Reading in a second language

Reading in your second or third language is difficult, especially when you first start. A popular idea amongst second language researchers has been percentage thresholds for understanding, i.e. what percentage of words in a text do you need to know in order to understand that text? Lots of research has considered how many word families a learner needs to know in order to adequately read a text. A word family can contain a number of different forms of a word, e.g. inform would be a family that would include: informed, information, informative, uninformative, informal, informing.

Early research reckoned that you needed about 3,000 word families or about 5,000 individual words in order to read a piece of prose text and understand it. There are lots of disagreement about what the threshold actually is, but most researchers’ findings seemed to coalesce around a figure of 95%. These research studies mainly used unfamiliar factual prose texts and tested comprehension by means of written comprehension tests and pass rates needed for formal examinations at university level education. This is quite a stringent way of testing. Lots of second or third language learners don’t have their gaze fixed on the goal of attaining a formal qualification. Research that looks at these kinds of thresholds isn’t really looking at a minimum level of comprehension, rather they’re looking at what you need to understand to pass a test.

It’s also quite difficult to work out how many words are in a word family. Paul Nation’s research on the British National Corpus shows that the most frequent 1000 word families of English average approximately six members each. Nation reckons that if you know 8000 word families then this means you can recognise and understand 34, 660 individual words. What does this mean for the thresholds idea? If we take the 1000 most common word families figure, this would mean that recognizing and understanding the most common words of English would actually mean knowing 6000 individual words. This is a smaller number than 34,660 but it’s still a dauntingly large figure. What are we meant to do with such a number? Would the idea be that this would inform teaching practices by making sure learners are exposed to the 6000 most frequent individual word tokens? Or that if we’re self-studying a language that we need to find out what the most common word families are and grill ourselves on these before we start reading?

Another problem with thresholds isn’t just how you test comprehension, but also what you get learners to read. Is the text formal or informal? Does the reader know something about the context of the piece already? Are they even interested in what they’re reading? Are they interested in reading in their first language? Are they competent readers in their first language? We know these things matter because research has shown they have big implications for how much a learner understands of a newly presented text.

Research by Norbert Schmitt and colleagues has found that the idea of a percentage threshold for academic texts could be as high as 98%. However, the researchers’ work doesn’t support the notion of a general threshold or benchmark figure above which readers can understand a text in their second language. Instead, they find there is a linear relationship between the percentage of vocabulary known and the level of understanding a reader has.

brown book page
Photo by Wendy van Zyl on

The upshot is that second language learners need to gradually increase their vocabulary in order to increase their understanding. Reading in your second language won’t make you fluent, nor is it an absolute given that it will increase your vocabulary. Wading your way through a French murder mystery or a Portuguese newspaper article might be satisfying once you finally finish it, but once you’ve put it down you’re probably going to continue with your day and forget any new words. Reading in an unstructured way isn’t helpful.  Within the world of education, it’s difficult to go a few weeks without someone referring to “strategies”. It’s often a mendacious term that on closer inspection doesn’t actually mean anything, just another jargonistic bit of educational language. However, in the case of reading in a second language, there are some concrete things you can do to make your reading time actually contribute to your language learning. Here are some “strategies” or tips:

Choosing something to read:

Easyread adaptations: These are brilliant. Whole books reworked into simplified vocabulary and sentence patterns. I started my second-language Swedish reading with some easyread versions of popular Swedish novels. These books allowed me to read adapted Swedish classics as well as gain access to contemporary Swedish fiction. I was able to read an adaptation of “A Man called Ove” by Fredrik Backman and then see the film adaptation. Easyreads can give you a lot of motivating cultural insight into the language you’re learning by affording you direct access to it in the early stages of your learning.

However, there are some caveats: easyreads are great when you’re first starting out, but is something it’s best to move away from as soon as you can. Easyreads use a very reduced vocabulary and simplified grammar. Publishing houses producing easyreads will have their own linguistic style guides meaning that across different books and authors you’ll essentially be exposing yourself to a restricted set of recycled sentence patterns.

Another reason to progress onto reading something else is that you can get complacent. You can feel as though you’re making tonnes of progress. If you only need to look up two words every page in an easyread book it’s easy to cut yourself some slack and think that you’ve mastered the art of reading in your second language, or at least made substantial progress. The problem is that this confidence is quickly quashed when you then open a newspaper or try and read an email in your second language.

Avoid parallel texts! These seem like a great idea, but, unless you are incredibly disciplined or can avoid all the peripheral visual cues bombarding you subconsciously from the other side of the page, they aren’t very useful. Reading parallel texts removes a great deal of the useful linguistic challenge of reading. When we see a word we don’t know we can just automatically glance across and get a translation. We don’t have to think about the relationship between the word as it appears on the page and the other words surrounding it. We don’t form an association between this new word and others in the target language, instead, we just get a translation. Speaking and understanding a second language isn’t about translating. We don’t want to know that chamar = to call in Portuguese. Anyone could Google that. Instead, we want to know what  Pode-me chamar um taxi para onze da manhã? means and we want to make an association between how chamar appears here and how a person introduces themselves by saying chamo-me.

Read something you’ve already read in English: One of the hardest things about reading a novel in a second or third language is building up the necessary context in which the characters appear and against which the story is played out. You have to work out where the story takes place (and then perhaps look it up), work out who’s related to who, who’s in a relationship with who, who hates who, glean any information about reported action (i.e. aspects of the story that happen before the author starts telling you what’s happening now). If you already know all this, then you can focus on the actual language. It might not mean reading for pleasure in exactly the same way as reading a book for the first time, but it will constructively lighten the linguistic load when reading in your second or third language.

Read books that are part of the same series: We mentioned context above and it’s the same idea here. Recurring characters and familiar locations will help as you’ll already have the context before you’ve opened the book. I’m a fan of the great Henning Mankell’s Wallander books. I know the eponymous detective has a poor relationship with his daughter, is divorced, has a borderline drinking problem, is a bit of a hypochondriac,  increasingly doesn’t have any friends, finds it difficult to talk to women but somehow managed to have a Latvian girlfriend (after solving the murder of her husband) for a short time before she realised all his unattractive aforementioned characteristics and left him. This means I can get on with the actual story and new words instead of pouring over the initial pages trying to work out who’s who and why they don’t like each other.  Reading books that are part of a series gives you some much-needed confidence in the reading endeavour without affording you the false sense of security we can feel when reading easyreads.

Read the news: This is again a “strategy” of context. If you’ve already listened to or read the news in your first language that day, then you’ll know most of what’s already happening in the world (or at least what the world’s media are focussing on). This means you’ll be able to fill in lots of gaps. Using something like Google news is a good way to start. Read an article about an event in your language, then search Google news for translated keywords to find coverage of the same item in the language you’re learning.

Social media: Most people spend at least some time swiping and trawling through a news feed each day. You can easily turn this zombie activity into something more linguistic by liking or following media outlets, famous people or organizations that produce context in your target language and by turning off the irritating translate function on your webbrowser that auto-translates any non-English content. This isn’t as substantial as reading a book of course, but it does mean you’ll convert some deadtime into something useful. If you only pick up one new word about a news item as you’re eating your sandwich at your desk, at least that’s one more word than would otherwise have been drawn to your attention during that part of the day.

Image result for ystad sweden pixabay
Ystad, Sweden (Kurt Wallander’s hometown) from

Whilst reading:

Don’t stop! If you see a word you don’t understand have a quick think about it, but don’t stop and reach for a dictionary. What you want to do is gain an overall understanding of the passage first. If you’re reading a book, aim to get to the end of a chapter before doing any googling or dictionary work. When you come across a word you don’t understand, simply underline it and move on. At the end of the chapter review all your underlined words. Whatever you do, don’t just immediately look up an unknown word. Instead, try and glean something from the word. Think about possible language families that word may belong to. Can you see any word endings that give you a clue about whether it’s a noun or a verb, whether it’s a masculine or feminine word? Can you see which case it’s in or whether it’s plural or singular? Once you’ve done this, then look it up. Make a note of the meaning in a list- don’t write a translation by the word in the book as you’ll just end up looking at that when you come to re-read it. Then re-read the chapter or passage paying attention to your underlined words, looking them up in your list if you’ve forgotten.

After you’ve read

Try and summarise what you’ve read in your second language by speaking out loud or discussing it with your language tutor. Writing a summary can also be a good way of practising the unfamiliar words that you collected by underlining as you went along. If you’ve kept a list of unfamiliar words from a text, try using these in written or spoken sentences.

Let’s say you didn’t know the following word:


You can start by keeping the word exactly as it is but changing the context:

  • I threw the ball to him
  • They threw the ball to me

You could then change the tense and person of the word and think about synonyms:

  • I had thrown it <> I had chucked it
  • I‘ll throw it across to you <> I’ll fling it across to you
  • You‘re throwing it to far <> You’re lobbing it too far
  • He throws the rubbish out on Fridays <> He puts the rubbish out on Fridays