THIS helped me to improve my vocabulary (a lot!)

how to improve your vocabulary

“How can I learn more words?”. This is a question I get over and over from my students.

There are many strategies to learn more vocabulary and I’ve discussed some already in other articles (such as this one or this one). However, I’ve never discussed the ONE strategy that helped me to learn a huge amount of vocabulary, when I was learning my first foreign language: English.

NO! it was not memorising the dictionary!  It was something better and more entertaining: reading cool stuff!

Reading has been the best way for me to expand my vocabulary and see the language in action. Also, it has allowed me to develop my listening skills too, especially when they weren’t strong enough to support me in the acquisition of new vocabulary.

In fact, I used reading to support and develop my listening abilities too. I used to look at the transcript of the audio files of my listening exercises (after I had attempted them!) from my grammar book; I had subtitles on when I watched films in the foreign language (actually, Disney films!! I dig them!); I listened to my favourite pop songs  with their lyrics in front of me (and had massive karaoke time!) and so on.

Reading is key to acquiring a second language as an adult.  In fact, adults, unlike children, are less likely to pick up the language by just listening to it.

Plus, reading in a foreign language can help you discover the real pleasure of reading. At least this is what happened to me!

Before learning my first language, English, the only things I used to read were comics strips, graphic novels and mangas (and I have shelves filled with these, along with Disney films!). They all  had one thing in common: lots of visual, very little writing!

However, something changed when I started to learn English. Learning a foreign language let me have access to a world made of texts to discover and “decipher”. It engaged my brain in a different and challenging way.

Believe it or not, the first long novel I have ever read in full was in English (not Italian, my native tongue!). It was Twilight by Stephanie Meyer (and my favourite character was Alice, not Bella!). Up until that point, I had never managed to complete a book, as I had always found reading pretty boring!!

Now, you may think: “how could you possibly enjoy reading in a foreign language more than your native language? You must’ve spent every single minute with a dictionary in your hand!”

Here’s the truth:  I used the dictionary very little and for two reasons: A. The level of what I was reading was the right one for me; B. I engaged in extensive reading, rather than intensive reading.

Extensive reading is a reading technique that involves reading texts for enjoyment by understading their gist, rather than every single detail of the text. This technique is different from intensive reading, which involves learners reading in detail with specific learning aims and tasks.

In other words, extensive reading is what you normally do when you are basking at the park and reading the last book by Seth Godin sitting on a bench enjoying the fresh air; intensive reading is what you do when you’re doing reading exercises in your Italian language guide, which require you to look for specific details in a text.

So, here’s how I did my extensive reading in English (the first foreign language I ever learned): I’d read a few pages, without worrying too much about words I didn’t know, as long as I was getting the storyline. Only at the end of my reading sessions, I’d go on to look some unknown words up, especially the ones i was coming across over and over.

Yes, sometimes I’d write the words in my vocabulary notebook, but, to tell you the truth, that  rarely happened. Since I was reading mainly for pleasure, I was never that organised to have a pencil near me. Yet, I benefited from this kind of reading, because I was enjoying the reading process in the first place, and my brain was operating under stress free condition which allowed me to remember things better. Most of the time, I wouldn’t even need to underline or write a new word down as I’d just remember it, because I would come across that word many other times in the text.

Also, every author has got their own style and voice, so they use consistently specific vocabulary or grammar structures; this means that they have certain words that they use over and over in their book. So, the reading process becomes easier and easier, the more you approach to the end of the book, as you’re constantly coming across the same vocabulary items.

Nowadays, reading a book in a foreign language is even easier. By reading an ebook on a Kindle or a tablet, you can access a dictionary just by tapping on the word. It means you can do extensive and intensive reading almost at the same time (how good is that!).

However, here’s the million dollar question: if you want to start reading in your foreign language today, what should you read?

Well, below are my suggestions according to your level. The best part? All of them allow you to read in your foreign language either for free or by spending next to nothing.

If you are a beginner willing to progress to an intermediate level, you could try….

Graded readers – they are books that have simplified language to allow second language learners like you to read them. The language is graded for vocabulary, complexity of grammar structures and also by the number of words. The best thing about Graded Readers is that they cater for all levels from beginners through to advanced, so you can always use them while you progress in your language learning. My first graded reader was an intermediate version “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Brönte and I loved it! It included not only the story in a simplified version, but also the audio version and some exercises for more intensive reading.

Graphic novels, comics or children books– these are good for beginners as there are pictures that aid understanding. The only disadvantage about them is that sometimes you may find slang language or idioms that can be slightly difficult to understand (especially in comics strips!). You may find comics strips online for free. On Deviantart, an online art community, you can find loads!

Leaflets and brochures – these ones normally feature short chunks of text that can be easily understandable . Every time I go abroad I love collecting them and reading them for pleasure. The great news is that you don’t need to go abroad to find them! I bet a scoop of Mint & chocolate chips gelato, that if you go to a tourist place near your home town, you’ll find leaflets in different languages that you can read for free !

Parallel Texts– These are books having one side of the page with the original language, and on the other side its translation. These books are good to support your reading, especially if you are a low intermediate learner. However, sometimes you need to be careful about some words that may “get lost in translation”…

If you are at an intermediate level and want to progress to an upper intermediate or advanced level, you could try…

Young adult novels – if you’re at an intermediate level, I’d suggest starting with young adults novels. They normally contain standard language that is not too advanced as target readers are teenagers (“Twilight”, my first foreign book, definitely fits this category!). If you really dig translation, you may also consider to read novels translated from your native language and see how they’ve been translated…you’ll be amazed!

Short stories, novels or non-fiction books about any topics that interest you – for these texts, the register (the degree of formality of language) may vary according to the author and the target readership, so ensure you choose the right one for you (keep reading to find out how!).

Newspapers or magazines  – the best thing about these is that most of them are available for free online. Again, their register may vary according to the target readership.

The bottom line is: if you’re choosing a reading resoruce for your language learning, peer inside first and ask yourself: “is it the right level for me?”

Read a few pages first; if you can understand everything, it means that it’s too easy for you, and it wont’ serve you to develop your vocabulary — it may just serve you to keep you level up. Similarly, if you start to read a book and you don’t understand much about it, it means that it’s not the right level either, because it’s too difficult for you.You don’t want to spend every minute looking words up in the dictionary!

When you flick through a reading resource and it makes you think “I understand most of it, but not everything”, it means that you’ve level the right level for you.

That’s the sweet spot you’re looking for which allows you  to stretch out of your comfort zone (and progress to the next level!) but also to have a reasonably pleasurable reading experience.

Now, tell me: what are you going to read next in your foreign language? Are you reading something already? Share your reading choice in the comments below and…

Happy reading,


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