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When I read an Italian text (this question is about reading out loud), what I focus on dictates how "well" I read it.

For example, if I focus on pronunciation, then my pronunciation is flawless, but I have absolutely no idea what I'm reading. If I focus on comprehension, my pronunciation goes into the toilet even though I have a significantly better idea of what I'm reading.

What practice techniques help improve the ability of native-level reading (where you read with "perfect" pronunciation / comprehension)?

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The problem you describe is normal. I consider it an example of the impossibility of (real) multitasking. That doesn't mean you can't do anything about it though. Here are a few things you can do:

  • Instead of reading, use a different technique to improve pronunciation. The technique that I use most is known as shadowing: you find an audio file or a video, put on a pair of headphones, and mimic the spoken words or dialogue while they are being spoken. If it is an extract from a film or a play, you should also try to mimic the intonation and emotions that are expressed in the dialogue. See also Language Shadowing: A Superior Learning Method and the videos by Alexander Arguelles on YouTube. You would usually take (parts of) audio or video files that are only a few minutes long and "shadow" them several times before you move on to the next one.
  • Find recordings of the texts you read and use the shadowing technique with these. (Shadowing does, strictly speaking, not require any text.)
  • If you don't want to use audio or video, then take texts or excerpts that are roughly one page long and slow down your reading tempo so that you can get "into" the text and base your intonation (irony, surprise, scorn, etc. - if you are reading fiction) on your understanding of the text. You will probably need to repeat this a few times to reach the pronunciation you are aiming at.

Reading out loud is primarily a pronunciation exercise; it is not the best way on increase understanding.

  • I agree. If you can't get both, a decent pronunciation and a good text understanding, immediately in parallel, repeat reading the very same text until both aspects work, and your brain gets a chance to associate meaning and sound. – Ralf Kleberhoff Nov 12 '17 at 22:57

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