Frequently asked questions about reading in a foreign language | Natural Language Institute

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Frequently asked questions about reading in a foreign language

By Victor - 01/mar/2021 #Language and Education

Now that you know 6 great ways to read yourself to language mastery, let’s answer some frequently asked questions.


Should I look up the definitions of words as I read?


Reading should be an enjoyable immersion in your foreign language. If a word is essential to understanding a passage or it has come up many times and you’re quite curious about its exact meaning, then go ahead and look it up.

However, looking up too many words will interrupt your immersive flow, slow down your reading, and probably cut into your enjoyment. If you’re reading at an appropriate level, you can follow along just fine without understanding every single word.

You may think that by looking up every word you’ll be squeezing the most learning out of the experience, but that’s not necessarily the case.

You can learn vocabulary by studying definitions or by inferring meaning from context. Since by looking up fewer words you will be able to read more text in a given amount of time, you will have more opportunities to absorb meaning from context. It is essentially a tradeoff, but on balance the advantages go to immersive or extensive reading, as detailed below.


At what level of difficulty should I read?

Let your enjoyment be your guide.

If what you are reading is enjoyable, yet somewhat challenging, that means the input is comprehensible and will strengthen your vocabulary and grammatical skills.

You can test out different levels to find out which is comfortable for you by accessing our sample homework assignments. Choose your target language and a level and enjoy our curated content!


How can I get started reading at a basic level?

Please refer to this discussion on the topic from my previous post.

In addition to children’s literature and graded readers, there are many other possibilities. For instance, if you were studying English, Simple English Wikipedia is a fantastic source. There are also several simplified English news sources, such as News in Levels and Breaking News English.

I’ll be happy to help you find sources that suit your interests and goals, in particular if you are studying English, Spanish, French, or Portuguese.


Should I read extensively or intensively?

The easy answer is that you can do both, depending on your mood and preference.

However, I will stake my position decidedly in favor of extensive reading.

First, however, let’s define the two terms. According to Wikipedia, “Extensive reading, free reading, book flood, or reading for pleasure is a way of language learning, including foreign language learning, through large amounts of reading … In language learning, extensive reading is contrasted with intensive reading, which is slow, careful reading of a small amount of difficult text – it is when one is ‘focused on the language rather than the text’.”[1]

I already began to answer this question above: in sum, you will learn more vocabulary and grammar per page with intensive reading, but not necessarily per hour invested, since with extensive reading you will read much more text in the same amount of time and thus absorb more vocabulary and grammar in context.

Absorbing meaning from context holds several advantages, beginning with the greater enjoyment and immersive flow, which translate into increased concentration. Context-based vocabulary and grammar learning leads to far greater long-term retention, a more nuanced understanding of words’ connotations, and an increased ability to use the vocabulary appropriately in one’s own writing and speech.

And here’s a subtle, but very interesting point. Let’s say you are a beginner student of English and come across the word “jentacular”. If you follow the “look-everything-up” or intensive reading method, you will take a minute to consult the word’s definition. Unless it was crucial to understanding the text, you have just wasted a minute, as you are likely to never see that word again, and if you ever use it in conversation, no one will understand you anyway. By contrast, in the extensive reading method, you will cavalierly skip over such a word. You will thus naturally learn words and grammatical structures in proportion to how often they repeat in various texts. Essentially, this method ensures that you will always learn higher frequency words and more common sentence structures, which is a key ingredient in efficient language acquisition. 

If you want to delve into the research on extensive reading, check out the incredible Annotated Bibliography of Works on Extensive Reading in a Second Language.


Should I reread books and passages?

Only if you enjoy doing so and are truly engaged during the second reading. Otherwise, just keep reading new things that spark your interest.

Variety is the spice of language acquisition.

It’s just as good or better to ingrain a word in your memory by seeing it in dozens of different contexts than by repeating the same context again and again.

However, if you love a book so much that you want to read it again, by all means, do so, as your engagement will allow you to keep learning and reinforcing your language skills. I remember when I was about 8 years old, I read what is, to this day, my favorite book by my favorite children’s author – The Witches by Roald Dahl. I enjoyed it so much that I read it again, and again, and again. By the fifth reading, you could say any sentence in the book, and I would be able to tell you, from memory, what the next sentence was. Since I was so enthusiastic with each reading, I’m sure the repetition benefited my English literacy.


Should I read translated works?

Some people advocate comparative or parallel reading, i.e., reading a text in your native language and in the language you are learning. Don’t do this. You will be wasting 50% of your time.

Parallel reading aside, reading translated works (just in your target language) is fine, since many translations are of superb quality.

However, I would recommend you prioritize material written originally in your target language, for two reasons. First, although translations can be excellent, some degree of intrinsic artistic, persuasive, and linguistic quality of the original is inevitably lost in translation. Even more importantly, reading original works in a language will help you better understand the associated culture and mindset, which will enhance your overall learning experience and communicative ability.


As we wrap up this three-part series on reading, please feel free to contact me with any questions that I did not cover or if you need help putting the suggestions I gave into practice. I would also love to hear about your opinions or experiences on language learning through reading.

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