Language learning by reading

Learning a foreign language is not easy. Two common mistakes that some learners make are reading material which is too difficult for them, and trying to memorise too many words – which the brain later forgets.

This method can help you get stronger and more confident in a foreign language. This is especially useful for

  • feeling confident with unknown words by being able to guess well, and becoming independent of dictionaries while
  • improving guessing ability – confidence and accuracy
  • raising your confidence in the foreign language
  • making correct simple sentence structures automatically
  • developing word lists from the texts you are reading

Two key points: * choose easy texts to read, and * resist the ‘need’ to check every unknown word in a dictionary.

 The method

All 4 steps that can be done independently, on different days or even months.

1. Choosing the text: To read a lot, it is important to choose a simple enough text, so simple that you can read it even when you are tired. There should be around 3 new words per page; if there are more than 5 new words on one page, choose something simpler, and save the difficult text for later. (See the BDA’s Five Finger Test).  The text must also be about something you are interested in: I would not choose to read about football, money markets or cars; give me texts about travel or nature! If you cannot get real books, there are many e-books that you can choose from.
2. Reading the text: You need your book and a pencil. Every time you read a word that you do not know, mark a small pencil dot in the margin. For ebooks, highlight all the line, not just the word.  No dictionary! Do not underline the word, only mark the end of the line. Do not stop reading to look in the dictionary, just carry on reading. This stage is PURE READING.
3. Guessing the unknown words: In this stage you need your book, a piece of paper and a pencil (not a pen). Still no dictionary! Draw 3 columns on your paper: on the left 5mm (you will use this in the third stage), the middle column is 4cm, and the rest of the paper (on the right) is the 3rd wide column. Write the date you guess the words at the bottom of the page.  (A photograph below shows my guesses – when reading Alıç Ağacı ile Sohbetler, by Hikmet Birand)

Open your book and find the first dot-in-the-margin (or highlighted line in an e-book). Read the whole line and sentence again; find the word you wanted to know and guess the meaning of the word. In pencil, write the word in the middle column and write your guess in the wide 3rd column. Sometimes this is not too difficult: you can see the word is a verb; Is it an action verb, or something more passive? Or is this adjective a feeling? Is it positive or negative? Sometimes after reading more pages, you will have understood the word and can guess easily. Sometimes it is not easy to guess (for instance ‘indeed’ reinforces the sentence: as it doesn’t leave a ‘blank’ you have few clues about a possible meaning).

The rule of this method is that YOU MUST GUESS. You cannot leave the 3rd column empty: if you can’t guess, you can’t write the word! So guess, anything, however wild and crazy: This method develops your guessing ability.

Continue with the next dot, writing the ‘new words’ and your guesses, until you have filled the page, or found all the dots-in-the-margin. Now erase all the pencil marks and return the book to the library/ your friend/ etc.
4. Checking your guesses. In this final stage you have your paper with your guesses, a pen (to write over your pencil writing) and a dictionary. Look up each word, and check your guess: In ink, write the word (2nd column) and the correct meaning of the word (3rd column). In the 1st column you grade your guess: a tick for a correct guess, X for a wrong guess, and ~ for a ‘sort of right’ guess: you didn’t get the right meaning, but the category was right. For example you guessed that the word was angry but the right meaning was sad: you guessed correctly that it was a negative feeling.

Word guessesYou now have a list of some words that you can read through while waiting for a bus, or having a quiet coffee.  You do not need to memorise them; when reading the list, you will remember some of the context, or your near guesses.  Sometimes, making then correcting a wrong guess can strongly connect a word to your mind: do not be frightened of mistakes!

The rationale behind this method

I needed this method when I was learning Turkish. Reading newspapers was frustrating and demotivating: I struggled too hard and got little satisfaction. At the same time, a student told me she was developing her English by reading Charles Dickens; I was very impressed. However she had spent 30 minutes to read ten sentences, so her progress was slow and ineffective: Dickens was too complex to correct basic mistakes like ‘She go, We comes’.

Published texts are (nearly always) grammatically correct. Every single sentence you read is correct, so you will learn the basic structures well. When the learner chooses a simple enough text, it can be read with little effort and you will feel more comfortable and more successful.

In the reading stage, you only read, without distractions (like looking up words in a dictionary) or worries (about the words that you don’t know).

In the guessing stage you read critical parts of the text again because you do not underline the words. To guess the meanings you use many different clues; the more you guess, the better your guesses get. This is a useful skill, because you will often need to understand a foreign text/speech when you don’t have a translator or a dictionary. The more confident you feel about your guessing, the less worried you will be about the parts you don’t understand.

In the checking stage, you are free of the text: just facing the word alone. Here you can do what you always wanted: READ THE DICTIONARY. However here, you are not just saving the information long enough to understand one sentence (and forget when you get to the next unknown word). Here you are checking to see if you guessed well – there is a personal investment.
The ‘Check’ column will allow you to watch your guessing ability improve. When I started I got about 50% X, 20% ‘tick’ and 30% ~. A year later my scores were 20% X, 30% ‘tick’ and 50% ~, showing my progress: fewer wrongs, and more correct guesses. You will also be able to see where you were able to guess well, and where it was more difficult. This way you will become a more conscious ‘guesser’, and be more flexible and confident when a new word appears without warning, and demands immediate response.
Your word list reminds you of the words you have learnt. You will remember them much better because you will have worked on them in different ways, read in context, tried to guess and checked (so you will also see different uses of the same word, words from the same family, etc). By using this method you are not focussed on learning by heart, on forcing words in your head. You learn vocabulary with subjects that interest you, at your own speed, using your own common sense. And most of all, it is more fun as well as more productive.
Later when I have time, I will upload a short story I wrote when another student told me he had to teach his young learners more grammar before they could understand a story. This was a challenge; I wrote a short story where all the verbs were IS and ARE, except for one ‘LOOK’ which is a useful word too.