My Danish skills are at the level where I can usually puzzle out the meaning of a newspaper article, even though I won't understand most specialized words. I took a quick look at some pages of a Danish crime novel and I could follow what was happening, though I again did not understand many words.

Would reading such a text be beneficial for learning the language, given my current level of understanding? What skills, in particular, would it teach me? I would not, in general, use a dictionary or otherwise check unknown words.

4 Answers 4


The main benefit of reading texts that are at a significantly higher level than what you currently have, is probably in the classroom.

When I was learning Chinese in Belgium, our teacher gave us Chinese newspaper texts after we had had only 260 classroom hours of Chinese. We could read at most 30 % of the characters in the text (and that is without counting the difficulty of which characters make up a word, since Chinese has no whitespace between words).

The reading exercise did not consist in trying to understand all of the text but to identify as many pieces of information as possible from the text. We did this while working together in pairs or in small groups. The teacher left the classroom while we were doing this; he had noticed that this group work functions best when no teacher is around. When the teacher returned, we discussed what we had found.

This type of exercise was also part of the exam: we were given a newspaper article and had to identify 10 pieces of information from the text (in our native language).

Text that are at a slightly higher level that where you currently are can be used for intensive reading. The higher level should mainly be a matter of vocabulary. (Grammar should not pose too many problems, unless that is the focus of the intensive reading.) I did this, for example, with a few French novels: I looked up (almost) every word that I did not understand and wrote it down in a notebook. After each chapter, I reviewed the words I had looked up. The first time, this was a long grind, but it improved my vocabulary a lot.

Text that are considerably more difficult than your current level are not appropriate for extensive reading or "reading for pleasure". Extensive reading requires text where you understand at least 90% of the words. According to Hu and Nation, "around 98% of coverage of vocabulary is needed for learners to gain unassisted comprehension of a fiction text" (Hu, Hsueh-chao Marcella; Nation, Paul: "Unknown Vocabulary Density and Reading Comprehension", Reading in a Foreign Language, 13.1 (2000); emphasis added).


I can think of four ways that reading can help you learn the language.

  1. Vocabulary.

Even if you aren't using a dictionary you will still learn new words from reading. You will be able to understand unknown words through context, and over time these words will become part of your active vocabulary.

  1. Grammar.

As you read, your brain will practice recognizing the construction of sentences. Eventually, after reading many grammatically correct sentences, you will gain an intuitive knowledge of how to form sentences and use correct grammar. This is similar to how children learn the grammar of there first language, so it should work similarly in adults (I do not have a source for that other than my own experience). You will probably still need to deliberately study grammar; however, you will find that when you study you will learn faster.

  1. Graduated Learning.

An advantage of free reading is that you can choose texts that are challenging but not overwhelming, and you can improve at your own pace. You can read newspapers, then move on to genre novels, then on to "literature", or you can start out with graphic novels, children's novels - whatever you feel comfortable with. By slowly increasing the level of what you are reading, you will gain both skills and confidence.

  1. Culture.

By reading texts written by and for native speakers, you will be exposed to the language's associated history and culture. This will aid your comprehension of the language and improve your ability to talk to native speakers and interact with the culture.

  • How does all of this depend on how well the reader knows the language?
    – Tommi
    Commented Dec 29, 2017 at 14:59

There could also be some downsides to reading things you don't understand completely. I teach English but I think it is pretty important that you accurately understand what you're reading in any language, especially in terms of vocabulary and the grammatical relations between sentence phrases, and even the way meaning is produced at the word phrase level (the constituents of sentence phrases). Otherwise, your brain will tend to fill in the blanks in comprehension and perhaps even begin to establish patterns in how it misunderstands certain constructions and word use. But it depends upon your approach - if you stop and puzzle things out, it may take a lot of time but you can definitely learn that way. Since you indicated that you're probably just going to read it through and take what you get, I'd say that it's not a great way to practice.

If your goal is to speak, I would recommend reading out loud also, again with well comprehended text. This has the added effect of getting your mouth accustomed to many of the common patterns in the language and this motor aspect provides a very strong link to learning in general, but particularly to the subconscious production of meaningful speech, which is an important aspect of fluency.

Anyway, it is a good idea to be be reading somewhat ahead of your level, which probably means you're stopping every once in a while to puzzle out how a sentence is working and what it actually means.

  • "Otherwise, your brain will tend to fill in the blanks in comprehension and perhaps even begin to establish patterns in how it misunderstands certain constructions and word use." Can you give some justification for this claim, such as personal experience or studies?
    – Tommi
    Commented Dec 29, 2017 at 15:01
  • @ Tommi Brander: Sure, it is based on my experience as an English tutor and book editor. A Danish women, who had been teaching and speaking in English for many years, hired me to edit a book that she was writing in English. She made a lot of grammatical and semantic mistakes when speaking but overall her English was natural and spontaneous. She was constantly rewriting my corrections back into the 'English' she normally used to produce the meaning she intended, but alas they were mistaken and produced many mistakes, ambiguity and misunderstanding. Commented Dec 31, 2017 at 5:03
  • 1
    She really didn't understand grammatical relations or how to produce accurate and precise meaning but she knew what she meant and had mistakenly used the language for so long that she had developed deeply ingrained, idiosyncratic, syntactical and semantic patterns to produce such meaning. But it was simply incorrect. The brain doesn't care as much about grammar as it does about being understood. So if it thinks it has been understood it will tend to reuse whatever forms produced that understanding, mistaken or not. Commented Dec 31, 2017 at 5:30
  • In my teaching, I find that many learners, even advanced ones, have a poor grasp of semantics and complex syntax and make the same sort of mistakes, often as a result of mixing native grammar with English, and habit formation. Commented Dec 31, 2017 at 5:35

It is still useful. Just pay attention as you read to which unfamiliar words appear most often. Those are the first ones you should look up, unless you can infer their meanings by context. I have the read the first chapter of a novel in Irish in which approximately 10% of the text consists of new vocabulary. My plan is to read each chapter a few times. The first time, I will read the chapter straight through for general understanding. The second time, I will underline all unfamiliar words. Then, I will look up a few of the nouns and verbs that appear to be important. If any of the remaining words show up again in the next chapter, I will go back and look those ones up too.

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