This issue arises over and over:

In Mandarin Chinese, I often read a paragraph aloud, concentrating on pronunciation. I've studied all (or almost all) the words, and know what they mean individually. I'll pat myself on the back and think to myself: "Nailed it! Your Chinese is getting better!"

Then someone asks me "so, what does it say?" And frustratingly, often I'll be forced to reply "I have no idea." Perhaps I might be able to say something superficial.

The problem is that locally I understand everything, but after proceeding to the subsequent words, or the next sentence, I just forget the previous material. I could tell you what each sentence in the paragraph means after reading it, but not what the paragraph itself means.

Question: How can I overcome the problem of knowing all the words, but missing the overall meaning?

2 Answers 2


I have actually found this is really related to reading speed/ease for me. Volume of reading is what got me over this hump. Try and read english really slow where you look at a word and then stop and read the next word. It is actually quite hard to understand and follow complex sentences when you don't get them all in one chunk.

I used to struggle with this (and still do for more complex chinese passages) because the mental effort of recalling the word or grammar principle meant I had forgotten the previous bit. As my reading volume and speed improved I found I could parse more complex bits easier. Wasn't related to learning new words so much as just being comfortable enough with the words I knew that I didn't have to think about them.


There are various strategies that might help:

  1. Pre-reading strategies: Right now, it seems you begin by focusing on the individual items and try to understand these first; this is a bottom-up approach. Before you begin this, you can try a top-down approach to give a general idea of what the text will be about:
  • Read through the title, subtitles, and any pictures/diagrams etc., and then actively guess the main contents.
  • Scan through the contents quickly, try to focus on keywords, and guess the main contents; then begin reading each sentence more carefully.
  1. Sentence-by-sentence review:
    After each sentence you read, speak out loud (or in your head) and say the main meaning of the sentence. If a sentence is too long, you could do it phrase-by-phrase. By making concrete what you know regularly, you'll stimulate your memory, allowing you to remember the contents better at the end of reading the passage.

  2. Post-reading Practice summarizing the main contents after reading a passage. If possible, do it in Chinese, and try to do so without looking at it while you summarize.

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