How to benefit the most from reading in an L2
The importance of learning vocabulary when studying another language is second to none. It simply must be done for there to be any possibility of success, and in this post I outline one very useful and very effective method for building your vocabulary quickly, but surely.
When learning a second language it is important to be able to read fast while still understanding the majority of the text. This means that reading practice is vital, but where do you start? How can you learn vocabulary from reading? What types of language should you be looking for? To get the most benefit from reading in an L2, you should be reading to your level, or slightly below. But what does this mean and why is it important?
When you find yourself in a situation where it's hard to follow what's going on, most of the time you want to escape, and it's the same for reading in a second language. If you can't understand what has been written, you will get bored very quickly and may easily give up, but what's more, you won't be able to make the most of all the effort you put into learning.
Reading to build your vocabulary
Without fail, you should be understanding more than 95% of the words in the text. So for a paragraph of about 100 words, possibly half the page of a novel, there should be a maximum of five unknown words. The logic behind this is that with 95% coverage, you should be able to guess the remaining 5% of unknown words through context. The more you read, the higher your chances of coming across these unknown words again, which means that the words will start to become more and more familiar to you as you see them again and again in context.
It has been found that this is the most effective way to learn vocabulary, simply due to the fact that the words are in context. By gradually building your understanding of a word by guessing its meaning through context, you can understand more about the word than you could through intensive study of the vocabulary. However, it is also important to combine these two methods of learning vocabulary in order to combat the lexical paradox: you need to use words to learn words but in order to be able to use words you first need to have learnt them. It also helps to follow this up by double-checking the words in the dictionary, but don't do this while you are reading or else you will lose your flow and reading will become both time-consuming and tedious. Only check the word in the dictionary if you feel it is important enough to need it, i.e. it appears a lot in a range of texts and when it is necessary to do so to understand the text (see learning burden).
The only thing is that this takes a large amount of effort to do so in the first place. In fact Nation (2009) found that you need to be reading at least one graded reader every two weeks to be able to gain from this method. Graded readers (such as these Japanese ones) are specially designed books where the vocabulary (and to a certain degree grammar) has been graded, i.e. it appears in the books in different levels that are based on studies into word frequency. For example, a beginner's book would only contain words that are within the 100 most common words in the English language (excluding pronouns and other important content words). Admittedly there aren't that many graded readers for learning Japanese available, but with this knowledge it shouldn't be too hard to go to the library/ bookstore and find a book, open up one page, and try reading it using the 95% rule.
It is really important that you get a large variety of input so that you can see how words are used in different contexts. This means that while you are reading a novel or something similar, it helps to also read things like newspaper or magazine articles. I recommend choosing something that you like and if you read multiple things on the same topic, usually the same words are used so you can gain that all-important exposure needed to add words to your vocabulary.
Reading to build reading speed
Lastly, this is all fine and dandy if you want to learn vocabulary, but what if you are feeling the need for speed...er... reading? Well, the logic on choosing a text is the same, except this time you want to be able to understand more than 99% of the text. That's right, in order to develop your speed at reading, you should understand pretty much every word you are reading. Fortunately you don't actually have to go out and buy/ borrow new books; this can easily be achieved by re-reading things that you have already read. Another way to achieve this is by purposely reading anything below your level.
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