I started trying out extensive reading over a year ago, but a dread of unknown words and a language learning sensibility shaped by training in intensive reading meant that I wasn’t really able to give up the dictionary until… well… Even though I’ve gone so far as to create a blog about my extensive reading efforts, I still have great difficulty with not breaking the first of the three principles. I’ve considered the idea of starting a blog like this for several months, but how could I talk about how great an idea extensive reading was when I was still making up vocabulary lists for most every book I read? The previous, unpublished post I wrote on the subject was titled “Dictionary Usage in Extensive Reading: Do As I Say, Not As I Do.”

In theory, it’s a sound idea. Time spent focusing on single words is time you can’t use for reading lots of words, understanding words through context and reading them repeatedly helps you remember them better, and if you’re resorting to the dictionary all the time it’s a sign the book isn’t at your fluent reading level anyways. Like the idea of extensive reading in general, it makes good intuitive sense.

In practice, I struggle with not using the dictionary. I like to know precisely what I’m reading, and I get uncomfortable if I know I’m not understanding something. (The jargon for this sort of mindset is low ambiguity tolerance. Painfully low, in my case. Possibly non-existent.) I almost always have my laptop at hand, and since I use a dictionary program and not a paper dictionary it doesn’t take much time to look up a word, making me think “Well, just one won’t take long” — and then before I know it I’ve looked up five words and gotten distracted by an e-mail besides. I also rationalize it by thinking that I remember words better if I know the kanji for them as well so it’s better for me to look them up, or by thinking that I only have so many books I can read before I have to start spending money, so I’d better squeeze all the utility out of them that I can. Those things aren’t not true, but the fact is that I have more fun reading, I read more smoothly and I get more out of the experience when I’m not looking up words every two minutes.

If you, like me, are trying to disentangle yourself from the dictionary, here are the ways I’ve found to get out of the habit of looking up everything:

  1. Take the book to a cafe, park or library. Bonus: learning material in more than one area improves retention.
  2. Draw a nice hot bath; read until the water gets cold. The smell of peppermint is supposed to enhance memory, so you could pick up some peppermint bath salts or something like that. (It’s always jasmine oil for me, memory benefits be hanged.)
  3. Make a habit of reading in bed – with the dictionary or computer safely in the other room. When I was a little kid, I used to love to read in bed before I went to sleep, but when I got older I stopped. Recently, we added some more lights to our bedroom, and now I like reading in bed again. As if it wasn’t enough to be reading picture books again, extensive reading has once more put me in touch with my inner child.
  4. Take a cross-country plane trip. I don’t think I’d have ever finished ジローのあくしゅ — which was really just a touch above my fluent reading rate — without reaching for the dictionary otherwise…
  5. Promise yourself that if there were any words that just really drove you batty, you can look them up after you finish the book. This is a compromise I made with myself, and I find that there aren’t too many I have a burning need to define: when I really get into a book, the strength of all the other words carries me right over the unknown ones, and I come to understand them or don’t really need to understand them to still enjoy myself.

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