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

Three steps for reading in a foreign language

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!

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We read one selected chapter of a given book and develop speaking in sessions moderated by native teachers.
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