Reading Strategies In Language Learning - 5 Bullet-Proof Techniques

avatarMille Larsen
13 mins read

Reading is, in my opinion, the most important activity in language learning.

But when you decide to sit down and read for the purpose of language acquisition, how should you go about it? It seems easier said than done to just read a book in a foreign language, and although must people would agree that if you get through several hundred pages in a foreign language, you'll learn something, the details of "how" you should understand and internalize the given text, is a little foggy.

The way you should go about reading obviously depends on your level in the given language, as well as your personal learning style and preferences.

You shouldn't look everything up in a dictionary if it bores you, and do not just keep reading if you understand nothing. But to a certain extent and in specific situations both of these two options can be helpful, but it depends on a lot of factors.

In this article, I'll try to go through different ways to go about reading as a technique for learning foreign languages, and I hope that it might be helpful for some of those who find it hard to use reading as a tool.

Intensive Reading, Or The Bulldozer Approach

When most people think of reading as a language learning tool, they think of intensive reading.

When you read intensively, you read very slowly with a strong focus on understanding everything whether it be grammar, vocabulary or pronunciation. You're sort of working your way though the text like a bulldozer. Slowly, steadily, and crushing everything as you go!

Depending on your level in the given language, you will be very dependent on a dictionary for looking up everything that you don't know. If you're generally a structured, disciplined student who likes to break sweat when you study, then intensive reading might be for you. But if you try it, and you don't enjoy it, put down the book and try something else.

Learning a new language takes a lot of dedication, and the single most important thing in order to succeed, is to stay motivated. Therefore, if something threatens your enthusiasm, stop immediately!

But even if intensive reading is something you manage to make work, try not overdoing it. Read one out of ten pages intensively, and use a digital pop-up dictionary that works fast, rather than relying on a slow paper book. And take notes! It doesn't matter if you're going to throw out your notes immediately after a study session, because the action of writing in itself is more important than actually using your notes for later reference.

In fact, note taking, varying your methods and different memorization techniques can be crucial for remembering the words you look up on the go. To read more about this, go read my article about remembering words.

Extensive Reading, Ignore What You Don't Understand

Extensive reading is the complete opposite of intensive reading.

When you read extensively, you try not to look up words that you don't understand, but instead you rely on the context to figure things out.

This approach is about getting a general idea about what you're reading, and not worrying too much about unknowns. The idea is that vocabulary and grammar points that appear again and again eventually become internalized because of repetition, and that you learn more by reading for pleasure rather than "studying" actively.

The linguist Steven Krashen is the main reference for believers in the "extensive reading" approach. Krashen suggests that one should pick books that are just "slightly" more difficult than your current level. If you know almost everything, you'll be able to guess the rest from context and then assimilate the words without making an effort.

Other people who've has success in using the extensive reading technique have said that the number of known words in any given text should be around 98%.

This means that you should go for books that have no more than two or three unknown words per page. For many, this is a bit unrealistic. You need to be at rather advanced in your target language in order to understand 98% of most texts, and I would argue, that if you're reading with language acquisition in mind, and not purely for pleasure in which case a completely transparent text would be preferable, slightly more difficult stuff also works, without the difficulty being too frustrating.

EMK, a member of the online language community, has written about his experiences with studying French by reading extensively. He counted pages as he kept finishing book after book, and testified how he "had learned to read" after 500 pages, felt comfortable after 2500 pages, and read well and quickly after 7500 pages. When he had finished 10.000 pages, he considered himself fluent in French. Ten thousand pages. That's obviously a lot - roughly the equivalent of 50 novels,  but it might be a number to aim for.

Reading With An Instant Dictionary

Using some kind of tool as a help to understand a difficult text, is a great way to read while studying another language. It's like a mix between intensive and extensive reading, where you get the best of both worlds. You don't need to know 98% of the words to understand, because you can quickly look up words, and carry on without much frustration.

While studying French, I read thousands of pages on my Kindle. Reading on a Kindle or a similar kind of eBook reader can be useful because most of these have integrated dictionaries where you can get an immediate translation of a word simply by clicking or touching it. And getting a translation in seconds rather than having to shuffle through a paper-dictionary makes all the difference!

Another very useful tool is LingQ. You can read about LingQ and why I like it so much in my review of LingQ. I use LingQ every day to read texts in various languages.

The great thing about LingQ is that it helps you track your known and unknown words, and that it lets you create your own "hints" in stead of simply relying on direct translation. Using these hints are about a million times better than dictionary lookups, because you're the one coming up with a definition. This act of actually "working" with the definition before noting it down helps your brain realize that this is something worth remembering.

To check out LingQ, go straight to their website.

Read Texts In Parallel: A Shortcut To More Advanced Content

If you prefer paper books, like many people do, I recommend that you try parallel reading, which is very effective in helping you read in an almost extensive way!

What is parallel reading? Well basically, it's reading two books in the same time. One in English (or another language you speak fluently) and the other one, a translated version into your target language.

You first read one sentence, paragraph, page or even chapter in English. This allows to understand everything that's going on in the text. You should understand all vocabulary, metaphors and things "written between the lines" this way.

Then you read the same thing in your target language.

This obviously doesn't automatically and magically make you know all the words that you need for understanding the book in the language you're learning. But it allows you to ignore things you don't understand without missing out on anything.

You'll need to read a lot of books this way to really reach reading fluency, but gradually you'll notice that, as you see unknown vocabulary again and again, you're starting to recognize the words!

You can either pick up a book along with its translation, or you can choose a special edition of the book that has the original along with the translation on facing pages. It's obviously more handy to read just one book, rather than juggling two at once, but if you have a good, dedicated study space, it's quite manageable.

Another tip is to read a translation of your favorite book, or a book that you already know well, or read a plot summary of your novel beforehand. This way you won't get completely lost while studying, and you'll know what's going on, which is immensely important to stay motivated while reading in a foreign language.

And while we're on the subject of motivation, go read my article on how to stay motivated when learning languages.

Listen-Reading (Following Along While Listening To An Audio Book)

Listening-reading or L-R is a method where you listen to audio books while following along the text.

It has various variations - most commonly, you listen to a native speaker's voice while following along in the foreign language book. This helps you develop a good sense for the language's pronunciation and melody as well as the relationship with spelling and pronunciation (which, like in English isn't always a given) and it forces you to read faster.

I've read several books in French this way, and can definitely say that it's a great workout for your brain. You need a certain level for it to really be effective, though, because you don't have the time to pause and look up words.

Another effective variant of L-R is to read along in your native language while listening to the foreign language! When this is done right, it helps you understand the meaning, while following along the audio, but it is easy to get lost in the text, and to me, at least, I often end up focusing too much on what I understand, while the foreign language recording becomes white noise in the background.

Lastly, some people have done the opposite - reading in their target language while listening to an English language audio book. This, obviously, won't help you with your pronunciation and listening comprehension, but it appears that it is much easier to focus on the target language when it is in text as opposed to an audio recording. It also helps you to read faster, because you need to keep up with the speed of the English speaking voice actor.

All in all - L-R can be effective, but it is a real linguistic workout, and getting the method right as well as finding useful books along with their audio versions can be a little difficult. (Depending on the language)

While studying French, I did a lot of listen-reading, but it isn't something you can do in public transport, in between your daily occupations and so on. You need calm and undisturbed, dedicated study time, and you need great materials.

Make sure you find books as well as audio books that are unabridged, or, in other words; not rewritten, shortened or with modified vocabulary or something like that. The sound also needs to follow the text without any changes of vocabulary, additions or omissions, which is often not the case.

I'm reading a lot of blog posts in Arabic from the Sciware blog, and although audio recordings with text is a rare and precious resource, the recording and the text often differ slightly, which can confuse the listener.

You also have to keep your eye out of bad translations. When I read Harry Potter in Arabic, I was absolutely chocked by the choices made by the translator, who changed names, took out jokes and details and summarized entire pages into short sentences.

This is why I recommend that you read books that are considered literary "classics". Generally these books are treated more delicately and with more respect by translators, and they seem to put a lot of effort into getting everything right and including subtle details as well as the style and language use of the author.

Shadowing - Instantly Repeating What You Hear Like A Caffeinated Parrot

Now, if L-R can be tiresome for your brain, shadowing is a veritable marathon!

Shadowing was popularized on the internet language-geek community (didn't you know there was one?) by an American linguistics professor, Alexander Arguelles.

When you shadow a text, you will also need an audio recording, as well as the corresponding, text. You can do it with simpler beginner material, like you can do it with novels and audio books. I have done it in French and Arabic with my favorite beginner-course "Assimil" and it has had the strange effect of completely "drilling" the phrases into my brain.

I started shadowing my French Assimil back in 2009 or 2010, and to this date, some sentences (along with the voice from the audio recording) is still stuck in my head. In other words -  don't use this method if you don't want it to mess you up a little bit!

When you shadow, you do three things in the same time - you listen to the recording, you read the sentence and you repeat instantaneously after the speaker's voice.

This takes some getting used to, and if you haven't tried it, it even seems impossible.

Imagine that you're a kid who repeats everything your parent says, word for word, only you start repeating before mom has finished speaking. If you try this in your native language, you'll notice that it is indeed possible, and that you can continue to listen while you're simultaneously speaking.

Back when I shadowed my French Assimil, I got up early in the morning, sat down and shadowed seven lessons in the book. First day I did lessons 1-7, second day 2-8, and so on. This way you'll eventually finish the book and repeat it 7 times (or more if you like) and you end up hearing the audio recording (and wanting to repeat it) under the shower and in all sorts of situations.

Repeating instantly after the audio forces you to say what you're hearing rather than what you thought you should be hearing. It's a great tool for cheating your brain out of making assumptions, like it often happens when we learn languages.

I also find that shadowing has helped me immensely with my listening comprehension, pronunciation, and to some extent even grammar, because it has provided me with a catalog of example sentences that I can't get out of my head!

If you're interested in shadowing, go see Professor Arguelles' one-hour description of it on YouTube here: Shadowing step by step. Or you might enjoy watching this short video of Arugelles shadowing his Mandarin Assimil in the park (See the video below).

The Professor states that it is important to shadow while in movement in order for your brain to make some kinetic memories and better internalize the material, but I haven't had the guts to do this in public!

Do you also study languages by reading? I'd love to hear how you go about it, so go ahead and post a comment below!