When most of us read in our own language, we do not necessarily understand each and every word. There are terms here and there that are strange, words that we have perhaps seen elsewhere, but which we are really not able to define. And yet, in spite of this, we still understand the overall meaning of what we read. Over the years we build strategies (consciously and/or unconsciously) to compensate for the lacunae in our vocabulary and enable us to understand a text without understanding every single element in every single sentence.
The problem is, of course, compounded in a foreign language, but the principle is the same. At an intermediate stage of language learning, you will probably understand most of the words in a given sentence or paragraph, but there will be words here and there that you do not understand. Probably more, on average, than when you read in your native tongue. But the same strategies you use when reading in your native language can be applied to the foreign one. The difference is simply that while, in your first language, you use many of these strategies unconsciously, in the foreign language, you must apply them with intent. And you should use strategies for understanding, rather than looking up every difficult word in the dictionary. You could use the dictionary for every term you do not understand, but if you do, it will take you about three years to finish a paragraph, and you will not enjoy what you read. Sometimes the dictionary can be useful when you are really stuck, but as a general rule, try to use strategy rather than a bilingual crutch.
What follows is a list of steps to help you approach a new text
1. READ AND UNDERSTAND THE TITLE.
This is an exception to the principle regarding the dictionary. You should definitely understand every word in the title, and should use the dictionary if necessary. The title can be very illuminating, and can significantly reduce the lexical possibilities that you will have to contend with.
For example, try to fill in the blanks in the following sentence (the blanks represent words that you do not understand in the foreign language).
"Michael rode swiftly on his _____________ toward the ____________ belching smoke, fire and sparks into the sky"
The first blank could be nearly anything that could serve as a means of transportation, and the second could be nearly anything that makes smoke and fire.
If you read the title to the story however, you would know that
called "Sir Michael and the Dragon". With this in mind, it would
not be difficult to figure out (without looking in the dictionary), what
the sentence is talking about.
2. LOOK AT ANY PICTURES THAT ACCOMPANY THE TEXT.
Here is another sentence from our story (again with the blanks representing words you do not understand).
"Sir Michael stood up in his stirrups, raised his _______________ high into the air, and _____________ it down hard upon the Dragon's ________________."
What did Sir Michael raise up into the air? His fist? his sword? A battle-axe? A war hammer? A spear?
What did he do with it? Swing it down hard? Throw it down hard? Thrust it down hard?
And where? On the Dragon's tail? his foot? his head? his neck?
Now imagine that there is a picture accompanying the text. In the picture there is a knight swinging a sword down onto a dragon's neck.
The hard words are much easier to figure out if you look at the
3. USE CONTEXT TO UNDERSTAND SPECIFIC WORDS.
"When the police arrived, they found Elizabeth standing over her husband's dead body. The body had a bullet wound in the chest, and Elizabeth held a smoking _________ in her hand."
From the words around the one word in the sentence that you do
you can guess the meaning of that one word.
4. AIM TO UNDERSTAND LARGER MEANING, EVEN IF YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND EACH SPECIFIC WORD.
Suppose you have no picture, or that the title is of no help. You can still understand the overall meaning of a sentence, paragraph, or story, even if you do not understand every word.
"Susan looked into David's __________. She was filled with a warm _________ . When he ________ at her, when he ______ her hand, she knew she ____________ to spend the rest of her ___________ with him. And she knew that he __________ the same way, she knew that he ____________ __________ __________. That knowledge filled her with indescribable _____________"
No title, no pictures. What are the missing ideas? Even if there is more than one word that could go in some of the blanks, you can still make out what the overall paragraph is about, can't you?
The overall meaning of a sentence, paragraph or story, is far
than understanding each and every word. And you can understand the
larger meaning with a little imagination and logic.
5. FIGURE OUT THE MAIN IDEA OF EACH PARAGRAPH — MAKE A NOTE OF EACH MAIN IDEA.
Most texts are well organized into one main idea per paragraph (that's the reason paragraphs exist in the first place — they're not just there to look pretty on the page). As you read, make a note of the main idea of each paragraph as you read it (so you can go back and refresh your memory if you need to). The main idea of each paragraph should be a logical extension/consequence of the one from the preceeding paragraph. If you find that this is not the case in the notes you have made, then you have probably misunderstood something. Go back and look at any paragraph whose main idea does not fit with the others.
For example, let's say you took these notes as you read:
Paragraph 1: John and Dave are arguing in Dave's apartment.
Paragraph 2: John shouts that he is going to kill Dave.
Paragraph 3: John invites Dave to a fancy dinner party.
Paragraph 4: Dave falls screaming twenty stories toward the street below.
Somehow the meaning of paragraph 3 obviously got garbled
you read it.
In such a case, your first step should be to try and guess what you misread. There are not really a lot of logical things that could have actually happened, are there?
If guessing doesn't provide a satisfactory answer, go back and NOW use your dictionary to look up the tough words.
6. USE LOGIC AND IMAGINATION TO PREDICT WHAT WILL HAPPEN BEFORE YOU READ EACH PART OF THE STORY.
Stories are generally very logical. What do you think the
paragraph will be about?
Paragraph 1: John shouts that he is going to kill Dave.
Paragraph 2: John pushes Dave out the window.
Paragraph 3: Dave falls screaming twenty stories toward the street below.
Paragraph 4: ????
Without even reading the fourth paragraph, you can come up with
possibilities, can't you?
Out of the list below, pick out some logical options.
Dave hits the ground with a thud.
For the first time, a presidential election is decided by manual recount.
A cowboy draws his gun.
Dave decides he'll do his laundry tomorrow.
The easter bunny hides eggs in the bushes.
A crowd gathers around the dead body on the pavement.
Members of the French resistance assassinate a Nazi agent.
Police and Paramedics rush to the scene.
Napoleon conquers Europe in a long and bloody campaign.
A number of these are possible. But if you at least try to
before reading each part of the story, it becomes easier to understand
the meaning, since your guesses will at least eliminate a nearly
set of illogical options.