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How to Read Spanish


We all agree that reading is good. We encourage our children to read because it’s a good way to learn new words and expressions, because they get a broader look on things and because it’ll make them better at writing as well.

For the last few hundred years reading has been the objective of foreign language education. Most experts have (luckily enough) come back from that standpoint, but reading is still regarded as a very important activity in learning another language. And I tend to agree.

When learning Spanish you first want to train your ear to pick up the sounds of the language. An extreme viewpoint is that you should ignore reading entirely at that point. But because I started using the sentence method quite soon after starting with Spanish I think reading can actually be a help as long as you’re getting more input in the form of audio (because that is the way you’ll be communicating more and it’s also the skill that’s the hardest to progress in, along with speaking).

But there’s reading and there’s reading. Better put; there’s intensive reading and extensive reading. What should you do, and more important: what is intensive and extensive reading?

Intensive reading is the form of reading you do when you’re trying to see every comma, every apostrophe, every new word and every detail of the different words. Logically this is slowest way to read. It can be benificial though as it enables you to pick up certain grammar functions you’re struggling with or to learn how to exactly spell a word.

Extensive reading is just reading as much as you can, without worrying about commas, apostrophes, new words, etc. In foreign language education it’s sometimes called reading miles, where you really read miles of lines. This is what we do in our native language and when we just want to just enjoy a book. And it works, just as intensive reading works for what’s it’s best for.

Just keep this in mind: when you’re reading extensively you’re often going for the story and only stop when you see and unknown word (not always, as you often skip unknown words when reading extensively). Extensive reading is great to pick up new vocabulary from context and enjoying Spanish (or any other target language you have). It can also help you with grammar, but not as much as intensive reading.

Intensive reading is a great way to get a better feeling for grammar but can be rather dull to do. You’re actually analyzing a piece of text that should be read to give you a good time. But it’s useful nonetheless.

Beware to not try to learn new words from context when reading intensively. You’re simply reading too slowly to get a grasp of what’s going on and therefore you won’t be able to pick up the meaning of a certain word from context. Next to that; you’re already doing something that’s quite memory-intensive and you should limit your energy to that.

So what should you do? It’s up to you. Don’t focus entirely on intensive reading nor extensive reading. I’d  say to do about 80% extensive reading and 20% intensive reading (the 80/20 principle), but intensive reading could even be less. This is because you can look up every new word when reading intensively, but if you don’t see them in a great variety of contexts (like you do when you read extensively), you’re probably going to forget it right away. So do more extensive reading to get a great variety of contexts for new words and expressions.

Photo by Barry Yanowitz

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A Spanish teacher by trade, Ramses is a true language learning addict. He started and The Language Dojo, and isn't even thinking about quitting language learning; it's in his blood!


Matthew November 24, 2009 at 10:01 pm

Ok, everyone is curious (I am at least). How's French going? Any notable resources you feel like sharing, other than DownParadise? Hope it's going well. Keep on keeping on.


Ramses November 25, 2009 at 7:38 pm

French is going, but not really 'All The Time'. When I was in Spain I did a Turkish course, and I really want to continue it. Also, I'm quite busy preparing myself for college in Spain (which will take place in February), so lots of things to do, but I need to choose where my hearth lies. For the moment is 50% French and 50% Turkish :P.


mariag July 12, 2012 at 2:03 pm

Lo importante es que leas, las palabras en algun momento se repiten y no necesitaras buscarlas, es importante leer y entender el contexto. Yo hablo 4 lenguas y leo en las cuatro perfectamente, pero solo disfruto leyendo en espanol, mi lengua materna.


Michael February 27, 2013 at 12:28 am

Extensive reading in English with the help of a good English dictionary on a variety of real life topics is one of the ways to learn English vocabulary. Since there is an enormous amount of reading material in English, a learner of English has to prioritise reading in subjects according to learner’s needs for using English to encompass first the most necessary, relevant and frequently used vocabulary. Day-to-day topics ought to come first in reading.

Reading materials can be arranged by level of difficulty of vocabulary – for learners at beginning, intermediate and advanced levels.

Learners can master the most important English vocabulary by reading thematic texts (materials), first of all on everyday topics with important content, for example: Practical Tips and Advice to Make Everyday Life Easier and Better (practical solutions for everyday problems). Such self-help books on settling everyday matters are available at book stores and on the Internet.

In addition to thematic informative texts (materials), learners can read thematic dialogues (samples of real life conversations between people), narrative realistic stories, fine literature, newspapers, magazines, Internet materials, books in various subjects, general thematic English dictionaries, etc.

Good general thematic English dictionaries arrange vocabulary by subject matter (topics) and provide clear word usage explanations and also a few usage sentences for each word meaning, which is especially important. English synonym dictionaries provide usage explanations and usage examples for words with similar meaning. Thematic general English dictionaries combined with English synonym dictionaries are a valuable tool for mastering English vocabulary logically, comprehensively and intensively for real life needs of learners.

Good public libraries and the Internet have a wide selection of English reading materials.

It is better for learners to write down unknown vocabulary in whole sentences to remember word meanings easier. It would be a good speaking practice for learners telling the content of the texts that they have read. Learners can write key words and phrases, or main ideas as a plan, or questions on the text that require long answers to make easier for learners to tell the content of the text. I believe it is a good idea to read each logical chunk or paragraph of a text and to narrate each paragraph separately, and then the whole text.


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