Language is a complex thing involving many processes, and learning a second (or third, or fourth…) language as an adult means balancing your need for fast acquisition with the demands for appropriate, accurate language use. An adult learner needs speaking and listening skills, but the foundations of productive skills like that are made through input: and focused reading can be a very effective input strategy.
Focused reading is an approach to reading that maximizes comprehension and analysis skills. It’s more than simply getting the meaning of words, it’s looking at the context, predicting meaning, researching words, and repetition to gain a more complete understanding. For language learning, this is also a good way to focus on grammar and vocabulary input.
Step One: Choosing a Text
If you’ve been studying through textbooks or a set course like the WaniKani system, you should already have some idea of the kinds of texts you can read. If not, an assessment test like the JLPT or the J-CAT can give you some idea of your general level. Then you can narrow down your reading level using the school grades at bookstores, or a graded reading system like those from White Rabbit Press or Tadoku. You can also use reading apps like TangoRisto to read news stories with a rating of vocabulary and kanji by JLPT level.
Remember that focused reading requires contextualization, so you should choose a text that is known, that you can understand that background and thus have some idea of the content before you read. Depending on the length of the text you choose, the following steps can be done for the whole text (a short story or article) or in parts (chapters or individual pages of books).
Step Two: Preparation
One key element to focused reading is prediction. With a little research into the topic, you can try to imagine what kind of story you will be reading. Consider the answer to the questions Who will be in it? What will they be doing? What kinds of words or ideas will probably show up? Be sure to make a note of your predictions.
This predictive contextualization can help your brain be ready for the reading and make it easier to understand and remember the words, both new and familiar, as you read them. Don’t worry about the accuracy of your predictions, it’s simply important that you do the mental work to prepare yourself for the reading.
Step Three: Initial Reading
It’s now time to read the text. Take this initial read-through as a time for general comprehension. Don’t check every specific word, just make sure you understand what the story is about and any key points you encounter. If you notice certain repeated words or kanji, take note of them but don’t worry about looking them up in your dictionary just yet.
In this step, it’s important not to get bogged down. It’s OK to skip things that trouble you or get in the way of progress. You can even skim if you feel yourself getting stuck on one section. If the text as a whole is causing you too many problems, it might be a good idea to restart with something simpler.
Step Four: Check Your Predictions
After you’ve completed your initial read-through, it’s time to review your predictions and recontextualize your reading. Again, it’s not so much about the correctness of your predictions, it’s the mental work you’re doing by focusing on the text, both before and after reading.
Step Five: Deeper Reading
This is the step where you will really take your time with the text. Check words in the dictionary. Reread individual sentences to get as much meaning as you can. Take notes, and above all, take your time. This is a good chance to make vocabulary lists based on repeated words, and take note of grammar points that might need further review later.
This is the real foundation of the learning you should be getting from focused reading. It allows you to really dig in and see how words are used in sentences, how grammar builds sentences, and how you can use them together in your own language learning.
Step Six: Repetition and Review
This step is more free-form. After you’ve gone through the deeper reading stage, you can go back and reread at a more normal pace to reinforce your understanding. You can check to make sure you understand the words you’ve looked up and practiced in deeper reading, and see if your understanding of the sentences stands up to repeated reading. You can even try translating the story into your own language at this point as practice.
The important thing at this stage is that you are using and reviewing the things you have tried to learn from the earlier steps to reinforce memory.
The steps above, when used consistently and repeatedly, can help build very strong passive language skills, which you can later use to build active speaking and writing skills through lots of practice. None of this is easy, but with time and effort it really pays off.