Most students don’t read enough in German because they find the task to be difficult. They prefer the texts to be easier o not to read at all. However, in order to improve our German, we need to read texts that are slightly above our level. We need to push ourselves. The easy-read is not going to give you any benefit in the form of improvement.

And, yes, reading difficult texts is difficult! But in this post, I’m going to teach you exactly how to approach those kinds of texts.

And this guide applies to any type of reading (native level novels, short stories, online texts) and any level (beginner, intermediate, advanced).

Before reading

Decide what you are going to do

How long and how much you are going to read? The difference, as always, lies in deliberate practice. Do you know what you are doing or are you just going to hope for the best?

Decide either for how long or what length you are going to read:

  • Don’t try to read too much in one sitting. It’s better to read a little bit every day than trying to get through too much information at once.
  • Decide on a section that you are going to read. A paragraph of 50 or 200 words might be enough, depending on the difficulty of the text and the level. 

If you need some inspiration on what to read have a look here.

Gather information and reflect

  • Get information about the text. There is probably a lot of information that can be of enormous value to know beforehand. Look out for things that can help you get some context:
    • The ending (I know ruining the ending is not a fun thing to do but this is only a small sacrifice we have to make for the sake of comprehension.)
    • A Wikipedia article
    • A summary
    • Online reviews
    • A synopsis
    • The backside of a book
  • Look at the structure. Is there any dialogue? An introduction?
  • Scan the text for titles, subtitles, cursives, images to get more information.

This doesn’t have to be a long process. You don’t have to do a master’s thesis on it. In a few minutes, you can get a good base for your reading.

Understand your purpose

There are two types of reading: extensive and intensive.

Intensive reading means full comprehension and therefore requires you to understand every single word. Here the purpose is to tear the sentences apart to understand as much as possible.

However, when natives read novels and texts for entertainment and information they ignore the parts they don’t need or didn’t understand. This is called extensive reading and it’s is the common way of reading in everyday life. This is how you read texts in your native language, even if you’re not aware of it.

This won’t hinder you from enjoying the text. On the contrary, it’s less tedious and more fun.

And that’s what we want to achieve: to learn to read extensively in a foreign language. The key to reading in a foreign language is not to understand every single word but to get a general idea of the text.

Just be patient. With time you will understand more and more.

While reading

Have pen and paper ready to take notes and write down vocabulary to learn in the future. Always do it at the moment, you might think you’ll remember but you won’t. 😉

Prereading

Do one prereading to get a very general idea. Read for gist and without pausing. Also, read it out loud if possible. Then ask yourself what you got.

If it’s not much, that’s okay. But surely there is some information you could get out of your prereading.

Is it about a man or an animal? A situation? Are there several people? How did they feel? Does the section you read convey something positive, negative or neutral? Was it a neutral description or rather a dramatic recount of events?

If you got absolutely zero information, it is a good indicator that the text is too difficult.

Main reading

Now we will do our main reading where we can pause, look up words or structures.

When reading a difficult text the important part is to learn to prioritize. As I said earlier, we don’t want to memorize the text or study it. If we analyze and translate every word chances of remembering are low, it takes too much effort and time.

You have to learn to distinguish between words you can ignore and words you need to look up and more importantly, words to write down to learn in the future.

How to know which words are important

The following are the parts of speech in order of importance:

  • Verbs: Don’t skip. Focus on these the most. You should aim to understand and, if necessary, look up all verbs because they describe the main action of every sentence.
  • Nouns: Rarely skip. The second important part of speech to look out for are nouns.  If you understand the second part of a compound word, you can also skip it sometimes (Schnitzeljagd → Jagd is enough; Stichflamme → Flamme is enough).
  • Adjectives and adverbs: Skip if necessary. They are used to embellish and describe how an action happened. Often they are not really necessary to get a general idea of the sentence and can be ignored/skipped. 
  • Prepositions, conjunctions, etc.: These shouldn’t be a problem because you should be familiar with them through your grammar study. If they are a problem, learn them as soon as possible!

After reading

Practice what you’ve learned. How else do you expect to learn all the words that you need to speak a language?

  • Look through your notes.
  • Study the vocabulary you considered worth learning.

So, in short, here are the three phases again and each step to take:

Before reading

  • Decide how long and how much you are going to read. 
  • Look up information about the text.

While reading

  • Prereading: one quick first reading for gist without pausing
  • Main reading: Read extensively and prioritize words

After reading:

  • Look through notes
  • Study vocabulary

You choose

And this is how you should do your reading sessions. Some people might say it’s a lot of hassle but I have two things to say to this: 

First, this way of reading becomes natural and automatic after a few days. But what is even more important, this way of reading is also the difference between learning a language in 10 years or in 2

Deliberate practice is the difference between not knowing what you’re doing and hoping for the best, or being in control of the situation to achieve your goal quickly.

And really it’s up to you. Do you want to improve your German? How long is it going to take you?

You decide.