Monday, 2 April 2018

How to Develop your Reading at Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Levels

Plus Growing your Vocabulary with Reading

Reading is one of the four core skills that you need to develop when learning a foreign language.

First of all, let’s define what reading is. This might seem like a silly question but reading separate words, phrases and even simple dialogues in your target language, is still not reading per se. What you need to get used to is reading texts. And understanding them of course! So, how do you develop reading at different levels?

A quick note before you jump to your level below: even if your level is not, for example, elementary, I recommend not to skip this information as a lot of stuff that is relevant for elementary level learners is very relevant for intermediate and even advanced learners, too.

Starting to read texts when you are at elementary level is not simple and is very different from reading short phrases and recognising separate words here and there. Reading texts is super important though, as you won’t get too far with your language without it: being able to read and understand texts will take you further from just being able to make an order in a restaurant, ask for directions or sing a happy birthday song to your foreign friend in their language.

Besides, unless your goal of learning your target language is just a little bit for travelling and amusing your friends, you might get bored with “Une table pour deux, s'il vous plaît” kind of phrases after a couple of months of studying such stuff. So, once you have built up your vocabulary and have about 400 words under your belt, you need to grab a book and make it serious.

When starting with reading though, forget about the books for native speakers: they are too difficult for you at this point. And it’s not only words that you won’t be able to understand. Even if you are ok with looking up most of the words in these texts seating comfortably in your favourite armchair, leisurely leafing through a folio of a dictionary and biting off your fruit cake, grammar structures will be way too difficult for you to understand the meaning of the sentences.

What you will need instead is graded readers. These are books specifically designed for language learners. Search for elementary or A1/A2 level books, choose the ones you like and voilà!

Well, actually, even with easy books, this “voilà” of reading will not happen at once. But don’t be discouraged! Taking it step by step or page by page (even paragraph by paragraph at the very start) is absolutely fine. Even with this snail pace of a half-dead frozen tortoise, you will feel elated that you can read and understand some coherent text in your target language! Just don’t be too harsh imposing on yourself a whole chapter or even a few chapters for reading in one go, don’t risk getting fed up with too difficult a task too quickly, keep your reading effort sustainable.

When choosing what to read, you are likely to be not too spoilt for choice, even if the language you are learning is English, German, French or some other widespread tongue. Very often children’s books pop up as an option. So, if you cannot find anything other than books for underaged adventure lovers, you will have to dig out your inner child in you and read on till you progress to the next language level where you will have a wider choice of literary masterpieces. You might actually find reading the books in your target language, that you once read in your native language as a child, really sweet.

If you choose children’s books though, you might want to keep in mind that all these sweet fairy tales and wise fables have a very specific vocabulary. So, unless you are a children's author who has the ambition to translate their books into a foreign language and need to know their dragons, magic wands and fairy dust in this language, you might want to choose very down to earth and contemporary children’s books that tell simple stories about kids going to supermarkets, cinemas and parks with their parents or teenagers getting up to some mischief, making friends and enemies and falling in love for the first time.

Gradually, as you progress to intermediate level, you will be able to understand texts in your target language better and quicker and you will have more books to choose from. Even if you are experiencing language learning plateau, i.e. do not feel that you are developing your reading as fast as you were at elementary level, you need to keep reading in your target language.

First, if you stop reading at this point, there is a risk that your reading skill will deteriorate and it won’t be easy for you to restart reading and build up momentum again. Second, even if you feel that your reading is not as challenging as it was at elementary level and that you are not learning as much, it is important to keep reading as it provides you with your target language input that you need in order to be able to speak and write in this language.

It doesn’t mean, however, that you cannot or shouldn’t step up your reading game. While reading a lot is probably more important than reading more challenging texts at intermediate level, it’s a good idea to introduce new types of texts so that your vocabulary could get more varied. For example, you could start reading a newspaper from time to time (better stick to just one newspaper or news website at first) or some easy history books if you like history and would like to read more and more of such books as you progress with your language.

Once you have built up your language skills to advanced level, you don’t have to search for advanced level books for reading: books written for native speakers should be ok for you to read. Though, of course, it depends on a particular book: even if you are an advanced learner of English, it doesn’t mean that you will be able to read Shakespeare in the original (not every native English speaker can!)

While with elementary level the advice for reading is “Just start!”, for intermediate level, it is “Keep going!”, for advanced level, the recommendation is “Don’t stop!”

So, if you find a particular article or book difficult, it doesn’t mean that you haven’t learnt much or that you will never master your target language. If you try reading an academic article from a scientific periodical in your native language, you might start having doubts that you can speak this language either. So, with reading at advanced level you shouldn’t think about the language too much and focus on the content instead.

Thus, you can switch some of your usual reading, that you do in your native language, to your target language. For example, if you don’t have much time to read for pleasure, your excuse for reading novels could be reading them in your target language. Or you could split the time you allocate to reading news between your native and target languages. A nice bonus of such double news coverage is two different perspectives of the same events.

Reading Immersion

Whatever language level you are at, elementary, intermediate or advanced, you need to enjoy your reading. So, the texts you choose for reading need to be interesting (at elementary level they should be at least not super boring) and not too difficult for you. Thus you will be able to have immersion experience with your reading which is, actually, the whole point of this activity. Immersing into the language when reading helps your brain to get used to processing large amounts of information in your target language.

Sometimes learners use books with parallel translation into their native language to ensure they do not miss any detail of the story when they read it in their target language. For immersion experience, however, reading parallel translation is not too helpful.

First, you have this sharp contrast of total clarity in your native language and “walking in a haze” feeling in your target language, which doesn’t contribute to your confidence as a language learner.

Even if you understand everything in your target language, when you reread the same part in your native language, it feels as if you have just walked out of a haze and, suddenly, what you have read is crystal clear. This happens because your brain is more used to your native language than to your foreign language, it doesn’t mean that your foreign language skills suck. The more you read in your foreign language, the clearer you understand and this feeling of walking in a haze will gradually go.

Second, you are not training yourself to tolerate certain ambiguity and uncertainty which is an inevitable part of reading in a foreign language. So, next time when you don’t have access to translation to your native language for a certain book, it will be quite difficult for you to put up with this ambiguity and uncertainty and enjoy reading this book.

Third, with parallel translation you break the flow of reading in your target language, the translation serves as an unnecessary distraction in this respect.

With this in mind, it is actually ok not to understand all the details if they slow you down and do not contribute much to the general understanding of a plot or a news story. Instead, you need to focus on the story itself and keep reading to find out who the killer was in the detective story you are reading, if Jane will marry the love of her life in the romantic novel you have picked out or why another Hollywood couple decided to get a divorce from an article in Daily Mail.

Having said that, slowing down a bit to look up unknown words, so that you could learn them later, is essential as reading is also a great means of growing your vocabulary.

Growing your Vocabulary with Reading

Looking up and learning unknown words will ensure that you spend your reading time more productively, that you grow your vocabulary.

This is especially important if you don’t have much time for learning your target language and don’t have too much exposure to it through either reading or listening, so you won’t come across the same unknown words often enough to finally work out their meaning through different contexts and remember them naturally. This is, by the way, how you learnt your native language through years of exposure to the language, through multiple repetitions of the same words in different contexts.

However, if you have been struggling with a text trying hard to understand it and not lose a will to live at the same time, the last thing you want is breaking your hard-earned reading flow by looking up words in a dictionary and then recording them for learning.

Luckily, there is technology to help you out. I am not talking about online dictionaries or Google translate. I am talking about a pop up window with translation or explanation of an unknown word you click in the text, that you are reading online, and automatic recording of the words you have looked up, so that you could review them later and choose the ones you want to learn.

So, you don’t have to navigate to a different tab with a dictionary, type in the word, track down the translation among the numerous ads and, five minutes later, return to the original tab with the text you are reading after getting lost in all the open tabs in your browser. What was I reading about again? Duh! Oh, and on top of it, there is copying and pasting of the word and its translation, so that you could save and learn the word later.

So, how do you keep your reading flow and get a pop-up window with translation or explanation (or both in one window if you need them both) plus have them saved automatically? You need to get a free dictionary plugin vocBlocks LookUp.

Once it’s installed, you will be able to Ctrl double-click any unknown word in your text and read its translation or explanation. The tool will save all the words that you have looked up together with their translation, transcription and audio pronunciation into a vocabulary block (vocBlock) and send you an email reminder so that you don’t forget to learn these words by doing various exercises.

Happy reading!

Want to develop all four core foreign language skills? Check out our other posts to learn how:

How to Develop your Listening at Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Levels (upcoming)

How to Develop your Writing at Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Levels (upcoming)

How to Develop your Speaking at Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Levels (upcoming)

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