How to learn Spanish by reading
- Mille Larsen •16 mins read
You came here because you're learning Spanish. Good for you!
I bet you're already working on conversation, conjugation, speaking, listening, writing and reading. There are so many things to master to become fluent and it does take some time to learn Spanish!
But how to take your Spanish to the next level, you might ask?
Once you've got the basics down, you've finished your Spanish beginner's material and feel like you're no longer a complete debutant, but not fluent in Spanish either:
It's time to focus much more on reading!
UPDATE: I recently discovered a course called Spanish Uncovered by StoryLearning. It's an incredible resource for those of us who like to learn by reading. Definitely worth trying it out.
Why is reading so important when learning Spanish?
In my opinion, reading is the single most important activity to spend time doing when learning Spanish.
Granted, other things are important too, and you shouldn't focus exclusively on reading - but I do think that reading can represent 80% of your study time once you've reached the intermediate level of Spanish.
So what's so special about reading?
When you read, you start using Spanish as a conveyor of information rather than the language being an object in itself.
You read a story that draws you in, makes you feel things and stays in your thoughts a long time after finishing the book.
You can even get to the point where you forget that you're reading in a foreign language and just focus 100% on the plot.
So the main reason that reading is effective for Spanish learners is that it's an enjoyable way of using the language rather than actually studying it.
Other than that, it permits you to learn words through context, and it helps you to build your vocabulary and to get used to how the grammar functions.
Learn Spanish vocabulary through input
So how do you learn Spanish grammar and vocabulary through reading?
The linguist Stephen Krashen is known for his input hypothesis which greatly comes into play when learning languages through reading.
The input hypothesis is all about learning vocabulary and grammar through the context of what you're reading.
Imagine that you're reading the following paragraph: You know all words except "paloma". What do you think it means?
"Anthony sat on a bench watching las palomas. Little children were trying to scare them by running towards them, but they only managed to make a few of them fly a few yards. One paloma landed right in front of Anthony. It didn't seem to worry about the proximity of a human whatsoever. Anthony broke a piece of bread off the corner of his sandwich and threw it a few feet in front of la paloma which then proceeded to run clumsily towards it, picking at it with stressful eagerness before any of the other birds would notice"
A little story that I wrote. I know, I know. I'll work on my prose before I go look for publishers!
If you didn't figure out that "paloma" means "pigeon", it's more likely that I have failed as a writer than you being bad at deducting information from context.
The input hypothesis is all about reading texts, where you know most words, and are able to guess the missing words from the context.
This means that you can potentially read without looking unknown words up in a dictionary and still learn new vocabulary!
But it's not as simple as grabbing a random book from the Spanish section at the library...
So how to approach reading texts in Spanish?
There are numerous ways to approach reading texts in Spanish.
One is obviously just finding the right material, where the amount of unknown words is just right for you. The text must neither be too difficult, nor too easy.
It's not easy finding those perfect books though. More often than not, the book you end up reading will either be too difficult or too easy for you to be really able to benefit from deducting unknown words from context.
So what to do?
Many people would go straight to the most obvious solution: Reading Spanish books with a dictionary at hand!
I'm not a fan of this approach...
For each new word, you'll have to: 1. put your Spanish book aside, 2. open the dictionary, 3. look up the word, 4. find the right definition, 5. compare it to the context where you found it, and 6. get back into reading.
That's a huge process that you need to go through for each unknown word. And chances are that you'll need to do this several times per page.
This is neither enjoyable, nor effective. You'll be struggling to learn Spanish this way.
I've found that whenever I go through all of these steps to find out about a word that I've come upon in a foreign language text, I forget where I were in the story and how the word fits into the context.
When I look up another word, I'd have already forgotten the previous one that I just found!
With this approach, you'll spend more time with the dictionary than the Spanish text. It's extremely frustrating and demotivating.
And you don't remember anything.
So how, then to go about reading texts in Spanish that are slightly above your level?
(Side note: If you want to read more about motivation in language learning, check my article on the subject!)
Use a pop-up dictionary to read Spanish articles online
One great way to make Spanish texts more accessible is to use a pop-up dictionary like Google Dictionary for reading articles online.
Google Dictionary is a browser extension for the Chrome browser that you can download and install for free. (Alternatives exist for other browsers too).
With this tool, you can click on any word, anywhere on the internet and get an instant translation of the word.
An article in Spanish explaining why you shouldn't feed pigeons
Instantly looking up words greatly reduces the time spent and the number of steps that it takes to understand an unknown word. Your flow of reading is only interrupted a second or two instead of several minutes.
Reading content online becomes quite doable with this little tool, and it's something I can really recommend.
But how to find good articles online in Spanish to read?
I suggest that you look up any topic that you might find remotely interesting.
Read about your hobby or passion in Spanish. If there are articles written about the topic in English, chances are good that something similar exists in Spanish.
Try writing a search query into Google Translate and go search for it.
I recommend, however, that you focus on relatively light subjects. Especially in the beginning.
You might be interested in philosophy, technical texts or the law, but this kind of content is usually written in a way that demands some extra brain-work to understand, even in your native language.
Reading that kind of thing in Spanish creates twice as much strain on your brain, and in my experience it's not worth it. As a rule of thumb - if something is difficult to understand in English, don't go read it in Spanish!
Study Spanish with LingQ
Another great way to read texts in Spanish is with LingQ.
(For a link to the website, scroll down!)
LingQ has been one of my favorite language learning tools for reading for a long time.
The LingQ reader lets you read and study all sorts of Spanish texts in their study interface.
This is how it works:
You either import a text in Spanish from anywhere on the internet, or you choose something from the LingQ library. The library is getting bigger and bigger as time goes by, so you won't have any problems finding something to study.
This is what it looks like when studying Spanish with the LingQ app
When you open the reader for the first time, you'll be faced with a page full of blue words. Blue words are words that are unknown to you. Or at least, LingQ hasn't registered that you've seen the word yet.
When you click a blue word, you'll hear the pronunciation of the word spoken and a small pop-up will appear.
You can now choose from the most common translations that other users of LingQ has chosen in the past for the same word.
Pick one - or click "I know this word" if you've already learned the word from somewhere else, or "ignore" if it's a name or something else that you don't really consider a word that you need to learn.
When you click a translation, the word will turn yellow and your choice of translation will be registered.
Yellow words are called "LingQ's". They're words that you're in the process of learning.
If you choose "I know this word" the word will turn into normal black text and it'll be registered as a word that you've successfully learned.
Continue working your way through the text until you've finished it.
How to work with the yellow words in LingQ
LingQ now remembers the words that you know and the words that you're in the process of learning from this particular text.
Next time you open a new text in LingQ, known words and yellow words will already be shown in the text, and you can focus on new words.
After finishing a lesson, there are numerous ways that you can work with the yellow words that you're in process of learning.
LingQ offers to send you a list with daily reminders to these words. This can be helpful. There's also an option to revise the words with flashcards, which can also be useful.
The best way, however, is to work with your translations or "hints"
So after you've finished year reading session, I recommend that you go and look at your yellow words. For each, you've picked a direct translation.
I want you to change these translations to hints.
Instead of just having them tell you the direct translation, try writing a little explanation in Spanish.
For the word "Paloma", you could write " pájaro que ves en parques " or you could write it in English: a bird you see in parks.
You could also write something else that you think of - like an association. "The bird of peace", "flying rats", and so on.
When you do this instead of just leaving an automatic, direct translation, you create a mental connection to that word.
The next time you see the word, you will be reminded of it - not as a word you looked up, but as a word that you've thought about and have an opinion or a feeling about.
This is a million times more effective than seeing the same instant translation over and over again.
A dictionary translation is a neutral piece of information.
Your brain doesn't care particularly about that word.
An association or an explanation in your own words, however, is your brain's own creation. When you see that the next time, the memory will be much stronger.
When you're learning Spanish, you probably don't have the time to do this for each and every new word you come upon. But try doing it with words that you find a little difficult.
If you want to read more about using associations in remembering words check out my article on the subject.
Getting the most out of LingQ Spanish
The fact that LingQ remembers the words you know and the words you're learning provides for some very useful metrics when you want to measure your own progress.
The LingQ statistics tell you how many words you know and how many you've read. This can be great for setting goals.
It's also a good way of analyzing texts that you might want to study. If a new text has 50% unknown words, it might mean that it's very difficult. 5% on the other hand, might be too easy.
All in all, LingQ is a very effective tool for learning Spanish through reading.
With their apps for Android and the Iphone, it's very easy to study a few pages when riding the bus or waiting at the doctor's office. But it's also great for concentrated, long reading sessions.
Personally, I've used LingQ for several hundred hours for a number of different languages, and I warmly recommend it.
Here's an article I wrote about LingQ.
Or you might want to go directly to the LingQ website.
Using parallel reading for learning Spanish
If you're more into old-fashioned paper books than reading through your computer or smartphone screen, I've got the solution for you.
The answer is parallel reading.
Parallel reading is when you read a text in two languages at the same time.
Imagine that you read two books side by side. One in Spanish, and the other in the English translation.
First you read a sentence, paragraph or chapter in English.
This allows you to understand the plot. What's going on in the story, what's written between the lines, and what are the subtleties that the writer's only hinting at?
Then you read the same text in Spanish.
This method doesn't automatically teach you all the vocabulary you need to read the book in Spanish, but it helps you understand the story so that you can focus on reading Spanish fluently without getting interrupted each time you don't understand.
In other words, it lets you benefit from what you can understand and ignore what you don't understand. Without loosing out on the story.
With a language like Spanish, there's no shortage of books available in both Spanish and English.
There are thousands of great Spanish language books readily available in both the original Spanish and their English translations.
Just to name a few, you can have a look at El Alquimista by Paulo Coelho, El Amor en los Tiempos del Cólera by Gabriel García Márquez or La Casa de los Espíritus by Isabel Allende. (links to amazon)
There are obviously a lot more great authors and fantastic books to choose from, and you'll quite easily be able to find the English translations of these books as well.
Many people also enjoy reading their favorite English books in Spanish translation. To name a few easy examples, try looking up Harry Potter in Spanish. Or how about bestsellers like "The Da Vinci Code" or "Origin" by Dan Brown? Or some classic and easy to read minimalism by Ernest Hemingway? (amazon links)
The listen-reading technique
This technique for learning Spanish by reading might sound a little strange to some.
It may be, but it's extremely effective. Especially if you have a lot of time to dedicate to studying Spanish, and you need to improve a lot within a short time-frame.
The idea is that you pick up a Spanish audio book, and you listen to it while you follow along in the printed book. (You can find audio books through the amazon links above to most of the mentioned books).
I like to use this method in multiple steps - It involves rereading a novel several times, so I recommend that you pick one that you really like!
First, read the book in English. Do so quickly and without audio. If you already know the book well, you can skip this step. But you need to have the book and its plot fresh in your recollection for the steps to follow.
Then you start over!
Read the book in English again, but while listening to the Spanish audio book.
At first, it seems very difficult. You especially need to be focused, because you're not allowed to focus on the written English. Your attention needs to be on the Spanish audio, while you're simply following along in the English text.
It can be a little difficult at first, and you'll probably find yourself getting lost in the text a few times. Don't worry! Just keep going. But make sure to keep focusing on the Spanish audio and not relying too much on the English text.
After finishing the book, how would you feel about doing the same one more time?
If you're up for it, repeat!
Otherwise, try switching the English book with the Spanish one. Repeat the process. Only now you're reading the Spanish book while listening to Spanish audio.
When using this method, it's important to dedicate a lot of study time. I recommend going through a whole novel in no longer than two or three days. For the method to work most optimally, the text needs to remain fresh in your recollection.
This technique isn't for everyone!
I've got a lot out of it personally, however. When learning French, I must have read L'Etranger by Albert Camus at least 10 times.
Learning Spanish through reading
There are tons of different strategies for learning Spanish through reading. If you want to read more about the subject, I recommend that you have a look at my article on 5 reading techniques.
One is even weirder than the listen-reading technique!
You need to pick a method that suits you, however.
For me, reading is both a tool for learning foreign languages, but also a goal in itself.
Reading foreign language books opens up doors to another world. Learning Spanish gives you access to enormous amounts of creative writing from a large part of the globe.
But it's also the single best approach to improving your Spanish if you feel stuck at the intermediate stage.
You might find my list of Spanish courses helpful, but I do highly recommend the Spanish Uncovered course I mentioned above.
I hope that you've found this article useful! If you do, please comment below, or share it with other people who are learning Spanish!