Reading is one of the best things you can do to familiarize yourself with a large number of words. The biggest advantage reading has over other input learning methods is that it allows you to take in the language at a very slow pace. You can take all the time you need to distinguish the different words and slowly make out the meaning of each sentence. Plus, you can easily look up any word you don’t understand as you go along. Since reading is such a slow process, it’s also a lot easier to understand words from context. Many languages are actually mutually intelligible in their written form, but not in spoken dialog. Spanish and Portuguese for example are very similar in their written form, but very different when the words are spoken out.
Reading is a fantastic language-learning tool, but it has to be used in a way that is effective. It’s all about choosing material that will allow you to progress. In previous posts, we mentioned that choosing material that is too far above your current skill level can make you drown in language learning; this is also true with reading material. If you’re a complete beginner and you choose to read the translated version of your favorite Stephen King 1000-page horror novel, you’ll have to look up almost every word in the dictionary. That’s more terrifying than the horror story itself. You may think that since you’re looking up a lot of words, you are actually learning a lot. The truth is that you’ll likely forget most words, because you are not learning them in a meaningful way. What a bummer, isn’t it? Plus, by doing something so painfully dull, you’re slowly killing any language-learning desire left in you. That’s a horror story right there.
In order to make reading an effective learning tool, you must slowly move up the chain of book difficulties. Believe it or not, children’s books can be very helpful in language learning because they were written for people learning their first language and are intended to build a child’s vocabulary. Why not use them to your advantage when learning a new language as an adult? It may feel ridiculous to be reading books written for 7-year-olds, but if you can put your maturity aside for a bit, it can improve your skills in surprising ways.
Children’s books often contain important words that are used a lot in your target language. They are often categorized by age groups in libraries and book stores. Simply find the age group that meets your current skill level, and upgrade to a higher age category when they start to become too easy for you. A book has to contain a nice balance of words you understand and words yet to be discovered. Finding this balance allows you to reinforce words you already know while learning tons of new words from context. If the material contains too many words you don’t know, it will feel overwhelming and won’t be productive. On the other hand, if you understand too much, it defeats the purpose of reading children’s books in the first place.
It’s best to use the book as an exercise and make a routine out of it; having a certain structure or method will greatly improve how much progress you make. Let’s say you’re just starting out and the very first book you read contains a total of 100 different words. You could read the entire book once, then read the book again by looking up all the words you don’t know, then read the book again a few times with the meaning of the words fresh in your mind. The whole process won’t take much time at all because the book is short and simple, but it’s a powerful way to learn new words in your new language.
Reading a children’s book containing 100 words is entirely different than reading the first 100 words in a novel. The main advantage of children’s books is that the words are often placed in very simple ideas and are accompanied by lots of pictures. This makes the words much easier to retain and the chance of forgetting them very low compared to novels. If you want to make sure you remember all the words from that short book, you can apply the spaced repetition technique; read the same book again the next day, then in 3 days, one week, one month and so on.
Children can take over 10 years to reach the young adult book level. As a second-language learner though, you can accomplish this in as little as a few months if you are truly dedicated. But spending a decent amount of time on each level will ensure that you never feel like you’re drowning and it will keep your motivation flying high. The level you choose to begin with is totally up to you; simply try a level, and either go up or down the scale depending on how comfortable you feel.
If you don’t like reading books for children, there is a lot of content out there that is easier to read than a full novel. Comic books, graphic novels, gossip magazines and short stories are also good options. Just make sure to choose something you enjoy. Reading, like listening, is a great way to create a lot of input language learning in your routine. But reading has the advantage of allowing you to slowly make out all the words and getting familiar with lots of vocabulary at your own pace.
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