Extensive Reading and Learning Vocabulary

The goal of the Tadoku challenge (of which there are only three days left, so I need to get on that…) is to read as much as you can in your target language for an entire month. I’ve previously spoken about the difference between intensive and extensive reading – and obviously, the Tadoku challenge is very much associated with extensive reading, which means you try and read a lot, without pausing to look up grammar or vocabulary or whatever.

That being said, there are times when you’re reading extensively and do want to learn some of the vocabulary. What to do, then?

Well firstly, if you’re reading extensively, you’re probably at an intermediate level, so you should be starting to work out some words from context, much like you do in your native language. This is useful, because it means you can keep reading and getting the meaning without actually understanding the meaning of every word – but if it’s an important one and you don’t have a concrete idea of what it means, you can perhaps get a little muddled and lose track of what’s happening.

As far as I’m concerned, unless a word comes up a lot and I still don’t understand what it means, I don’t tend to look it up if I’m reading extensively. That means that most of the time, the words I look up are in fact pretty common verbs (I’m terrible with verbs), and I’ve usually come across them before in some other context as well. Unless you’re genuinely having trouble understanding lots of the text you’re reading, this is the method I would recommend (with the occasional bout of intensive reading, if you’re so inclined). If you’re having so much trouble you can barely get through a paragraph of your text without having to reach for a dictionary, you maybe need to find something a little easier.

From there, it’s pretty simple. I have a small (keep it small; I find it better to look up fewer than 10 words per session, though I try to keep it below four or five because then I don’t lose interest or momentum with my reading) list of words and their meanings; now it’s simply a matter of learning them.

If you’re into flashcards, they’re always a good bet. Traditional paper ones work well, but so do virtual ones, with programs like anki.

Top tip with flashcards: make sure you know the meaning of the word in context before trying to use a flashcard to learn it. You can learn a list of words with flashcards, sure, but you’ll find it much more difficult to use them if you don’t have context to guide you. Plus, context helps you to learn things way quicker.

There are other ways to learn a few new items of vocabulary too of course; sometimes I also write out sentences with the new words, just to ensure that they’re moving from my passive vocabulary and into my active vocabulary. That is the point of this exercise, especially if you sort of know the meaning of a word in context but aren’t sure about it on its own. In that case, this exercise is particularly useful because you get to change the meaning around.

After this of course, renew the word(s) when necessary, to ensure that you know what they mean. It’s always a fun little feeling when you come across a word you recognise and can think ‘Oh! I remember, I learnt that word when I was reading a Stephen King book’, or whatever. I’ve had plenty of words that have come up in the course of my German studies that I’ve learnt from books like Harry Potter. They’ve usually stuck a lot better, too.

How do you go about learning new vocabulary? What methods do you use to extract useful vocabulary from what you’re reading?

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