4 Considerations for Choosing a Great Book for Language Learning

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.

Getting Started

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.

image: curiouskiwi

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13 Responses to 4 Considerations for Choosing a Great Book for Language Learning
  1. [...] is based on your level and keeps you motivated. Finding such material is not always easy. Check out Aaron’s article for tips on how to choose a [...]

  2. Andrew
    May 29, 2011 | 11:27 am

    Absolutely agreed, you went way deeper than I’ve ever thought to when choosing books, I always just went with whatever seemed interesting. Thanks very much for the link, also.

    Cheers,
    Andrew

    • aarongmyers
      May 29, 2011 | 9:35 pm

      Thanks Andrew. I hope I didn’t go too deep. It shouldn’t be rocket science, but I do hope these will be helpful and easy to apply suggestions that will help make the reading experience a better one.

  3. Peter
    May 29, 2011 | 12:05 pm

    Good post, I think the background knowledge is maybe the thing that many do not take in account. Of course a short-cut is to read books that are in both your language and target language and when this are not available buy the two books separetely,

    nice blog!

    • aarongmyers
      May 29, 2011 | 9:40 pm

      Thanks Peter for the comment. Background knowledge does me wonders. Just had it re-emphesised with the second Harry Potter book, but that will be an upcoming post.

      Great blog yourself. Looking forward to stopping by regularly.

      Aaron

  4. [...] I’m not exactly a fan of the Harry Potter (HP) series of books,  but they do provide a useful and fun tool for learning Turkish.  I first read HP 1 when I was teaching high school English back in South [...]

  5. [...] what you have just mastered in front of your eyes and in your ears every day.  Handcrafted audio, regular reading, and a simple flashcard system are all ways to ensure that you integrate review back into the daily [...]

  6. [...] Reading is a vital part of a personal language learning program but if you cannot find quality reading material, it is difficult to take advantage of this great resource.  In order to make your quest for [...]

  7. [...] currently reading. (If you haven’t yet begun to read, I’d suggest starting now. You can read here, here or here to help you get started.)  The text you will use should be something you are [...]

  8. [...] language learner.  In order to better know how to find and use reading material, take a look at  4 Considerations for Choosing a Great Book for Language Learning and 9 Ideas for Finding Target Language Reading [...]

  9. Thomas Hjelm
    August 29, 2012 | 12:47 pm

    Excellent guide. A couple other considerations that would fit in a list like this:

    5. Audiobook. Is there is an audiobook available for the book you are reading? If so you can use it to read along as you listen, training your ear and improving reading speed.

    6. Pictures. Are there pictures or diagrams in the book to help you understand the text? This is especially relevant for non-fiction. Tim Ferriss had photo stills of judo throws in action to help him understand the captions. I had a breakthrough in Japanese literacy when I read an astronomy book aimed at elementary school kids that was loaded with full-color pictures of planets, stars, satellites, etc.

  10. Shannon
    August 29, 2012 | 1:43 pm

    Great post! I would actually love to see this same topic on selecting grammar books. Or series you suggest…

  11. Michael
    March 14, 2013 | 8:12 pm

    Reading is one of the most effective ways (for many learners the major way) to develop one’s language skills.

    Good public libraries and the Internet have a wide selection of reading materials on any subject and topic.

    It is better for learners to write down unknown vocabulary in whole sentences to remember word meanings easier. It would be a good speaking practice for learners telling the content of the texts that they have read. Learners can write key words and phrases, or main ideas as a plan, or questions on the text that require long answers to make easier for learners to tell the content of the text. I believe it is a good idea to read each logical chunk or paragraph of a text and to narrate each paragraph separately, and then the whole text.

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