How to choose reading materials based on your current level
Starting to read in your target language can be an extremely daunting task.
There is often a fear instilled within most of us that it is ‘too big of a task’ or we’re ‘never good enough to start’. After all, reading materials made for natives should be the last step in our language learning journey, right?
Paradoxically, what scares us the most is what will actually benefit us the most as well. One of the most effective ways to acquire vocabulary is to read as much material in the language as possible (Chio, 2009, p.171). In today’s blog, we will be tackling this fear of the unknown that starting to read in your L2 can present, and we will also provide some great ways to adapt your reading material so it never feels like it is too overwhelming.
First, we have to understand why the fear is irrational— it all comes down to how any child would learn a language. When children first learn how to read and they start delving into the world of literature they do so through books created specifically for their level, right?
The idea that a child would start immediately reading Dostoyevsky’s novels when learning Russian is ridiculous to most of us, and yet we sometimes have those expectations for ourselves. One of the ways to try and conquer this irrational fear, therefore, is to reset and identify healthy expectations for yourself. In order to facilitate the process, we will provide a series of questions down below to go through every time you pick up a new book.
1. Is it within my level? That is very simple to figure out: attempt to read the first chapter and see how many words you are able to understand. If the average is 80-90% then you are within your capabilities, and thus won’t need to disrupt your reading too much. If your reading material is within your capabilities it will be easier to enter the state of flow while working.
2. Do I enjoy the content presented? The higher the resistance present when picking up the book, the less likely it is that you will want to study from it. When you truly enjoy a subject, the energy required to start reading will be far lesser than if you have to force yourself to read it. Yes, a children’s book may be at your level, for example, but is the particular book you’ve chosen truly interesting to you?
3. 'So I enjoy this book, but is it helping me?' This plays into point number 2 but has a bit more nuance to it— it is directly related to the capabilities you wish to acquire from your reading. Yes, you may enjoy reading books about quantum physics in your L2, but perhaps it would be more useful to read more mundane routinary conversations that you can use with your language partner.
All these points are circumstantial. You must assess your own situation and figure out how to balance the variables. At first, it may seem like these suggestions contradict each other, but it all comes down to finding the point of bliss among them.
For example: imagine you want to start reading the aforementioned Dostoyevsky’s work, but you are not sure of your capabilities. Your current level is around an A2/B1 and you have a huge interest in Russian literature.
To answer the questions above, 1 would be a resounding no. Dostoyevsky's works are very dense and even a fluent speaker of the language needs to be focused to understand them properly. As to question number 2, it does seem like the interest is present. Finally, question number 3 is a solid maybe, since, while these books present many daily routines and actions the protagonists live through, some of the vocabulary is pretty complicated and not necessarily used in a normal conversation.
The approach we would suggest for this type of situation is to keep what is good and improve upon what is not— look for a book which has the same theme, but make sure it is at your level.
So what now?
Let rip and feel free to treat the comments section as a community journal by connecting with fellow language learners down below.
Let us know which tip was your favourite along with any other thoughts you might have on this topic!
Chio, K.U. (2009). Reading and second language acquisition. HKBU Papers in Applied and Language Studies Vol. 13