How often - truthfully - do you read?
Most often we wish we read more and blame this on lack of time, but the real root is different. It's about our own fears and the pressure we put on ourselves about what kind of book we should read. For language learners there is an additional psychological barrier, of course.
The early stages are particularly daunting. Many learners avoid reading altogether, and this puts us at a disadvantage later on, when we keep studying grammar and can't understand why our speaking accuracy doesn't improve. We have to read for pleasure often in order to get to know the language 'like a friend', and to reproduce it.
4 Steps to Reading for Pleasure in Another Language
- Read something you enjoy
To borrow from an old surfing adage, I believe that the best reader is the one enjoying themselves the most. Who cares if you're reading a trashy romance, a scientific tome, a sci-fi bestseller or a classic? Perhaps you like all of these kinds of books at different times.
Whether you finish books doesn't matter either - perhaps you get half way through and decide you're not enjoying it enough. The only important thing about reading is how much pleasure you are deriving from it. This can be difficult when reading for exams or work, but doing it in a way that you enjoy should be the priority.
- Use graded readers (versions of books made for different language levels)
There is a lot of snobbery about the use of graded readers, particuarly about the value of 'watering down' classics, but I believe that the need to encourage ourselves to read from an early stage trumps this concern.
Working at St Giles International in London, I brought graded readers into the programme for my pre-intermediate classes. Every couple of weeks I would shepherd students to the library and ask them to select a book - whether Jane Austen, a thriller, or a technical book about cars. Afterwards they would have to talk about it in class. Before long, I started to notice the students' abilities improving more quickly than before; particularly their vocabulary. Graded readers had opened up a whole world to them and given them confidence in their speaking.
- Kindle lookups
Modern technology is incredible, and the Kindle can give you an instant definition of any word if you hold your finger down on it. This completely changes the pace of reading for language learners, enabling us to make real progress with the book straight away. You can also highlight words that you want to remember for later. Kindle lookups mean we are able to notice structures and expressions more clearly, as we are not bogged down in arduous vocabulary searches.
- Find your balance (especially between 'gist' and 'detail')
When it comes to reading a full novel in another language, we are often told by our language teachers to 'read for gist' - that is, to read a novel without depending too much on a dictionary. Reading for gist is clearly a good general idea, because you start to understand many different words purely from context as you make your way through the book.
There are two main problems with reading for gist. Firstly, you will never enjoy it if you don't understand what's going on, because you will get bored. Secondly, you may miss out on a lot of beautiful details and stylistic nuance. The trick is to do both. One good tip is to allow yourself a maximum number of lookups per page: say 10 at the start, for example. This will soon decrease as you get used to the author's style and as your interest in the story drives you to turn the pages.
My overall advice is to read in a way that works for you. Don't give yourself the challenge of reading 'Great Expectations' in a week if you know that you work long hours and have three kids. Don't take a Business Management book on holiday if you know you'll want to read an adventure thriller. And don't look up every word if you are feeling the need to know what happens next. In short, don't 'force' yourself to read in any particular way: do it however you enjoy it.