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5 reading strategies in language learning

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 explore different ways to go about reading for language foreign language acquisition, and I hope that it might be helpful for some of those who find it hard to use reading as a tool.

Intensive reading

This is what most people understand when they think of reading as a means to learn languages. When you read intensively, you read very slowly with a strong focus on understanding everything wether it be grammar, vocabulary or pronunciation. 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 is for you. 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 treat hens your enthusiasm, stop immediately!

Otherwise, if intensive reading is bearable for you, 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. Also check out my point about remembering vocabulary.

Extensive reading

This is just the opposite of intensive reading. When you read extensively, you try not to look up words that you don’t understand, but rather, rely on the context to paint a picture. 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 with 98% known words in order to be able to guess the rest from context and then assimilate the words without making an effort. 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 or parallel texts

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. The kindle is an amazing tool for somebody who studies languages. It’s an e-book reader that lets you look up words instantly just by touching it on the page, so you can carry on reading without even pausing. It’s also a quite handy device, very small, with a very long battery time (easily ten times your average smartphone or tablet) and with a special kind of screen technology that doesn’t rely on emitting light into your eyes. This is just as comfortable to look at for hours as would be a paper book. Oh, and then it holds thousands of books in its memory.

Another very useful tool is LingQ which I have written about in my post about studying Arabic as well as in a more detailed review of LingQ. I use LingQ every day, but I think it works best on an Ipad. I’ve got an old Ipad 2 which is just fine for LingQ.

If you prefer paper books, like many people do, I recommend that you try parallel reading, which is also very effective and helps you read in an almost extensive way! 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, its quite manageable.

What I do when I read in parallel is, that I read a portion of the translation, for example a sentence or a paragraph, and then the same one in the original. This way, the meaning of what I am reading in the foreign language is clear. Wether you read a sentence, a paragraph, a page or a chapter before switching depends on your level and your preference. At some point you may also put the translation aside and only pick it up for reference here and there. 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.

Click here for a few book recommendations for language study


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 orthography 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 really to 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. 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 tother 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. I’ve read how the Hunger Games series have been similarly badly translated into Arabic.
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.
Again – go see a list of some of my favorite books to read in translation.


Now, if L-R can be tiresome for your brain, shadowing is a veritable marathon. Shadowing was popularized on the internet language-geek community by an American linguistics professor, Alexander Arguelles. When you shadow a text, you will also need an audio recording, as well as the corresponding, literally correct 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” (Assimil French, Assimil Arabic – see my review of Assimil Arabic) 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 day, 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 suppositions, 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 catalogue 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. 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!

3 thoughts on “5 reading strategies in language learning

  1. Ah– you’re a fellow LingQ alumnus! I used Steve’s system quite extensively to help me through a really crucial part of Chinese reading. I think we’re following very similar core strategies— I really liked some of Professor Arguelles’ articles and videos— now and then, I find myself going back to his metaphor of the development of shaving technology and the inverse relationship to the level of skill that we really need to use some of the modern tools that we have at our disposal…. in many ways, modern language learning tools and supports are taking us farther and farther away from developing the core skills that will carry us farther.

    1. That is very true! I do remember watching his video about shaving technology! There are some points where technology can be very helpful, but there’s a fine line between using them as an aide, and being guided by the tools! No matter how one studies, I think it’s important to take charge of ones process.

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