Reading is important in all stages of learning French
When you study French on your own, you should approach the French language with several different methods at once. Don't just study your French beginners course and wait until you've finished it to move on to reading, listening and so on. Do them all at once from the beginning.
Once of the most effective tasks for learning French is reading. Reading helps with vocabulary acquisition and syntax. It's especially good for learning French grammar. I'd even say that reading is better than studying a grammar book, because reading helps you internalize examples of correct use of French grammar. Textbooks only speak about grammar. It's theory, and theory can be difficult to adapt to the real world.
So there's not doubt that reading is helpful for learning French. Even the beginning student can benefit enormously from it. The only problem is this: How do you go about finding useful French text for the beginning French learner?
What to read when you're only beginning to learn French?
This is a problem that many people face when asking how to learn French by reading. Your vocabulary is limited, there are many concepts you don't yet understand and reading French texts just seem overwhelming.
There are many possible solutions to this problem. One is to start out with very easy French texts. Comic books "Bandes dessinées" can be a great and entertaining way to get into French reading. Check out the series of Asterix or perhaps Tintin?
Children stories might be another possibility. There are thousands of them readily available online with a few clicks on google. Have a look at The French Experiment which has a lot of stories complete with audio and English translations.
Using tools to make French texts more comprehensible
Even though you're reading comic books and children's stories, native French texts might still be a mouthful. This shouldn't discourage you! When you want to learn French through reading, there are numerous tools and techniques that you might benefit from.
Using Google Dictionary to learn French by reading
When I've read French texts online in the past, I've found that it helps a lot using popup dictionaries and other tools to understand the text. If you're using Google Chrome, I recommend that you install the Google Dictionary browser extension. With Google Dictionary you can click on any French word and look it up instantly, without having to switch tabs and paste a word into a dictionary.
Another helpful tool I like to use is LingQ. LingQ is a tool in which you import your French texts in order to study them with an interface that highlights unknown words as well as words you're learning. It helps you analyze a text and its difficulty according to your level and the unknown words are saved for later review. LingQ also has an extensive archive of texts that you can study along with audio. Go read my review of LingQ if you want to learn more - or even better: Read it in French! Avis sur LingQ
Techniques for learning French through reading
Other than using the above tools to make reading difficult texts in French more doable, here are some reading techniques that I use with real paper books:
Parallel reading in French
The French classic "Madame Bovary" by Gustave Flaubert in English and French
It might be helpful to pick up a French novel and its English translation and read them side by side. You can experiment with the amount of text you read before switching to the other edition. If you're fairly advanced, perhaps you can read a whole chapter at a time. Otherwise, try reading a paragraph in English first, then the corresponding French paragraph. Or maybe it works better sentence to sentence? It's up to you and it might depend on the book and how its written. This technique can have the disadvantage of being a little difficult to handle. If you get a little frustrated by constantly switching books, try looking up some bilingual books with two languages on facing pages.
Read books in French that you already know well in English
Another way of making a French language book easier to understand, is reading a book, that you have already read one or more times in English. This is slightly more advanced than reading two books in parallel. It can be extremely helpful, however, for not having to try and figure out the finer details of the plot. Those kind of things that are only insinuated in the text or "written between the lines" can add extra strain to an already difficult task. This is avoided with reading books you know well. I've read l'Étranger by Albert Camus in French, Danish and Arabic so far. More than a dozen times!
Extensive reading of books just above your level
A great way of learning French through reading is by reading extensively. The books you pick need to be just above your level, but not much! The American linguist Stephen Krashen is known for his input hypothesis which he describes with the slightly cryptic phrase "I + 1". This simply means "the current level of the language + an incremental raise in difficulty". Other linguists like Alexander Arguelles has proposed that you need to know around 97% of the words you encounter in a book. If you do that, the remaining 3% you'll be able to deduct from the context, and you will have learned the 3% organically in that manner.
If we do the math, it's actually entirely possible to get far with this method. If a standard page in a book has around 250 words, it can have up to 9 unknown words on each page for it to be within the "97" of known content. If the book is 100 pages long, you'll have learned around 900 words from reading it. That's pretty significant!
The problem, however, is that you'd need to do a lot of legwork to find suitable books to read and to put them in the correct order. And they need to be enjoyable to read too!
Listen to French audio books while following along the written word
This can be really enjoyable. Other than helping you learn French by reading, this method helps you with your pronunciation and your listening comprehension. When I was a kid, my teacher sometimes read aloud in a book while we, the pupils followed along. I used to love this, and I still do today, only with audio files instead of my teacher in front of me.
People who haven't tried this might think that it's difficult to do this, but actually it's much easier than doing the two things separately. Physically reading the words on the page while listening really helps you stay focused to what you're listening to. And vice versa.
If you have a favorite book that you can read over and over again, I recommend that you try experimenting a little with this method. It might sound odd, but I have had great success listening to a French audio book, while following along an English volume. It's actually not that difficult, but you need to really keep listening to the French audio.
The importance of keeping it enjoyable
When you learn French through reading French books, you have to be in for the long run. And if you're not consistent and keep reading on a regular basis, you'll lose motivation.
This is why you have to read books you really like reading. You might be interested in philosophy or history, but if it gets too dry and complicated to read it in French, don't bother! I made this mistake when first starting out reading in French. The problem is that even though I might find some complicated topics interesting in my native language it remains difficult. I have to think about the subject to understand it. If I were to do the same in a foreign language that I'm learning, it would be double the difficulty.
In the same way, you shouldn't read classic just because they're classics. If it feels too difficult to get through the book, put it down and do something else! When I read in a language I am learning, I never look words up in an old fashioned dictionary unless it really bugs me. Constantly putting the book aside to look something up just kills the enjoyment, and you never really get submerged into the story.
So go start reading in French!
How to learn French through reading? I hope that this article have given you a few ideas. Reading French can be extremely rewarding. Wether your goal is to gain a new skill or if it is more specifically related to reading French literature, I highly recommend to read right from the beginning.