I’ve written before how three months of reading without a dictionary was necessary for me to develop the ability to quickly figure out words from context; as it happens, it also took me about three months of reading with a dictionary to feel as if I was learning new vocabulary words. Initially I felt like I wasn’t learning vocabulary at all, just reinforcing what I knew, and I worried that over the long term I wouldn’t be able to progress. I even wrote about it in my first weekly update, and my friend Tsubasa, one of the people who introduced the concept of tadoku to me, said that she had had the same concern initially but didn’t anymore. Well, OK, I thought, Tsubasa is one of my tadoku role models, and if she says not to worry about vocabulary I will spend no more energy fretting about it.
By now, about four months after I started consistently reading with no dictionary, I do feel like I’m moving forward, and I perceive that what I’m doing is laying down a base of extremely basic words; that much I feel like I’m doing at a fairly fast rate, but there are so many words that the overall process looks slow, and I feel like I’m almost being forced to learn them in a sort of logical order. I think of extensive reading as being like a pyramid; at the base of the pyramid are the most basic of basic words – 言う (to say)、人 (person)、花 (flower)、いい (good) and so on, and the higher up you go, the more specialized, complex and rare the words get. I feel like I’m learning many words, but they’re words at a rather low level of that pyramid that fill in my general knowledge of the world — words I hardly knew I didn’t know, like “broom,” “ladder,” “chin,” “yawn,” “to carry something on one’s back,” “to cheer someone else up.” As long as the words are at a low enough level to be repeated, they come to me relatively quickly; more quickly in the emotional, context-rich setting of stories, I think, than they ever did on one side of a flashcard.
(In contrast, I think that intensive reading is like a skyscraper: reading a complicated text is like reaching the 100th floor, but if you want to read another text, with a whole new set of words that you don’t know, you have to go to another building and start climbing from maybe the 10th story or 20th story, depending on how much base knowledge you can call on.)
I love extensive reading and I’ve had success with it so far: it’s great for developing your reading skill, for reinforcing words you know, for learning word usage in context, collocations and usage patterns, for sharing in a culture; plus, it’s just plain fun. The question here, though, isn’t whether or not it’s a good way to learn to read, but whether or not it’s a good way of learning vocabulary. It might seem contrary, but because of my success with tadoku I’m not particularly invested in proving that it’s the very best way of learning vocabulary. I don’t know if it is or isn’t, and there may be more efficient ways, especially if you have a goal that’s more targeted than “being able to read anything.” I can really only talk about my own experience, and I’ve really only just started! My reason for writing this is to describe what the vocabulary learning process has looked like in my case and to take a look at how some other methods of vocabulary building might intersect with tadoku.
The Process of Learning Words Through Extensive Reading
I think of my total vocabulary knowledge as something like a net made of different sizes and types of materials. The words that I know in Japanese just as well as I know them in English and the words that I can recognize almost immediately almost all of the time are like strong ropes, securely knotted together, on which the rest of the net is constructed. Words I recognize almost all of the time are like slightly weaker, looser strands, then there’s a part of the net made out of loosely-woven, thin strands – words I usually recognize but sometimes forget, words I always recognize if they’re surrounded by other words they’re commonly associated with but sometimes forget when I see them on their own, words I’m sure about if they’re written in kanji but not so likely to recognize if they’re in hiragana. Then there are the words I am just starting to understand the meaning of but don’t really have a handle on yet, which are made of silk thread. Reading, then, is like taking the words in a book and passing them through this net. Every time a word is repeated and understood, it strengthens that strand, and by and by the vocabulary net expands and becomes stronger. Some words may fall through the net completely, but as the other words become more well known, it becomes easier to catch those unknown words, start understanding them and wait for them to appear again.
The trick, then, is matching this net to what I want to read. If a book has too many unknown words, they’re harder to isolate and understand from context, so it’s like stretching out the net too far and having more words just slip right on through the holes. I also find that there are may words that I understand when they’re in a context I understand, but if I don’t understand the general context the word escapes me too, so those words don’t get reinforced either. At this level, too, one completely unknown word is as hard as another completely unknown word. There may be differences in how common the words are, but it essentially doesn’t matter for that particular text; a word that, in an easier text, might have been the only thing you didn’t know and therefore much simpler to figure out, now just becomes one of several intimidating, time-consuming unknown words.
So I think the most basic part of vocabulary acquisition through tadoku is reading at the right level and being exposed to a limited number of repeated, basic words over a series of books: I think of this as forcing serendipity, in that the words that you need to know and can learn most easily are also, ideally, the same ones that you will see most often.
To break the process down, the first step is seeing a word and realizing that it is a discrete word; that is, that you can determine where it begins and ends. It sounds basic, but it isn’t necessarily easy in a long line of unbroken, unknown hiragana; this is part of why it’s important to be reading texts at a level where there aren’t so many unfamiliar words and particles that they just bleed into each other.
Next, you come to some degree of certainty about what the word means. You don’t have to link it to an English word, especially for vague words like adjectives; you just have to understand what it means in at least one context. I’ve written about some of my methods for doing this through grammatical knowledge, context and pictures; it’s also possible to connect a word to your prior knowledge, if you are reading something you’ve read in English before or a harder version of a story you’ve already read, or to understand the meaning through the kanji (or just the kanji readings without the kanji, if you are better at remembering those than I am). Sometimes the word is defined in the text in some fashion, and sometimes you can put together other words or parts of other words that you already know to understand a new one. All of these methods have their uses, but the more you read, the more likely it is that you’ll just see a word over and over and start to understand it without consciously trying to puzzle its meaning out from the grammar and context.
What you want, eventually, is to always be able to recognize the word immediately, no matter what the context is, without even having to think about its meaning or sound. That means that merely understanding what a word means isn’t equivalent to having learned it: it’s only the second step towards truly acquiring it. While learning vocabulary through tadoku alone, words are acquired by gradual, repeated exposure in a variety of contexts or by constant, marked repetition in a single context.
As an example of the first process, let’s take the word ほうき. It’s the sort of thing that shows up pretty infrequently, but it’s such a basic object that it appears in many books. If you see it in enough sentences, you should be able to figure out that it’s a discrete word, then a concrete noun, probably something people use in or around houses. You should eventually be able to connect it to your prior knowledge and think “Oh, I bet that means ‘broom.'” If there’s an illustration, that’s like a shortcut past all of those steps. Once you have a personal, working definition of a word, then you start the process of remembering that definition every time the word comes up. Sometimes it might fall into place immediately; sometimes it might take some supporting information (context, pictures, etc.) to nudge it into place; sometimes you might not remember it at all. Every time you remember it, it becomes a little bit more likely that you’ll remember it the next time too, and by and by, you can recognize it every time. (The only downside is that as you move up in difficulty, you’ll eventually need to connect ほうき to 箒, too, and for me and a lot of adult learners, it would have been easier if it had always been 箒 from the start. If you’re dealing with kids’ books, that’s just the way it is, but it’s a shame.)
Now, to illustrate constant, marked repetition, let’s say that there’s a book called The Golden Broom (黄金の箒), in which a half dozen explorers are racing to find the 黄金の箒, because the 黄金の箒 is the only thing that can clean the Ancient Temple and the first person to sweep its hallowed floor with the 黄金の箒 will be blessed beyond measure by the 箒神… Once you figure out what 箒 is, seeing it again and again in the same book is a shortcut to remembering it, its importance to the story (particularly its appearance in the title) makes it more likely you’ll create an emotional connection to the word, and especially if there are a couple pictures of the main character brandishing the 黄金の箒, you’re probably going to be all set with the word 箒. (Probably 黄金, too.) You could still lose it if you don’t see it again for a while, but since it’s a basic word that will show up in other books, too, you most likely won’t have that problem. Put another way, the barrage of brooms should make it that much easier to remember the word the next time you see it, which raises your chances of remembering it at subsequent meetings.
Not all words are alike: concrete nouns with pictures attached to them are the easiest to understand and remember, while I personally find that descriptive words are the hardest, particularly onomatopoeia (that is, 擬音語, giongo or sound words, and 擬態語, gitaigo or words that describe emotional states) because even if I isolate their approximate meaning through the grammatical and narrative context, it can still be unclear what exactly the word means, it may be a while until I see it again and it sounds so repetitive that it’s harder to remember. Between those two extremes, you have all sorts of words and all sorts of situations, and your reading material is not designed to make the process any easier on you. Furthermore, it’s impossible to say just how many exposures it takes to a word to learn it. There are words that I learned for good the first time I saw them; there are words that I’ve known for years but keep forgetting whenever I see them in different contexts; there are words that I kept on seeing and seeing without understanding and, then, one day they just fell into place. The more basic a word is, the more likely it’ll stay with me after just a few repetitions, but sometimes I remember fairly difficult words and forget easy ones for no apparent reason. An emotional connection with a word helps, as does seeing it in the title of a book. There are just too many variables involved for me to answer that question with a meaningful number.
In short, my experience with learning vocabulary through tadoku alone for these past four months has been that I’ve built up a pile of basic words slowly, but thoroughly, through my own understanding, prior experience and repeated exposure to basic texts. The good part is that once you understand what a basic word means, it’s repeated so often that you learn it fairly quickly, and it doesn’t take long for it to become part of this vocabulary net that supports your reading of higher-level texts. There are just so many basic words that it feels like it is taking me a while to learn all of them!
Vocabulary through structured instruction
Paul Nation, in The language learning benefits of extensive reading, wrote that “Vocabulary learning from extensive reading is very fragile. If the small amount of learning of a word is not soon reinforced by another meeting, then that learning will be lost.” In my experience, vocabulary acquired through extensive reading is no more or less fragile than vocabulary I’ve acquired from textbooks or flashcards, because I don’t consider a word actually learned just because I can figure out what it means once. However, I think that what Nation is describing is the time between understanding the word and mastering it. During this time, my acquaintance with the word is indeed fragile, because it often takes so many exposures to the same word to truly acquire it, and depending on how often the word is used those exposures may not be close enough together to support remembering it. The question becomes, then, does that fragility make extensive reading a worse way of learning words than structured instruction?
I certainly love tadoku, but I theoretically have no problem with structured instruction, which to me encompasses everything from formal grammar studies and flashcards to graded readers and asking questions, because all of these things can be thought of as shortcuts that take the place of portions of the experience that goes into forming a native speaker, and allows the learner to attain a specific goal or free up energy for more advanced things. For example, I sometimes come across “baby talk.” If I had been a Japanese baby at some point in my life, this wouldn’t pose a problem, but if I had to figure out what was going on as an adult learner it would probably be puzzling and slow me down. However, I read all about Japanese baby talk in English at some point (thank you Mangajin!), and if I see it in an authentic text, I don’t have to spend time thinking “Wait, でちゅ？ Huh?” So in that case, a few pages of structured instruction was an effective shortcut to understanding this specific, potentially confusing point.
However, I think the problem with structured instruction is that there are so many totally useless shortcuts out there. Picking out key words and spending time and energy on learning them is one of the most basic components of traditional language instruction, but if you’re learning words that only really help you read or understand one thing, what good do they do you in every other situation? I remember one vocabulary list from my intermediate textbook that had basic words like 大陸 (continent), 驚く (to be surprised), 戻る (to return) and 天才 (genius) right alongside words like 難破 (shipwreck), 軍艦 (battleship), 捕鯨船 (whaling ship) and 漂流者 (castaway). In this case, you can think of this vocabulary list as a shortcut to reading a specific text. However, it’s only in an artificial environment that these words are at all equal: it’s the basic ones that will show up again and again, and it’s those that you need to learn so well that you recognize them without thinking, but this shortcut implicitly encourages students to neglect the easier words in favor of spending more of their time and energy learning the ones that are more difficult and are comparatively rare enough that they won’t be reinforced, meaning they’ll be forgotten once the test is over. It feels more like some sort of IQ test than a useful way of learning vocabulary! When I said earlier that it feels to me like tadoku forces you to learn in a logical order, I mean that you’ll have mastered words like “sailor,” “telescope,” “sails,” “deck,” “to row a boat” and “cannon” and repeatedly seen even difficult-looking kanji such as 難, 軍, or 捕 in various, more basic compounds or words long before you confront “whaling ship” or “castaway.” :
There are many ways to combine structured instruction with tadoku, but I think the most relevant methods as far as vocabulary acquisition goes would probably be looking up words after reading, using flashcards to review words and sentence patterns, and reading graded readers. To an extent, these things take away the experience of figuring out words for yourself (less so with graded readers, but you’re still reading in a vastly more controlled way than you do with authentic texts), but in return, you can free up the energy you would have used dealing with some of the basic words and put it towards identifying and remembering more advanced words.
When I was learning not to use a dictionary while reading, I made a deal with myself: I could look up anything I wanted after I finished a book. At first, I’d look up quite a few words, but gradually I stopped looking up things, because it took time and I decided that that time was just better used for more reading. Sometimes I still look up words, mostly after I’ve seen them a few times. In this case, it’s sometimes kind of like the meaning is bubbling up from the depths, but can’t quite make it to the surface, so I remember it to look up afterwards. Sometimes a word seems to be particularly important to a particular story and I just want to know it. (Most of the time, the dictionary just confirms my intuition about what the word meant, and then I just feel a little annoyed at myself for getting impatient.) So this is a shortcut past that second step of understanding what a word means; I still have to actually learn it through repetition, but having spent the extra time and attention necessary to fix it in my mind and look it up often means that it’s easier to remember afterwards.
I see flashcards as a way of consciously speeding up the process of identifying and learning to instantly recognize basic words. I think that one problem with flashcards is that they encourage learning words that are above your fluent reading level, which I consider to be a waste of time if you’re not going on to reinforce them through exposure to authentic material. Every so often — and I mean very infrequently here, maybe about five books out of a hundred — I’ll take a simple book I liked a whole lot that only had a few unknown words, look those words up and make them into flashcards, because if the book is basic enough I really should know the unknown words by now. Many times, just looking up the word and making a flashcard out of it is enough to fix an association between the word and the meaning, and I don’t really even have to review the flashcards. For words that seem fairly basic, but are just a little bit more complex than other basic words, sometimes I’ll actually review them. The downside is that it takes a long time to create the flashcards and even longer to review them, and if you’re using traditional word-to-definition flashcards, it takes them out of context; one reason that’s problematic is that, in my experience, words are so much easier to learn in context than on their own.
It seems a lot of Japanese learners advocate sidestepping this problem by putting whole sentences in flashcards; this isn’t a method I have personally used, although I understand the idea. It takes care of the out-of-context problem to an extent, but it just seems so dull to me… I can’t help but feel that it must take tremendous amounts of patience to review sentences over and over, out of context; if you have the patience to read sentences over and over again, you’ve got more patience than I do, so consider putting that energy towards finding at least a handful of books you like and reading them over and over again. You’d get the same repeated exposure to words, and it seems to me like it’d be more fun.
I see graded readers as a shortcut as surely as flashcards and textbooks are, and it’s the kind of shortcut I welcome and wish I had more of. The biggest problem with authentic materials — that is, books written for people who speak Japanese as their first language — is that they’re more complex than they look, because Japanese children have been immersed in Japanese for years before they start to read, and so for them, at the beginning, reading is largely connecting the information they already have to the written word; language learners have to acquire that information and connect it to the information on the page all at once. I remember the first Japanese children’s book I tried to read, near the beginning of my second year of formal instruction. It was an adaptation of Swan Lake (白鳥の湖), and by the system I use now, it was a low level 3 with about 900 words, about 40 of which were on the first page. The problem is, Genki I prepared me for ordering food and buying stamps, not for accompanying a prince and his retinue on a midnight hunting trip. That first page took me God knows how long to read, because I knew only about ten of those forty words, and I had to look up the other ones (paper dictionary, mind), write them down and then keep them in my head long enough to actually fit together the grammar and read the sentences. These days, if I open up a book and there’s more than three or four words on one page that I don’t know, I’ll probably put it aside — and there I was, working my little heart out and wondering why I was so pathetic that I couldn’t read a kid’s book. Eventually I learned those words: my method could charitably be described as “being stubborn as a mule and wasting a lot of time.” A couple hundred graded readers, designed for someone like me to be able to read and enjoy from the beginning while acquiring basic vocabulary in a more controlled way, would have been much better.
The problem, at least for those of us learning something besides English, is that those couple hundred graded readers don’t exist: for Japanese, it is more like a couple dozen, and those are excellent, but expensive, rare and, by design, don’t last you long. I’ve been thinking, though, that there’s no reason that we Japanese learners can’t create our own; the very materials that are most needed are basic ones, to cover the time between just starting to learn Japanese and being able to read things like the 心の絵本 stories. Expect to see some posts about this project once the tadoku contest is over…
In short, I see tadoku as the best way to learn to read and a good way to learn basic vocabulary, and, theoretically, I don’t see a problem with adding some structured vocabulary instruction that supports one’s progress with tadoku; I just think that many common shortcuts aren’t as useful as they might seem, because they take too much time relative to their utility, don’t make use of the benefits of context or encourage the learner to spend too much time on more advanced words and too little time on basic words. But, like I’ve said, I only have my own experience to go by, an what I hope is that that experience may be useful to other learners as they figure out what methods work best for them.
- Extensive reading is known as 多読, or tadoku in Japanese. To try it, start with very easy books (ones with no more than two or three unknown words per page), and follow these principles:
1. Don’t look up words in the dictionary while reading.
2. Skip over parts you don’t understand.
3. If you aren’t enjoying one book, toss it aside and get another.
Find something to read!
Hundreds of free books and stories online
Local bookstores and libraries
Buying new and used books online
For more information, read "What Is Extensive Reading?" and "Classification System."
To learn more about Kunihide Sakai, who developed the three principles of tadoku and has worked to popularize it in Japan for years, read this interview with him.
Finally, for more than you ever wanted to know about why I believe extensive reading is worth your time, read my tadoku manifesto.
Superfluous StatsBooks read: 303
Word count (since starting the blog): 380,500
- About Myself
- Books from my own collection
- Classification System
- Detailed Reviews of Graded Readers
- Detailed Reviews of Level 2 Books
- Detailed Reviews of Level 3 Books
- Detailed Reviews of Level 4 Books
- Detailed Reviews of Level 5 Books
- EhonNavi Books
- Extensive Reading Basics
- Extensive Reading Materials Online
- Extensive Reading Paper Summaries and Notes
- Extensive Reading Resources
- Illustrated Reference Books
- Japanese Language Learning Resources
- Mini Reviews of Level 1 Books
- Mini Reviews of Level 2 Books
- Mini Reviews of Level 3 Books
- Mini Reviews of Level 4 Books
- Mini Reviews of Level 5 Books
- Mini-Reviews of Level 6 Books
- Nikkei Bunko Library Books
- Picture Books
- Pierce County Library Books
- Reading in a Foreign Language
- Seattle Library Books
- Short Stories
- Society and Culture
- Tacoma Library Books
- Tadoku Contest
- Weekly Updates