive clauses to further break down the whole into manageable parts. Identify the subject and the verb—the actor and the action—which are the most important parts of every sentence. As you continue reading, look for patterns in the sentences. Make note of any questions you have as you go—but look them up later, not immediately. When it is time to look up a grammatical construction you don’t understand, you have several options. If you think your question has broad interest, you can email the WordBrewery team and we will consider answering it in a blog post. If you need assistance more quickly, we recommend asking on Quora or the [StackExchange] website for your target language.
- Do not stop reading to look up unfamiliar words.
Instead, keep a list of words and phrases you don’t understand. Check these in a dictionary after completing your reading session, as some phrase or vocabulary use in another sentence may clarify something you’ve read earlier. Additionally, in all learning, momentum and focus are crucial.
- Accept imperfection
Finally, you do not need to understand every single word to read and understand a text. Literacy experts have said that people can comprehend a text with the help of context if they know only 80% of the text’s vocabulary. If you aren’t there yet, try an easier text, or spend some time on WordBrewery collecting new high-frequency vocabulary words in study lists. At the intermediate level, our sentences contain exclusively the 3,000 most common words in a language, which account for 99% of the words you are likely to encounter in most texts.
- Tolerate frustration
Learning a foreign language is difficult, and reading a complete text of any length in your target language is one of the most challenging intellectual tasks a language learner can face. It would much easier to use Google Translate or skip the exercise altogether and resume browsing Facebook or YouTube. But the only way to get better at difficult intellectual tasks—including concentration itself—is to practice these tasks. When you get frustrated, take a deep breath or short break, feel and acknowledge the frustration, be kind to yourself and recognize that this frustration is a completely normal and logical response to a difficult task, and then continue. It will be easier each time you do it. Once, long ago, reading your native language was just as difficult for you as reading your target language is now.
Integrating these steps into your reading practice may seem tedious. But the truth is that reading in a second language can be both thrilling and maddening, and it is important to approach the task prepared to minimize and tolerate the difficulties you will inevitably encounter. With practice, these techniques will become instinctive, and the joy of increasing comprehension will encourage you to move toward reading fluency.