Most texts, articles, books, novels, etc. that interest me in L2 are well above my level, requiring an intimate relationship with a dictionary in order to read. I can painstakingly plod through, but I wonder if it would be more effective in terms of overall language mastery to read texts that are more at my level.

What does the tradeoff between reading interesting texts and manageable texts look like in terms of maintaining motivation and growing vocabulary?


4 Answers 4


In order to advance in the levels of a language, you may follow the classic approach: follow a path of only learning, going step by step in one or several courses.

But, besides this one, you could also inmerse yourself in an environment where the target language is daily used, and with perseverance and motivation you will advance.

But you could follow another path: inmerse yourself in more advanced texts. Conversely, if you decide to not explore more "complicated" texts than what you actually understand, then you'd lose a very good opportunity to improve your vocabulary.

I think that selecting some texts that are more advanced than what you could clearly understand, will force you to get more vocabulary and will show you new ways to improve your skills.

For this to be possible, obviously the level difference cannot be that high, or you will get lost very quickly.

And the classic dictionary is not the only tool to use: for example, I have found as a very useful tool to learn new vocabulary: read through a Kindle Paperwhite, because it has an integrated dictionary that "remembers" all the words you queried, and that can offer you a simple system of flash cards to review those words at a later time.


Linguists who study vocabulary acquisition have looked at different "coverage levels" (% of known words) to investigate the relationship between coverage and adequate comprehension. Hu and Nation (2000) found:

80% coverage no reader achieved adequate comprehension 90% coverage a few achieved adequate comprehension 95% coverage some did but most did not (Laufer 1989 agrees with this level as good for minimally acceptable comprehension) 98% coverage most readers were able to understand the text Note this was for unassisted fiction reading.

These findings were supported in Schmitt et al. 2011. Readers understood about 50% of text at 90% coverage, and comprehension improved linearly with greater coverage.

In other words, you should shoot for reading material which you understand at least 90% of the words. Below that threshold, you won't understand enough of what you read to "pick up" the remaining vocabulary from context. Rather, you'll have the annoying process of looking up unknown words, losing your place, forgetting what you were reading, etc.

Since most of the material you want to read has vocabulary that is hard for you, you might try to focus on vocabulary FIRST. If you have a particular interest you want to read about (such as business or sports), make yourself flashcards for words related to that theme.

Another option is to look for simplified texts (such as Simple English Wikipedia) which replaces difficult words with more frequent (and thus more likely to be known) words, but I don't know the availability of these texts in languages other than English.

Hu, M., & Nation, I. S. P. (2000). Vocabulary density and reading comprehension. Reading in a Foreign Language, 23, 403–430. Laufer, B. (1989). What percentage of text-lexis is es- sential for comprehension? In C. Lauren & M. Nordman (Eds.), Special language: From humans to thinking machines (pp. 316–323). Clevedon, Eng- land: Multilingual Matters. SCHMITT, N. , JIANG, X. and GRABE, W. (2011), The Percentage of Words Known in a Text and Reading Comprehension. The Modern Language Journal, 95: 26-43.

  • 2
    Do you have a source for the 90% figure?
    – Hatchet
    Commented Dec 15, 2018 at 3:32
  • Edited text to include citations.
    – Dr. Heidi
    Commented Dec 18, 2018 at 3:23

It's difficult to maintain interest in a text which is beyond your level, and you cannot learn words easily from context. It's a long and slow slog, looking up each word in the dictionary. However, when starting from a beginner level and progressing into early intermediate level, all available texts (newspapers, books) are too advanced. This creates an impossible situation.

I think there is a quite reasonable solution. Copy-Paste each sentence, or each paragraph, into Google Translate. Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V. Two key strokes. Pretty fast. Or install their browser plugin. Read it in English once. Now the "context" is clear. When reading the foreign text, it will be closer to your comprehension level, in some sense, and the meaning of the words will be within a known framework. Then when learning a word, it's not the equivalent of an isolated flashcard X=Y. Rather, the word has been embedded in a paragraph, where everything already makes sense. You don't lose interest in the plot of the story, because it's possible to follow along, and understand everything.

Attempting to find "manageable" texts, on the other hand, would be ideal. However, that is not necessarily an option. All content besides children's books is at an advanced level.

  • I agree with the "long and slow" part, but a workaround is to try with shorter texts. For example, taking a short story instead of a novel or reading a short Wikipedia article instead of a science book.
    – Pere
    Commented Jan 23, 2019 at 22:32

One technique I've found helpful is to pick texts that are beyond my level, but that I'm already familiar with: eg, translated from my native language or on a subject that I have a strong grasp of. This allows me to pick out a lot more from context, because I typically already know what the paragraph is trying to convey.

For example, the first books I read in my L2, long before I really had sufficient command of the language, were "The Lord of the Rings", and "Harry Potter". Having already read these multiple times in English made it easy to plow through them without losing the thread of the plot, or having to stop and look up words.

The same process works for non-fiction on subjects I've already studied, or articles on current events I've read about elsewhere. In my opinion it's much easier to learn from context, when you bring the context with you.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.