Reading is an important part of an effective language learning program. As everyday language learners, it is essential that you find high quality reading material so that you can receive the maximum benefit from the time you invest. Identifying high quality material is often a challenge though and today I want to offer four considerations that will help you find books that will allow you to be more effective, more efficient and have more fun learning another language.
I have been asked a number of times lately about reading and language learning and the difficulty of finding the right book as a learner. By book, I am not talking about a text book, a grammar book or anything that you would “study.” I am talking about light reading; books of fiction or non-fiction that you can read for enjoyment. Books that are fun but that still give you everything you need to learn more of the language and reinforce what you already know. Books that provide lots of comprehensible input – language that has meaning. Books that are interesting.
How do we know if a book is providing comprehensible input?
I think the main criteria is not that you are understanding every word, but that you are understanding the general direction of the story. If you are not understanding what is going on most of the time, it is probably not providing a lot of comprehensible input. You need to have some tolerance for ambiguity, for pushing on when you don’t get every point, but if your not getting anything, then the book is probably not giving you the comprehensible input you need to really make it an effective part of your learning program.
How do I find books for language learning?
Picking up books willy nilly is a poor way to find a book that will help you learn the language. Recommendations from other learners of the language are always helpful, but if you’re on your own, I’d like to offer four considerations that will help you more effectively select books that will benefit you.
Consideration 1: Reading Level
The reading level of a book will do much to help you get into reading it. If you are a beginner, finding books at a lower reading level will allow you to more easily enter into the story, to enjoy the book and to get the comprehensible input you need to make it an effective tool for learning. Amazon.com is a great place to look for reading levels of the books you want to read. Here are a few examples:
- Green Eggs and Ham: Reading level – ages 4-8
- Harry Potter, book 1: Reading level – ages 9-12
- Harry Potter, book 7: Reading level – Young Adult
- The Da Vinci Code: Reading level – Adult
It is of course not an exact science, but it gives you an idea of the difficulty of the text. But while reading level is an important consideration, it is not everything.
Consideration 2: Background Knowledge
Background knowledge is the stuff you already know about a certain topic, or in this case, about a book you are reading. Background knowledge fills in the gaps and makes the text you are reading more comprehensible. Let me give you two examples of this.
When I came to Turkey, I started reading John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men with a Turkish friend. I would read it out loud and because the book was rather short, we got through it in about a month. While my Turkish was at the low intermediate level, I was able to understand a lot of the story. I usually knew where we were at, who was doing what and why things were happening. I was able to stay with the story even though I had to let a lot of things I didn’t understand pass by. I was able to do this because for the three years before moving to Turkey I taught high school English and read this book aloud to my ninth graders for six successive semesters. I knew the story like the back of my hand. Had I been reading any other book, I would have followed very little if any of the story. Find books about the stories you know.
A second example is the person who is highly knowledgable in a certain area who is reading a book about that topic. A bass fisherman reading a book about bass fishing. A knitter reading a magazine article about knitting. A Roman history buff reading about Roman history. The vast knowledge you have about a subject will open up the text to you. Find books about the topics you know.
You can create background knowledge fairly easily as well. I recently watched the second Harry Potter movie in English. I had been struggling through the book in Turkish, knowing that I was missing some key parts. In an hour and a half, the movie brought me up to speed and now the second half of the book is far more enjoyable as I am understanding much more of what is going on.
Consideration 3: Interest
Finding reading material that is interesting to you will do much to make reading a beneficial part of your language learning. This in someways ties into the last point, but it goes beyond that. If you love fantasy, reading fantasy will be interesting to you. If your interested, your more likely to keep at it, to accept a bit of ambiguity, and to push on when the reading gets tough. Tim Ferris shares his expereince learning Japanese grammar through a martial arts book written in Japanese.
As a personal example, I used martial arts instructional manuals to compete effectively in judo while a student in Japan. My primary goal was to learn throws and apply them in tournaments. To avoid pain and embarrassment, I had tremendous motivation to learn the captions of the step-by-step diagrams in each instructional manual. Language development was a far secondary priority.
His high level of interest kept him at the reading. Read about the topics that you love, that you are passionate about.
Consideration 4: Book Length
The length of the book is another consideration that I encourage you think about. Finishing a book in Turkish gives me a tremendous sense of accomplishment. My confidence grows as does my motivation and commitment. Reading in a new language will be slower, and getting bogged down in a long book can be discouraging. Finding books then that are a bit shorter will give you a greater chance of keeping your interest high so that you can finish them quickly. It’s important to protect your emotional state as a language learner. Choosing shorter books will stack the cards in your favor.
I hope you will find these four considerations helpful as you seek to find books to read in the language you are learning. Please note that these are considerations, not criteria. There are many Harry Potter fanatics who will one day push through and love the nearly 1,000 page later books in the series even though they are above their reading level and are extremely long. I encourage you to find a great book in the language you are learning and get started reading today!
What book are you reading and in what language?
>>>Another topic for another blog post is how to go about finding foreign language books. Andrew at his blog, How to Learn Spanish and Roman at The Road to Fluency have recently gotten that discussion started, so check them out. I’ll be doing some research and will try to offer some ideas later. If you have any ideas, share them below.
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