Reading in a second language

Reading in a second language

Reading is a crucial skill for foreign language learners to develop. In fact, it is the single most important skill for building vocabulary as every text you read helps you acquire more words through incidental learning. Reading reinforces your knowledge of grammar and teaches you about culture. It’s necessary if you want to live, work or study abroad and the more you read, the better your writing skills will be! 

Some language learners hear reading and immediately think of the kind of boring passages found in a standard textbook –but reading in the digital age means so much more. The Internet gives you access to song lyrics, poetry, recipes, clothing store catalogues and even museum and hotel websites so you can plan your future dream vacation. The more you practice contextualized reading in which images, audio and other visual signs help communicate meaning, the more confident you will become in your skills and the easier it will be to take on an article, essay or even a book!

How reading works

There are two main hurdles when it comes to reading in a foreign language. The first has to do with actually decoding the words on a page. This means you need to learn the letters of the alphabet (if your language has one), understand how the script is read (right to left or left to right), and be able to spot where one word ends and another one starts. Some languages like Arabic, Mandarin and Hebrew are hard to decode for English speakers as there are a number of adjustments that the brain needs to get used to. For example, there are no short vowels written in Arabic and therefore sounding out words isn’t as easy as it might be in Spanish or German. The latter are phonetic languages which means words are written more or less how they are pronounced, which makes learning to read them much easier!

Once basic reading skills have been mastered, the goal is to recognise familiar and frequent vocabulary by sight. This speeds up the process of reading and allows you to spend more of your cognitive attention figuring out the meaning of unknown words or processing higher levels of meaning, such as the gist or specific details of a text. You may also want to make inferences about what is being suggested by the author or venture a prediction about the kind of information you expect to see in the next paragraph.

Research has shown that readers tend to transfer skills over from their first to their second language. That means if you are a strategic reader you’ll be able to use the same strategies in a foreign language, providing you pass a certain proficiency threshold.

Strategies for reading


Pre-reading Strategies
Pre-reading activities assist with top-down processing of a text. That’s just a fancy way of saying they help you anticipate the language and ideas you will encounter. This is done by activating your prior knowledge of a topic.

–>Have a look at titles, images or captions before you get started. Guess at what you think a reading might be about and make a mind-map of ideas to get your brain warmed up.

→ Have a discussion with a friend or fellow language learner and talk about the topic. If you can do so in your new language this is even better because it will prime your brain and you’ll take better guesses at the meaning of unknown words you encounter.

–> Do some research on the subject. Read an article, watch a video or listen to a podcast in your native tongue to peak your interest and encourage your brain to invest in understanding the reading.

Skimming, Scanning & Glossing
When you read something in foreign language it is always helpful to take multiple passes. Each read can be concerned with extracting different kinds of information.

–>Skim a reading by running your finger along the lines and trying to get a very general idea of the gist of the text. You will either confirm your pre-reading expectations or adjust them according to the main ideas presented.

–>Look for specific details by scanning the text for individual words. You may want to use a highlighter to zero in on details at the phrase or sentence level.

–>Glossing is when you identify key vocabulary that has to do with a text, look up the definition of these words, and then keep them handy so you can re-read and consult your gloss at the same time.

Post-reading Strategies
There’s a lot of information being presented in a text so it can help to have a final read through to bring everything together.

–>Involve productive skills by writing a brief paragraph in your target language that summarizes what the reading was about. Explain the gist and mention a few key details and anything else you noticed about the author’s style or tone. Use descriptive adjectives instead of just re-stating the plot.

–>Tell someone about the piece including what happened, what you liked about it and what you didn’t like about it. Reacting to a reading forces your brain to engage with the text in a more personal way.

–>Make flashcards for new vocabulary words you encounter. It’s helpful to guess at the meaning of unknown words based on the context in which they were found. Confirm your guesses with a dictionary later on and making them into flashcards. This will mean they are easier to review and re-learn later.

→ Read another article on the same topic to help cement your understanding of the first one. You’re bound to run into repeat vocabulary and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to compare and contrast the ideas presented in both.

What should language learners read?

What to read?

Children’s books
Children’s books are great because they tend to have a lot of images that communicate meaning and sometimes larger size print. If you can get children’s books that include silly songs and rhymes, that’s even better because they will help strengthen your knowledge of a language’s sounds and sound/letter correspondences. Alphabet books may even be useful for absolute beginners as you will tend to encounter a lot of concrete and relatively simple vocabulary words.

Foreign websites
If you don’t have access to foreign language books, just go online. Even a supermarket’s website becomes an opportunity for reading (and shopping too depending on where you live). It’s possible to download browser extensions that allow you to click on a word, hear its pronunciation and get its definition, which will enhance your comprehension and build your vocabulary at the same time.

Newspaper articles
Most newspaper articles tend to answer the same who, what, when, where and why of a story. Because the format is predictable, you can read about different subjects and try to piece together what happened. You’ll pick up plenty of vocabulary and are likely to encounter basic sentence structure that will reinforce your knowledge of grammar.

Literature & Poetry
When you’re looking for a challenge, pick up a celebrated author and try to read without a translation. You’ll not only learn a lot about culture but your vocabulary will increase by leaps and bounds. Just be sure you aren’t looking up every word in a phrase. Try holding up a finger wen you meet words you don’t know. If by the end of a paragraph all five fingers are up, it may be best to start with something simpler. Poetry can also help your speaking and listening skills.

Struggling with reading?

If you are having a hard time reading in your foreign language there are a few things that might be going on. Individuals who struggle with dyslexia often have a hard time breaking words down into their component sounds. Reading may be a silent activity but it requires a good understanding of which sounds map onto which letters or which word a given characters represents. Slow reading can also be the result of poor phonics skills so try going back to basics and making sure you are sounding out words correctly.

Do you have any tips on reading in a foreign language? Join the discussion in the comments!