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Strategies for Reading Books

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When you reach a certain level in your target language, you can start to read books without having to look up every other word. How soon you reach this point obviously depends on what book you want to read, and you can just as well start with children's books as with unabridged novels, depending on your current level. Simply pick a book that you think will interest you, no matter what it is about, and start reading it. It is a sure way to increase your vocabulary quickly.

Carefree reading (extensive reading) Edit

If you are one of the lucky carefree ones and happy with only getting the gist of the text, then just try reading without doing anything. It may prove more effective than obsessing about every word that you can't understand. The first page or two pages or perhaps even ten pages may be tedious, but just like you can't always expect a novel to be breathtaking from page one, you've got to give this some time as well. Just be patient, continue reading, and see what happens. Words that are very important and that you don't understand at first will most likely reveal their own meaning by repeated appearance in context.

Kato Lomb's way Edit

Kato Lomb was a Hungarian polyglot who strongly advocated using books as a tool for learning languages. You can read about her method in her book "How I Learn Languages", but the main point is to choose a book where you just have to continue to read in order to find out what happens next. A detective story, a silly love story (Harlequin is okay if it is used for language learning!), anything you want, but don't obsess about single words. Kato Lomb's method is mainly just "Carefree reading" with a pen in your hand. Scribble away all you want in the margins of your book, but write down the things you actually understand and can figure out by yourself, "Base your progress on the known, not the unknown". Lomb advocates using books early on in your learning.

Detailed reading (intensive reading)Edit

That's the kind of reading typical for classroom learning. Intensive reading involves the most obvious things to do: looking up the words and grammatical structures and possibly translating everything, in your mind or even in writing. You can either make a list of words to look up (be sure to reread the text after compiling this custom glossary), or check the words in the dictionary as you go.

The main caveat is the difference between intensively reading a text from your coursebook and attempting to intensively read an entire novel. With novels, only some parts should be read intensively, as this is very time-consuming and often tedious.

Some learners advocate doing hyperliteral translations while reading intensively.

Detailed reading with a pop-up dictionaryEdit

A pop-up dictionary can help you read faster, even if you need to look up a lot of words. Some learners consider this an intermediary kind of reading, between the intensive and extensive. Pop-up dictionaries exist for desktop computers, e-readers, tablets and other mobile devices (note: if you're having trouble finding a free tool, consider an add-on for your Internet browser). There are also ways to keep track of the things you look up, such as using Learning with TextsReadlang or LingQ (paid).

Detailed reading adapted to your level Edit

If you cannot stand to not understand everything, choose your book with care. If you aren't very advanced yet, you will most likely just abandon an unabridged novel after ten pages when you have to look up words every 10 seconds. If an easy reader is what you need, then get an easy reader! Progress will most likely be fast anyway, and after a few easy readers, you can perhaps go ahead and read a full novel and enjoy it. As you read, underline all the words you want to look up, but since these won't be a majority of the words in the text, don't do it straight away. You are supposed to understand what you read anyway, give or take a few nuances. When you finish a page (or half a page), go back to the top and start finding out what those odd words actually meant. Stopping for every word and reaching for the dictionary/the computer will just make it more "study" than "pleasurable reading". You are, after all, first and foremost reading a book, right? It just happens to be written in your target language...

Detailed reading with parallel texts Edit

If you are reading a parallel text, you have the luxury of already having all the words explained on the opposite side, so you can go well above your current level and still benefit from it with not very much frustration. Also, you do not risk misinterpreting phrases due to different uses of tenses or word order in different languages. Do as above, just read and underline all the things you find interesting. Phrases that you think you may actually use or that you think you ought to recognize, words that just please you, or whatever you wish.

After one full page, go back to the top. Work through your underlined words and phrases. Can you remember what they meant? Think before glancing at the translation again, and then write down the translation in the margins. If you can't find a parallel text of the book you want to read, you can have two copies of the book, one in your target language and one in a language you know well.

If you're a beginner, using interlaced parallel texts is a good option if you can find some or are willing to create them.

Ilya Frank's method is another similar option, especially for Russian speakers or learners.

Skimming, speed-reading, subvocalisationEdit

Quickly reading a text in your target language and searching for information is usually not as effortless as doing the same thing in your native language. You can practice this on your own, preferably using a timer/alarm clock. Some lessons at GLOSS require you to do this before you can read the text in detail (look for the type "structural"). You may also find a book that teaches you to read various kinds of texts, such as Come leggere for Italian. A popular trick is to read the beginning and ending of each paragraph.

On the whole, though, don't be obsessed with reading speed. Subvocalisation isn't necessarily considered a bad phenomenon in language learning, at least if you know the correct pronunciation. It's often considered more useful to read slowly with subvocalisation than to read as quickly as in L2, if you can't maintain the same quality of reading.

However, if you find yourself reading slowly and not being able to enjoy, avoiding subvocalisation may be worth trying. The most common technique is to pronounce something else while reading, for example one-two-three. It's not recommended to pronounce words in the same language you're reading in. Pronounce L1 words or consider practising the pronunciation in a third language (generally small groups of words, like noun phrases, chants, slogans or even prayers).

Reading translations of books you loveEdit

If you have a handful of favorite books that you've read so often that they're falling apart, consider tracking down translations. This is sort of like working with a parallel text, except one of the versions is in your memory. You already know the story, and you could almost quote a few of your favorite scenes. So when you read the translation, you'll pick up a large amount of vocabulary from context, and you'll discover how a professional translator handles certain phrases. The advantages of this approach are that you know you love the book, and you can easily understand some things that would normally be difficult.

Additional Notes/Getting the most out of books you really love Edit

  • You might be tempted to use SRS, word lists or or another method in order to learn all the vocabulary. This is, however, not something you automatically have to do just because you study the language in which you are reading a book. A lot of words will stick anyway. If you do choose to make more of an effort, be careful with classics. Before you spend time on memorizing 50 new words, make sure they are actually in use today and not something that was scrapped two centuries ago.
  • If you want to include audio into your reading experience, have a look at the Listening-Reading Method. Having an audio on while reading is helpful even if you don't have any problems with listening comprehension: this will force you to continue reading and won't let you stop. If your target language is related to one you already know, you may find you understand more if you combine the audio and the text: some similarities might be easier to notice in the written form, while others are noticeable in the spoken language.
  • For improving your writing, it's a good idea to choose a passage you especially like and do scriptorium, that is, handwrite the text with a great attention to details. If the passage contains a lot of words or structures you don't know, it's recommended to read it intensively first, so that the flow of writing wasn't interrupted.
  • Reading aloud can be a good idea, but feel free to alternate. It's much better to read only some parts aloud than to get exhausted and drop the whole project. If you can't reliably predict the pronunciation of the words (whether due to a lack of knowledge or because the spelling is irregular), it's better to find an audiobook and shadow some sections of it.

Choosing and buying a bookEdit

You may be tempted to start with a collection of short stories, but long novels are often a better choice. Long stories get easier to read after 100 pages or so, which is about where a short novel will end. This might seem intimidating but it's better to use additional tools (such as a translation or a pop-up dictionary) than to stumble through many short texts without any noticeable improvement. This is especially true of unadapted collections of short stories by different authors.

As for actually purchasing a book, your best bet is asking a native speaker about the online stores in their country. If the shipping is too expensive, try http://www.bookdepository.co.uk - their shipping is free,always.

E-books might be cheaper and/or easier to buy, but make sure there are no regional restrictions. It's strongly recommended to read long texts on an e-reader instead of the LCD screen of a computer or tablet. If you're on a tight budget, get a simple/old model and use software like Calibre (free and open source) to convert files and enhance the formatting. Note that you need wifi to read DRM-protected files.

The following links can help you to choose a book to read in your target language:

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