Three steps for reading in a foreign language: solving the jigsaw puzzle

Why is reading in a foreign language so important for learning it?
Why is reading in a foreign language difficult?
Are there any techniques to make it easier?

Read on to find the answers to these questions.

The power of context and stories
The British Council, in one of their campaigns, told us that it only takes a 1000 words to learn a language. This is true if we consider that even mother tongue speakers use a relatively small vocabulary in their everyday life. However, words must be meaningful and related to context for a learner to retain them. The internet is full of lists of words, nevertheless if you have ever tried to learn Italian by memorising words, you will already know that this does not work.

The power of context and stories does not only lie in making vocabulary memorable, but also has the power of contributing meaning to a word, even a new word, that the student has never come across before. Reading is an invaluable way of learning a language and it is especially powerful for learning new vocabulary and phrases.

Why is reading in a foreign language difficult?
Most students find reading Italian literatures difficult. I can see two reasons for this. One is that the material is too hard because the students are still at the intermediate stage or below. The second is that the level of the student is high enough, but the student lacks the right techniques and the mindset. There is a solution for both cases.

Use graded material
If the material is too challenging, this is because these students are intermediate level or below. In this case, the solution is simple: reading graded material will help learning without being overwhelming. Graded materials are books which are written according to the level of the students. They are based on the number of words used. For example the one marked as 400-500 words are for beginners, 1000/1500 are for pre-intermediate level and so on. Start with one that you think you can manage and as your reading becomes easier upgrade to the next level. Even at pre-intermediate levels the next tips should help.

Use the correct reading techniques
The second problem is when a student reads in the same way as they read in their own language: expecting to understand each individual word. This is a common mistake amongst my more advanced students. Unfortunately, this can become exhausting because there will be numerous words that, when first read, they might not be familiar with.

Solving the jigsaw puzzle
Reading a text in a foreign language is like solving a jigsaw puzzle. When you start, you only see a pile of pieces. If you tried to put them together randomly you might be overwhelmed by the task. So, you might start by getting some clues about the puzzle, for example by looking at the picture on the box and by identifying the borders. In a similar way, before reading start to get some clues about the genre of the book, the book cover, the title, the table of contents, the titles of the chapters and any illustrations available. Our brain is wired to produce meaning based on a variety of clues and our previous experiences, trust yourself and let the brain to its job.

3 steps for reading any texts
So, after you got some clues about the book, you are ready to start, and these techniques should help:

1. First read: get the feel
Read as if you want to get the feel of the book, as if you were immersing yourself in a warm bath. Relax and read the entire section from start to finish. This could be the full chapter or if the chapter is too long, choose to begin with half of it. In your first read don’t use the dictionary. Don’t worry about what you don’t understand, focus on what you do. To go back to our puzzle analogy: use the key words you do understand to piece the rest together.
After finishing, try to summarise what you have understood. Use logic, what do you think happened, so what usually follows?

2. Second read: get the gist
The second read is when you will start underlining some words which you think are key to understand the sentence or the paragraph. These words should be crucial to the meaning of the chunk of text and very few. Even in this second read, don’t use the dictionary. Your understanding after the second read will be far greater compared to the first, even without the dictionary. Read again till the end. Trust yourself and the ability of your mind to understand more than you think.

3. Third read: dig deeper
The third read is when I would use the dictionary. Using it only now will ensure that those words have become already meaningful to you even if you don’t grasp them completely and therefore also more memorable. The work that you have done without the dictionary has given those words some meaning already, and you have built up the overwhelming desire to understand what they mean. In the same way as when you only have a small piece missing in the puzzle, you can already imagine what you are looking for. This process is what enables your long-term memory. This is because our minds have been designed to retain only information that is perceived as important.

Changing your mindset about reading
Ultimately, for reading in a foreign language, we need to change our mindset. Abandoning the fear of unknown words and accepting that we need a fresh way to approach an authentic text written for native speakers. Learn like children do; throwing yourselves into the new, using your imagination and especially enjoying your reading.

To sum it up:
In short, reading in the target language requires the same techniques as solving a jigsaw puzzle. At the beginning it looks complicated but if you stick with it all the pieces fall into place. Follow the techniques described without fear and trust yourself and the process.

Happy reading!

Fancy join our book club?
We read one selected chapter of a given book and develop speaking in sessions moderated by native teachers.
Click here if you wish to know how our book club works. You can book your session here.

Book Club Reading: Un ragazzo normale

Book Club Selected Reading

Title: Un ragazzo Normale
Author: Lorenzo Marone
Published: 2018

The author and the book
Lorenzo Marone was born in Naples in 1974. He worked as a lawyer for ten years, he then left this profession to become a writer. He published his first book, La tentazione di essere felici, in 2015. This has been translated into 15 languages and it was made into a film (La tenerezza) directed by Gianni Amelio. He has written 8 books and won numerous prizes such as Premio Stresa and Premio Selezione Bancarella. He published Un ragazzo normale in 2018 and won the Premio Giancarlo Siani.

He has also published:
La tristezza ha il sonno leggero
Magari domani resto
Cara Napoli
Tutto sarà perfetto
Inventario di un cuore in allarme
La donna degli alberi

Here are some sources where you can find more information about Lorenzo Marone and his books:

The story
Mimì is the protagonist of Un ragazzo normale. He’s twelve, wears glasses, loves reading and he is super smart. This boy is also obsessed with astronauts, comic books and the film Karate Kid. He lives in a building block in Naples in the area of Vomero where his father is the doorman. Il Vomero is the area populated by the middle and upper classes.

The boy spends all his spare time outside with his friend Sasà or in the two-room apartment that he shares with his parents, his teenage sister and his grandparents.

This child is fixated with getting a spiderman costume that his parents cannot afford, he is in love with Viola, a girl who lives in one of the upstairs apartments and daughter of more affluent parents. He is also into telepathy and tries various experiments with whoever he finds that is agreeable to them.

The book is set in the year 1985, which was a strange year for Naples. For example, it was the year that it snowed. This is an event in Naples, considering that prior to that, it only snowed in the years 1929, 1956 and 1971. During 1985, he also meets Giancarlo who becomes his superhero. Giancarlo is a 25 years old journalist who drives a green Citroen Méhari and writes dangerously about the Camorra. The boy is instantly inspired by the journalist and becomes his friend.

To understand the story completely, it is important to mention that Giancarlo was a real person: Giancarli Siani. He was murdered by the Camorra in 1985 because of his work. At the time he was reporting about the links between politicians, constructions contracts and organised crime.

Why read this book?
This book has been chosen for various reasons. It is beautifully written and it is amusing and moving at the same time. It gives a good view of a very recent past and consequently, offers a more current view of Italy, its values and culture. The author is an award-winning writer, who has enjoyed critic and public success.

Quotes from the book:
“Le cose straordinarie, quelle che resteranno per sempre nella tua vita, arrivano spesso in punta di piedi e all’improvviso, senza tuoni e particolari avvisaglie. Proprio come quella nevicata dell’85.”

“Perché alla fine di quella terribile e magnifica estate capii che gli unici superpoteri a disposizione di noi poveri umani sono i rapporti che riusciamo a costruirci, gli amori, le amicizie, gli affetti. Sono la qualità di queste relazioni a fare la differenza fra chi è super e chi, forse, lo è un po’ meno. Perché quella maledetta sera capii di essere solo un adolescente che si era trovato, per una serie di circostanze, ad avere a chef fare con qualcosa di più grande di lui. Capii di essere un ragazzo normale. Come lo era Giancarlo, un ragazzo normale.”

Join our book club
We read one selected chapter of a given book and develop speaking in sessions moderated by native teachers.
Click here if you wish to know how our book club works. You can book your session here.

Book Club: La lunga vita di Marianna Ucrìa

Book Club – 7 giugno 2021

La lunga vita di Marianna Ucrìa di Dacia Maraini

È un romanzo storico, pubblicato da Rizzoli nel 1990 e vincitore del Premio Campiello. È stato pubblicato in 24 lingue ed è il libro di Dacia più popolare. Ne sono state vendute più di un milione di copie.

Chi è Dacia Maraini

Dacia Maraini è un’affermata scrittrice italiana nata nel 1936. Autrice prolifica, tradotta in più di 20 lingue, è una scrittrice, poetessa e saggista di successo sia di pubblico che di critica. Ha vinto numerosissimi premi letterari, fra i quali il Campiello, lo Strega, il Mondello ecc.
Dacia è figlia dello scrittore ed etnologo toscano Fosco Maraini e della nobile pittrice siciliana Topazia Alliata. La nonna materna era una cantante lirica e figlia di un diplomatico cileno. La nonna paterna era la scrittrice Cornelia E. Crosse di origine inglese e polacca.
Dopo un’infanzia difficile, si trasferisce a Roma, mantenendosi con vari lavori. Fonda insieme ad altri una rivista letteraria. A partire dal 1960 inizia a pubblicare i suoi primi romanzi e diventa un’autrice di grande successo.

La Lunga Vita di Marianna Ucrìa

La storia è ispirata ad un’antenata di Dacia Maraini, da parte della madre: Marianna Alliata Valguarnera D’Ucrìa.
La vicenda si svolge nella prima metà del 1700, in Sicilia, nella località di Bagheria. In quel periodo i matrimoni erano combinati dai genitori per assicurarsi che le ricchezze rimanessero in famiglia. È il periodo dell’inquisizione, delle condanne a morte e di pubbliche impiccagioni.
Marianna è la figlia sordomuta del duca Ucrìa e della duchessa Maria. Viene data in moglie a soli 13 anni allo zio Pietro Ucrìa. Diventa madre di otto figli e poi nonna. Il libro narra la sua vita.

To book a book club session, please follow the link and choose your session/s here:

For further information and any question you might have, please email: or phone: +44 7941 092593 (UK number).

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The Italian Book Club

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Now that you have achieved a higher level of Italian you might want to read authentic material. Reading Italian literature and specifically novels is one of the best ways to improve your Italian language, expand your vocabulary and increase your knowledge of the Italian culture.

Parla Italiano School is launching a new pay-as-you-go reading club which will meet online using Zoom every other week from 7th June. Each session can be taken as one off or as part of a package. Readers wishing to participate will need to have achieved an intermediate or more advanced level of Italian.

The main aim of the club is to discuss the excerpts, to develop speaking and to work on lexis. Please note that we do not read the entire book but only a selected chapter, which can be easily read within the timeframe.  The session will have some structure but also enough flexibility so that the participants can truly express themselves fully. Zoom allows for smaller groups to be formed within the class, so that participants can have plenty of talking time during the session. Students will have the opportunity to meet different, likeminded people who enjoy discussing and exchanging ideas. The teacher will supervise and guide the discussion, she will be available to help and to clarify any items of language if required.

The programme will be carefully selected, it will include contemporary authors such as Dacia Maraini, Claudio Magris, Elsa Morante, Alessandro Baricco and so on. The programme for the first five sessions will be announced soon, and the course will start with the ‘La lunga vita di Marianna Ucria’ by Maraini.

This class is on every other Monday at 9.30am UK time (GMT +1), the session lasts for 1.5 hours. You can book each session separately or you can book a bundle of 5 lessons and get a discount. The maximum number of students per session is 10 and we will operate a waiting list if necessary. Students wishing to participate will need to have read the pages of the book chosen for that session, beforehand. After booking their session, students will receive a Zoom link to access their room.

To book follow the link and choose your session/s here:
Book Club on Zoom

For further information and any question you might have, please email: or phone: +44 7941 092593 (UK number).

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Il nostro regalo di Natale (livello A2)

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18 Dicembre 2020

Il blog
Ecco un’altra puntata del nostro blog. Questo può essere complementare alla vostra lezione di italiano (Italian class). Può aiutarvi a capire la cultura italiana (Italian culture) e la lingua italiana (Italian language).

Come inizia la nostra storia
Sono un’insegnante di italiano come lingua straniera e ho vissuto a Londra per decenni. Sono sposata con un uomo inglese e abbiamo due figli. Nel settembre 2020 abbiamo deciso di trasferirci nel mio paesino originario che si trova in Italia fra il Lago di Como e le Alpi.

La nostra leggerezza

Abbiamo effettuato il nostro trasferimento con disinvoltura senza farci troppi problemi. In realtà è stata una decisione relativamente facile, considerando che avevamo già un’abitazione in Italia e che avremmo continuato a lavorare come prima.

Lo shock della scoperta

Quando però ci siamo rivolti agli uffici locali per ottenere l’assegnazione di un medico di famiglia abbiamo scoperto di non averne diritto anche se tre di noi sono cittadini italiani. Dunque, a settembre, abbiamo avviato pratiche internazionali per ottenerlo.

L’incidente di Sam
Nel frattempo, i nostri bambini si sono integrati molto bene nonostante le limitazioni dovute a Covid. A loro piace andare a scuola, le loro insegnanti sono molto brave e sono stati accolti favorevolmente sia da loro che dai bambini. I bambini di solito vanno a scuola indipendentemente senza essere accompagnati. Un giorno, al ritorno da scuola, mio figlio stava giocando con alcuni bambini. Mentre giocavano il suo berretto è finito in aria. In quel momento stava passando una macchina ma vedendo i bambini per strada si è fermata. I bambini hanno continuato a giocare finché il berretto è atterrato sotto la macchina. Mio figlio lo stava raccogliendo quando l’automobilista, che non l’ha notato, si è messo in moto anche se lentamente passando con una ruota sulla sua mano! Per fortuna il bambino se l’è cavata solo con dei piccoli tagli. Ma questo ci ha fatto riflettere di nuovo sulla nostra mancanza di copertura medica. (Sigh…)

Il nostro regalo di Natale
Ecco che finalmente il 10 dicembre ci è stato comunicato che mio marito e i miei figli hanno ottenuto il medico di famiglia. Alleluia! Sono passati solo tre mesi dall’inizio delle pratiche. Ma non importa, sono buone notizie e possiamo tirare un sospiro di sollievo e di giubilo. Io ancora non ho il medico ma forse presto riceverò anch’io buone notizie. Nel frattempo, ci stiamo preparando al giorno di Natale con i regali per i bambini, un pranzo favoloso e la compagnia dei familiari. Non vedo l’ora!

Alcune domande per voi:
Sapete cosa significa: ‘se l’è cavata’ (paragrafo 5), ‘tirare un sospiro di sollievo’ e ‘non vedo l’ora’ (paragrafo 6) rispondete sulla nostra pagina facebook (vedi sotto). Le risposte la prossima settimana.

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A year to forget and a learning revolution to continue

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A year we will remember
2020 has been a year that most of us will remember; a sad time for some and a difficult time for most. To say that the virus has changed our lives is an understatement. The way people live has been revolutionized both in terms of their working life, their social life and the way people learn. Although we cannot deny the negative effects of the pandemic, some people have been able to find something positive in it such as being able to spend more quality time with their families, consider their travels more carefully as well as their shopping routines. Working from home will probably stay with us after the pandemic and so too will be the way we learn and lead our lives.

Learning online
During the pandemic, people started to take a great variety of classes online including languages. Learning a language online with a dedicated teacher is easy, accessible and convenient. Even people who loved attending a regular class have discovered the convenience of distance learning and the pleasure of doing it in their familiar environment.

Online classes at Parla Italiano
Parla Italiano responded to the Coronavirus crisis by closing our face-to-face classes following Government guidelines and opening online classes. We dedicated time to choose the application from which our virtual classes are delivered. All our classes are small and our courses are structured by level. All material presented during the lesson is made available before or after class as required. We have a white board that we share with our students. We use a variety of tools to make the classes truly engaging including numerous games. There is plenty of speaking practice during the lesson as students are split into smaller groups and enabled to interact with each other, making the most of the time available.

Our personal touch
I personally like to get to know our students before they join so that I can advise the best course for them. I like to discuss with my students their learning history and what they wish to achieve. Free trials are also available. Please get in touch by phone (UK number +44 7941092593) or by email I look forward to speaking with you!

New classes starting soon
Our new Italian classes, including complete beginners, are opening soon, places are limited, please get in touch now to avoid disappointment. Our classes are listed on our website if you cannot find what you are looking for, please contact us.

Our blog in Italian
If you are not a complete beginner and have reached the level A2, please read our blog in Italian about my adventure of moving to Italy: joys and tribulations

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La riscoperta di casa (livello A2/B1)

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30 ottobre 2020

Ecco un’altra puntata del nostro blog. Questo può essere complementare alla vostra lezione di italiano (Italian class). Può aiutarvi a capire la cultura italiana (Italian culture) e la lingua italiana (Italian language).

Sono un’insegnante di italiano come seconda lingua e ho vissuto a Londra per decenni. Sono sposata con un uomo inglese e abbiamo due figli. Nel settembre 2020 abbiamo deciso di trasferirci nel mio paesino originario che si trova in Italia fra il Lago di Como e le Alpi.

Per più di vent’anni ho vissuto a Londra, ne sono stata attratta, l’ho desiderata, mi sono immersa con piacere nel suo ritmo frenetico. L’ho conosciuta pian piano, l’ho amata, l’ho criticata e infine è diventata casa. Non avevo nostalgia dell’Italia nè il desiderio di tornare, o forse sì.

Ora che sono tornata in Italia, anche qui mi sento a casa. Si tratta però di una senzazione strana fatta di familiarità ma anche di sorpresa e di scoperta. Mi sorprendo a guardare dalla finestra, vedo la montagna che sovrasta tutte le altre ed è come se la vedessi per la prima volta. Non ho mai notato i suoi colori che cambiano drammaticamente con il cambio di stagione. La trovo bellissima. La natura mi circonda, e ogni volta che la guardo la sento sussurrare. Le montagne in particolare mi parlano della sua maestà, del suo potere e della sua protezione.

Care montagne mi siete mancate!

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