Posts by: Liana

Review of よむよむ文庫 レベル別日本語多読ライブラリー レベル 1 (Reading Collection: Graded Japanese Extensive Reading Library Level 1)
Total: 109 pages, 1,680 words (est.)

Click here for my introduction to the よむよむ文庫 series and information about graded readers.

Level 1, 初級前半 (First half of the beginner level): These draw on the same vocabulary list and grammar forms as level 0 readers, but are up to three times longer; they go from 400-1,500 characters per story (around 100 words to 550 words). They’re suitable for people studying for the old JLPT level 4 (new level 5). There are three volumes of these, with five stories each.

In this series, the only difference between a Level 1 reader and a Level 0 reader is the length: they draw on the same vocabulary pool and grammar structures, but while Level 0 readers have around 400 characters per story, Level 1 readers have between 400 and 1500 characters. So while the stories themselves are just a few pages longer (between 21-23 pages), all in all there’s almost three times as much content in a Level 1 volume as there is in a Level 0 volume, and as always, there’s a CD that comes with each volume.

There’s five stories (meaning they’d be about $7.40 each, assuming you get them from White Rabbit Press; see my introduction for more), and each story gets progressively longer: the first one, 女の子 (The Girl), has about 130 words, and the last one, 笑い話 (Funny Stories), has about 550 words. (It’s split into smaller stories, so even though it’s the longest, it shouldn’t be too intimidating.) The Level 0 graded readers felt like authentic Level 1 books, albeit ones for adults, but these Level 1 graded readers start to feel like extremely easy picture books, which are level 2 by the system I use. (Apologies for confusion caused by the crossover between the system I use and these graded readers.) The thing about authentic picture books, though, is that there’s a wide range of difficulty: some level 2 books are what I consider low-level picture books, like the Usako-chan books, which these Level 1 graded readers are just beginning to approach. Most picture books are at a moderate level, and then some are harder than you would expect them to be just from the format, because they consistently use harder words, or perhaps because the target audience isn’t really children. So for a beginner even picture books can be frustrating if you don’t choose them well, and that may be hard to do if you’re just starting to read them and don’t really have the reading skill to be able to evaluate them, or you don’t have a lot of books to select from; this graded reader collection bypasses that problem.

I generally enjoyed these on their own merits; there were stories like ハチの話 (Hachi’s Story), 浦島太郎 (Urashima Tarō) and 笑い話 (Funny Stories) that weren’t just easy to read and amusing, but also draw on stories that are common knowledge in Japan. As with the Level 0 graded readers, I feel that authentic books at a comparable level of difficulty and sophistication don’t really exist.

Again, there are pages from four of the books online, so you can see if this would be the right level for you, and again there’s a CD that comes with each volume. There is also a full sample of a Level 1 story available on the Japanese Graded Readers Research Group’s website: 船 (The Boat). There are three volumes of level 1 graded readers: Level 1, Volume 1, Level 1, Volume 2 and Level 1, Volume 3. (I’m not associated with White Rabbit Press; they just have the cheapest price for these graded readers at the moment.)

As I first encountered these as an intermediate learner after doing extensive reading for a few months, I don’t have any personal experience as to what it would be like to use them as a beginner or without experience with extensive reading, although I can make an educated guess based on my own experiences with learning the language and extensive reading and on watching other people read some of them. So if you’ve used them, please leave a comment! I’d love to hear about your experience – did you think they were useful? worth the money? fun? about the right difficulty level?

Review of よむよむ文庫 レベル別日本語多読ライブラリー レベル 2 (Reading Collection: Graded Japanese Extensive Reading Library Level 2)
Total: 111 pages, 3,190 words (est.)

Click here for my introduction to the よむよむ文庫 series and information about graded readers.

Level 2, 初級後半 (Second half of the beginner level): The amount of words used jumps to 500, more grammar structures are introduced and the number of characters per reader goes from 1,500-2,500 (450-800 words). They’re suitable for people studying for the old JLPT levels 4 and 3 (new levels 5 and 4). There are three volumes of these, with five stories each.

Due to the wider variety of grammatical structures, these Level 2 graded readers start to feel more like authentic picture books, albeit very easy ones with more advanced stories than you might find in picture books of comparable difficulty. There’s five stories in all, and again, although they’re the same length in terms of pages, their word count gets progressively longer, from 絵姿奥さん (The Wife’s Picture), which is 450 words, to 一休さん (Ikkyū-san) which is 800 words. The full set has about the same number of pages as Level 1, Volume 1, but about twice the number of words. There are five 22 or 23 page stories in this volume, so, as with level 1, each story works out to about $7.40. (That’s assuming you get them from White Rabbit Press; see my introduction for more.)

These, especially the last two stories, felt more like actual books that Japanese kids might read, but they’re simplified in a way that didn’t feel condescending and still made good use of illustrations to aid comprehension. For example, in 絵姿奥さん, there’s a line about how the man hangs his wife’s picture on a branch, and although there’s already an illustration of something else on the page, they add a little picture of the action. There’s enough context there that a reader who didn’t know 枝 could guess that it means “branch,” but if that guess is then put together with the picture, then the connection between 枝 and “branch” is solidified. They also make use of words that were introduced and repeated in previous volumes. In one of the level 0 books, お茶碗 (rice bowl or teacup) is introduced by illustrations of the characters literally shoving an お茶碗 in the readers’ face five times, so I couldn’t help but smile whenever I saw it appear in a later book.

As with the others, there are one-page samples from four of the stories online, as well as a CD that comes with each volume. There is also a full sample of a Level 1 story available on the Japanese Graded Readers Research Group’s website: 船 (The Boat). So if you read that and it seems extremely easy, go with level 2. There are three volumes of level 2 graded readers available: Level 2, Volume 1, Level 2, Volume 2 and Level 2, Volume 3. (I’m not associated with White Rabbit Press; they just have the cheapest price for these graded readers at the moment.)

As I first encountered these as an intermediate learner after doing extensive reading for a few months, I don’t have any personal experience as to what it would be like to use them as a beginner or without experience with extensive reading, although I can make an educated guess based on my own experiences with learning the language and extensive reading and on watching other people read some of them. So if you’ve used them, please leave a comment! I’d love to hear about your experience – did you think they were useful? worth the money? fun? about the right difficulty level?

Review of よむよむ文庫 レベル別日本語多読ライブラリー レベル 3 (Reading Collection: Graded Japanese Extensive Reading Library Level 3)
Total: 149 pages, 7,200 words (est.)

Click here for my introduction to the よむよむ文庫 series and information about graded readers.

Level 3, 初中級 (Lower intermediate level): For these, an 800-word vocabulary is required, even more grammar structures come into play and the number of characters per reader goes from 2,500-5,000 (1,200-2,000 words). They’re suitable for people studying for the old JLPT level 3 (probably equivalent to new levels 4 and 3). There are three volumes of these, with five stories each.

There are five stories in this volume (so again, each one works out to about $7.40,assuming you get them from White Rabbit Press; see my introduction for more) with 29-31 pages each, and they go from about 1,200 words to about 2,000 words each for a total of about 7,200 words, meaning that this volume has more than twice the content as Level 2, Volume 1. Although the stories are still simplified, heavily supported by pictures and make a point of defining words that readers might not know, they start to feel like real material around this point; there’s no question that the short stories are abridged, but the version of かぐやひめ (Kaguya-hime) at this level is not so very different from an authentic, low level 3 version of the same story that I own. The real one has many compound verbs (that is, words like だきかかえる (to carry something in one’s arms), a combination of だく(to hold in one’s arms or to embrace) and かかえる(to hold or carry under one’s arm)), as well as slightly more varied vocabulary, natural dialogue and complex sentences, but otherwise it feels about the same.

My guess is that if you had been developing your confidence, reading speed and ability to figure words out from context with the material at this level, possibly supported by the previous levels, you should be able to start reading authentic picture books at this point without too much trouble. It would probably feel like a huge comedown in terms of complexity and content, but that would be balanced by the thrill of reading real Japanese books, and ideally the experience you’d gained through the graded readers would help you progress to more difficult, interesting material more quickly than if you had started with whatever random picture books you had at hand.

One thing I particularly like about this set is that there are a couple of abridged stories by famous Japanese authors: 注文の多い料理店 (The Restaurant of Many Orders) by Kenji Miyazawa and two short stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, 鼻 (The Nose) and 蜘蛛の糸 (The Spider’s Thread). I bet there’s a lot of overlap between people interested in the Japanese language and people interested in the literature, but it can be frustrating to study and study, then realize that you won’t actually be reading that literature for a long time — or that you can do it if you’re willing to look up every third word and spend an hour trying to understand the meaning of a single sentence. So even though these stories are abridged, I think that being able to read them at this level is motivating. (It does remind me of the Gatsby graded reader debate, but that’s a post for another day.)

This is also where 一生懸命 (to do something with all your effort) starts to show up, which shows that the creators really did their homework: it’s the single most common 四字熟語 (four-character idiom) in authentic books at this level, so I was glad to see it reinforced not just once or twice, but as part of every story.

As before, there are one-page samples from four of the stories online, as well as a CD that comes with each volume. There are three level 3 volumes available: Level 3, Volume 1, Level 3, Volume 2 and Level 3, Volume 3. (I’m not associated with White Rabbit Press; they just have the cheapest price for these graded readers at the moment.)

As I first encountered these as an intermediate learner after doing extensive reading for a few months, I don’t have any personal experience as to what it would be like to use them as a beginner or without experience with extensive reading, although I can make an educated guess based on my own experiences with learning the language and extensive reading and on watching other people read some of them. So if you’ve used them, please leave a comment! I’d love to hear about your experience – did you think they were useful? worth the money? fun? about the right difficulty level?

Review of よむよむ文庫 レベル別日本語多読ライブラリー レベル 4 (Reading Collection: Graded Japanese Extensive Reading Library Level 4)
Total: 189 pages, 13,300 words (est.)
Total: 191 pages, 12,900 words (est.)

Click here for my introduction to the よむよむ文庫 series and information about graded readers.

Level 4, 中級 (Intermediate level): These go up to a 1300-word vocabulary, with the most complex grammar structures out of all the readers, and there’s 5,000-10,000 characters per reader (2,000 – 3,500 words). They’re suitable for people studying for the old JLPT levels 3 and 2 (probably equivalent to new levels 3 and 2). There are two volumes of these, with five stories each.

As with most of the other volumes, there are five stories in each volume (so, again, about $7.40, assuming you get them from White Rabbit Press; see my introduction for more) with 35-39 pages each, but the text is dense enough that 2,000-3,000 words are packed into each one. There’s still quite a few pictures, though. These level 4 graded readers have as many words as many books that are level 4 by my system and make use of more kanji, but because they’re thin (35-39 pages each) and have small text, they feel cheap (as in price, not quality) compared to a hard-cover authentic book at the same level. I wish there were more pamphlet-style books like these, instead of so many books with big old hard covers — they’d be so much cheaper to ship!

In terms of how complex their sentences are and the kinds of words they use, they feel very much like real level 3 and 4 books that I’ve read, so if you can read those, you should definitely be able to read authentic books at that level. Compared to the other levels, they’re much more serious and adult, and I felt, while I was reading, almost as if it was like a dream compared to reading real books. Because the vocabulary here is still controlled at 1,300 words, it is absolutely not the same as reading a real novel intended for adults or older children, who have full control over thousands of words; if you started your tadoku journey here as an intermediate student, then expected to go on to authentic books that used similar amounts of kanji and small text and read those just as quickly and easily, you might be in for a rude awakening. It’s more likely that to be able to read at the same speed and level of understanding you would have to go down in terms of content; still, if you can read these graded readers fairly easily, you should definitely be able to read authentic level 3 and 4 books without much problem. All the same, these do give you a taste of what it would be like to know enough vocabulary and kanji to be able to quickly read real, high-level material, and it feels great. It’s an artificial construct, but a fun one.

Incidentally, if you read the story in 世界のどこかで 日本のどこかで 〜本当にあった話〜 (Somewhere In The World, Somewhere In Japan: True Stories) about the 三億円事件 (300 million yen incident), be sure to join one of Sakai-sensei’s Skype chats and ask him about it sometime!

As before, there are one-page samples from two of the stories online, as well as a CD that comes with each volume. There are two volumes of Level 4 graded readers available: Level 4, Volume 1 and Level 4, Volume 2. (I’m not associated with White Rabbit Press; they just have the cheapest price for these graded readers at the moment.)

As I first encountered these as an intermediate learner after doing extensive reading for a few months, I don’t have any personal experience as to what it would be like to use them as a beginner or without experience with extensive reading, although I can make an educated guess based on my own experiences with learning the language and extensive reading and on watching other people read some of them. So if you’ve used them, please leave a comment! I’d love to hear about your experience – did you think they were useful? worth the money? fun? about the right difficulty level?

I added EhonNavi to my online resources page, but I wanted to make sure that you all saw it! I’ve known about the site for a long time, but I thought it was just for rating picture books and finding new ones; it turns out that it also has over 350 full picture books available for free!

From the home page, click the link on the right that says 全ページ試し読み to see the available books; click a book and find the green icon that says 全ページ試し読みする to read it. You have to be a member to read them; if you haven’t signed up already you’ll be prompted when you try to access a book. (Keep reading for my registration walkthrough.)

You can only read a book once, and apparently they’re serious about that: if you reach the end of the book, then try to go back to the beginning, everything will be pixelated. If there’s an error of some sort (the program crashes, etc.) you should be able to re-access the book, as long as you do so within 15 minutes. Once you have read the book, the option to read it will disappear, but you can still read the limited preview.

The recommended OS is Microsoft Windows XP Home Service Pack 3, with Internet Explorer 8.0 or Firefox 3.6 and Flash Player 10 installed. It may not work as well with WindowsXP Service Pack 2 or Mac. (I have a Mac and it loads sometimes, but when it does most of the images are pixelated; with Windows XP Service Pack 2, it loads up to 99% and hangs. So at the moment I can’t use it.)

The first row of books are new arrivals, the second is ranked by popularity and the third is sorted by sales. Underneath that, there are recommendations for babies (赤ちゃんにおすすめ), children 3 and older who aren’t in school yet (3歳から未就学児におすすめ), elementary school students and older (小学生以上におすすめ), and ones for adults as well (大人にもおすすめ). Underneath that, you can also choose by writer, theme and so on.

I hope that this will be a great resource for those of you who can access it! I think it might be the very best thing currently available online for beginners, too. I’ll welcome any reviews or information about any of the books, and probably make a separate page for that. There is a lot to explore on EhonNavi, and I’ve only just started really looking into it, so if you find anything else that might be of particular interest to extensive readers, please post a comment or e-mail me!

With over 350 fun-looking books and clearly marked difficulty levels, now there’s no excuse not to try tadoku! (Except, of course, if you aren’t running Windows XP SP3…) Happy reading!

Registration walkthrough:

Registration page. The only required fields are the ones with the red buttons that say 必須 (required); you can leave the others blank.

Confirmation page:

Welcome page:

And then go back to the main page and click 全ページ試し読み!

Choose a book, then on the book’s page, click 全ページ試し読みする:

I’m up to 360,010 words this week, or 38,244 more than I had last update. Most of that number, though, is from the last two days of the tadoku contest, or really the last day — I basically read all day on Sunday. After that, I did go back to reading level 2 things, like I thought I would; I read a lot of the 心の絵本 stories online (although I put together the word counts for them earlier, I actually just skimmed them myself) and I got a lot of really great picture books from Nikkei Bunko that I’m going to write a longer review of at some point. I’ve also been reading the level 4 volume 2 graded readers — kind of a mood swing to go between picture books and higher-level stories like that.

I’m enjoying this whole “better grammar through free writing” thing, too. Puts a dent in my reading time, but I can’t say I’ve ever had fun with grammar before in my life.

So I went into the tadoku contest having read 231,226 words, and I ended it with 352,166 words. That is, I read 120,940 words this month, or a full 12% of my million word goal. I read 8 level 1 books, 7 level 2 books, 52 level 3 books, 3 level 4 books, 1 level 5 book and one graded reader volume, for a total of 72 books. I had hoped to read more level 4 books this month, but I kept opening them up and feeling frustrated, so in the end I stuck to level 3 books after all.

As far as the actual contest goes, I came in 14th overall and 8th among Japanese language learners, with 3511.45 pages, 3040 of which were from books and 471.45 of which were from videogames, mostly Mother 3. I finished Mother 3, and I just loved being able to play through it in Japanese, but I felt that I couldn’t help but remember my English experience of the game, which meant I didn’t have to rely on my own skill to understand everything. So I think the next game I play will have to be something I’ve never played before.

I first read about the tadoku contest when I was researching extensive reading, and I thought, meh, not really my thing — but then months later, after I started my blog, I connected with other people who were doing it and because I liked them I decided that I may as well try it as well. I’m really glad I did! I know that not everyone goes by (or knows about?) Sakai-san’s three golden tadoku rules like I do, but still it was exciting to be part of a group of people all focused on my particular obsession at the moment. I was really happy to watch all my friends just read and read and read, and I hope everyone got something out of it and keeps going! It also made me more aware of how much time I waste doing inconsequential things like reading Metafilter out of habit; I’m going to try to use my time a little more consciously in the future and to stop doing things that are amusing, but don’t help me learn or do something interesting or useful. There are two months until the next round, so if I practice picking up a book or watching something in Japanese online every time I want to load up a non-essential English website, I should have broken the habit by then.

What I want to do now:

1) Keep on reading, of course – but probably dip back down into level 2 books for a little while. Nikkei Bunko has a ton of picture books, and I haven’t even started looking at them. Plus, after writing that vocabulary post, I feel like I ought to take my own advice – in my experience, I generally feel like I get more out of level 3 books because they’re more complex and rich in information, but I learn more basic vocabulary from lower-level books because of the pictures and the lower level of words. So I will see how that little experiment goes.

2) Listen to more Japanese in general. To my surprise, I’ve found that my completely neglected listening ability has improved since I’ve been reading: the words that I’ve seen often enough to recognize them without conscious thought also seem to be easier to understand through my ears, and since I know more words now I can hear them. I’m not trying to say “Do tadoku and your listening ability will improve too!” My guess is that it’s reasonable to think that massive visual input could be linked to the ability to recognize spoken words, especially for a visual learner like me, but the fact is, my listening skill has always been absurdly bad, and although I’ve spent so much time reading and writing, I’ve spent so little time trying to improve my speaking and listening skills that it makes sense that any sort of exposure to Japanese is bound to have some effect.

3) Practice writing more. There was a point in my life where I wrote constantly, about my life, my thoughts, my memories… I can’t seem to do that right now, so what I might try to do instead, at least for now, is practice writing structures that give me trouble. I’m always forgetting how to produce the most basic things — how to ask people for things, how to say I have to do something, anything to do with passive or causative construction. Plus, I want to review some intermediate grammar structures that I only have the most tenuous hold on, and I think framing grammar practice as writing practice is the only way I’m going to actually do it these days. We hates the textbook, yes we do, especially when there are so many pretty books stacked up all over the apartment… I’ll be doing this at my Japanese blog, most likely.

I usually write short reviews of the books I read, too, and I completely neglected that this month! So I’ll have to catch up on that too.

Tagged with:

So I guess if I’ve learned anything about myself from this tadoku contest, it’s not that I have a competitive streak, but that I have a competitive streak that lasts about one week! I read 18,140 words this week, so about the same amount of words this week as last week, putting me at 321,766. I did get in a couple of useful posts, though. I really hope that people find other resources near them and send them to me, because I think the list of locations could be really useful for new readers.

Since the tadoku contest isn’t actually over yet, I’ll keep this update short, but on August 1, I’ll write all about the fun I’ve had! I’m feeling rather more competitive in these last three days, so I’ll keep reading until then.


Help me expand this list! If you know of anywhere outside Japan where you can buy or borrow Japanese children’s books, or if you have more information about any of the places already on this list, e-mail me and let me know. Please include a link, if possible, and a general idea of things like how big the store is or how many books are available. (If it’s a library, see if there’s a way to search for all Japanese children’s books: for example, with the Tacoma library, if you search for “JAJ” (JApanese Juvenile) all the available books are returned.)



Costa Mesa

  • Kinokuniya: I’ve never been to this location but I presume it’s like the one in Seattle: that is, a spectacular source for new Japanese books, including children’s books and manga.

Los Angeles

San Francisco

  • San Francisco Public Library – Western Addition Branch: Only this branch specializes in Japanese books. It is west of SF Japan town. There are hundreds of Japanese kids books. They have all levels from kid’s picture books to juvenile books. They also have adult level books in a different section. (Thanks to Wayne for the description!)
  • Kinokuniya: It’s been many years since I’ve been to this location, but like the Seattle branch, it was, and presumably still is, a huge Japanese-language bookstore with a good selection of children’s books and manga.

San Jose


Ann Arbor


  • Mirai: medium-sized store with a good amount of new and some used books.

New York

New York City





  • The Nashville Public Library: has about 20 children’s books in Japanese, ranging from high level 1 to low level 3. These seem to all be at the main branch. Not much, but it is a place to start. (Thanks to e_dub_kendo for the description!)
  • McKay Used Books: I can’t speak for their other 2 locations, but the Nashville location is an enormous used book store, with an entire bookcase of Asian books. Generally these are about 70% Japanese. I usually only find 1 or 2 children’s books per visit, but there’s always plenty of manga. Prices are incredibly cheap. Generally I pay less than $1 per book. Sometimes you can find manga and light novels in really decent condition being sold for .25 cents. Definitely a resource worth checking out. (Thanks again to e_dub_kendo!)

Washington State

Pierce County

  • Pierce County Library: there are around 800 Japanese books of all levels spread among the various branches, though I can’t say how many of those are children’s books. The Lakewood branch and University Place branch seem to have the most.




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.