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Extensive Reading Basics
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Currently viewing the category: "Extensive Reading Basics"

One thing I worry about, as the tadoku contest becomes more popular, is that beginners will take a look at who’s participating and what many of the top scorers are reading, and conclude that tadoku is for people who are reading at a high level already. I think the format implicitly supports this, even though it’s just trying to make things fair, because if you say that a screen of game text or a page of manga is worth so many fractions of a book page, then it follows that a worthy book page is a book page with a lot of text on it. So if you read books with pictures and not a lot of text per page, it might even feel like you’re not being fair to people who are reading more difficult stuff.

Ideally, I think a tadoku contest based on word count, not pages, would be the most accurate and inclusive (and BlackDragonHunt would still whip us all!) but using pages makes a lot of sense because they’re so easy to keep track of. But please, if you want to try tadoku and participate in the fun, don’t hold back because you think the books you could read aren’t impressive enough, and don’t push yourself to read a book you can’t read fluently.

The way I think about it is, if you’re just starting out and you read 100 pages of picture books with 5 words per page, that’s every bit as awesome as an intermediate reader like me reading 100 pages of a book with 50 words per page. I’m not working ten times as hard as someone who’s just starting to learn Japanese — heck, that beginner is probably working ten times harder than me! I remember what it’s like to start putting everything together and reading native-level material, and it’s not easy. You’ve got to remember all the words you learned in all those Anki sessions, figure out what new words mean without constantly running for the dictionary, understand what the sentences mean without having a translation to check, and, if it’s really early on in the process, go from decoding one hiragana at a time to reading words, then phrases at a time. You couldn’t pay me enough to go through that again. (Those of you who continue on to Chinese or Korean after learning Japanese, I salute you.)

I’m reminded of the parable of the widow’s mite, where the tiny amount of money the poor woman donated was worth more in God’s eyes than the huge amounts of money offered by rich men, because for her it was a true sacrifice. Someone who’s already read a lot is used to a lot of sentence patterns, can read hiragana and a lot of kanji automatically, commands a decent amount of vocabulary and should be good at figuring out the meanings of unknown words without even consciously thinking about it. So readers like me are coasting along on our metaphorical riches, while the beginning reader is just starting to jingle a few coins together. But the reading that beginners are doing is proportionally as challenging for them as a more advanced book is for an intermediate learner, and it deserves respect.

So even if you’re just reading ぐりとぐら*, as long as you feel like you’re getting something out of it, you’re challenging yourself and, most importantly, you’re enjoying it, then I believe that you’re doing wonderfully and you ought to be proud of yourself. We all learn to read by reading, so whatever level you’re at, getting used to reading fluently can only be a benefit for you. The contest aspect of the tadoku challenge is fun and all, but in the end we’re all in it not to prove something to each other, but to improve ourselves.

Tadoku is for everyone.
Don’t wait until you’ve finished learning every kanji.
Don’t spend an hour trying to piece together one page of one book.
Don’t be embarrassed to practice by reading easy books.
Just get on Twitter, type @TadokuBot #reg, then find something fun on Ehon Navi.
Let’s start 2014 off right with some reading!

Looking for some suggestions?
あるひ こねこね (One Day, *knead knead*, 45 words)
I really think everyone ought to read this one, because who doesn’t love stories about aliens making funny noises? But at 45 words, it’s suited for beginners.

あかにんじゃ (The Red Ninja, 200 words)
This surreal story of a shape-changing ninja is a step or two more difficult at 200 words.

かもとりごんべえ (Gonbe the Duck Hunter, 450 words)
This whole dang book is an excuse to set up an atrocious pun.

* ぐりとぐら (Guri and Gura) is the story of two little mice who do some cooking. It’s a picture book that’s probably as familiar to most Japanese people as “Goodnight Moon” is to Americans.


Ordering New Books

Ordering new books is a pretty straightforward process, but the price you’ll pay can vary wildly: I’ve listed four options here, and for the record I’d probably go with Kinokuniya myself. All information may change, so please check shipping rates and so on yourself before ordering.



  • Huge selection; many books can be special ordered
  • The prices are fair: they’re generally about the same as ordering a new book from a Japanese online store, once shipping is taken into account. (Sometimes they’re rather more expensive, sometimes they’re actually cheaper)
  • If you order $100 worth of books from the same store, shipping is free. (This may also apply to $100 worth of books that are special ordered, but I haven’t done that yet so I can’t verify it.)
  • Shipping is very reasonable: between $6 and $10 based on the value of your order (not weight), and free if you buy $100 worth of books from the same store
  • You can buy a Kinokuniya membership for $20 that gives you 10% off any books you buy
  • To a limited degree, you can switch between Japanese and English text; there’s also ordering information written in English and customer service in English
  • No handling fee


  • Shipping is only combined if you order books from the same store, so you can’t get free shipping if you order $50 worth of books from the Seattle store and $50 from the San Francisco store
  • Website is horrible to navigate: there’s no good way to browse books, you can’t filter results by availability or which store they’re in, and there are no extra services like links to related books or wishlists
  • I don’t know if you can buy a membership online or over the phone, and I’m not sure if you can get your discount if you’re ordering online; I’ve been told that you just write down your number when you make your order; I’ve also read that it can’t be used for online orders. I haven’t tested it myself, yet.



  • Seems to have a very large selection
  • Unlike, there’s no handling fee; the base prices seem to be about the same, so this alone makes bk1 a consistently better option than Amazon
  • You can choose several different shipping options, and your shipping cost will be based on the weight of your books and the shipping option you choose


  • It’s all in Japanese, so may be intimidating
  • Overseas shipping costs are determined after your order is placed, so it’s hard to estimate how large your order will be or how many shipments it will wind up being



  • All in English; may be the easiest for beginners to navigate
  • Decent selection
  • Free shipping on orders over $39
  • Children’s books sorted by categories
  • No handling fee


  • Slightly higher prices than Kinokuniya; the lower threshold for free shipping may balance this out if you are only ordering a few books
  • The selection doesn’t seem as large as that of the other sites


  • Huge selection
  • Site is easy to navigate: English options if you need them, wish list, book recommendations, reviews, same general setup as the English amazon
  • Fast delivery
  • If you’re in Japan, or have someone to send them to, domestic shipping for new books is free and there’s no handling fee.


  • Just one option for shipping outside Japan, which is International Express Shipping, 2-5 days, ¥2,700 (to North America); it’s a flat fee, so even if you’re just ordering one book you pay the whole ¥2,700
  • There is a 300 yen handling fee per item
  • These two considerations mean that one of the other stores are almost always going to be cheaper

Unanswered Questions

  • You pay 2700 yen per shipment, and it seems unconnected to the weight; would it be possible to order a large shipment of books for the same shipping fee? The book’s full price + 300 yen fee would probably make that no better than ordering from another store, but I’m curious. There must be a catch!

Ordering Used Books Online

If you’re at all able to order used, do so! Many books are so cheap used that even with the cost of shipping, they’re still a much better deal than new books.

I’ve found one used bookseller that will ship overseas, Ehon Seikatu, and would always like to hear about more! Unfortunately, many other used booksellers won’t ship overseas or won’t combine shipping, so you either have to be in Japan or ask a friend in Japan to let you use their address when ordering, then repack and send the books to you, after which you would repay the cost of shipping (and send a thank you note and something nice).

There are buying services who can do the same thing, but for a product as cheap as used books, the handling fee they charge per item would mean it’d probably be just as sensible to buy the book new. (Let me know if you find any reasonable services.)

For English information on shipping from Japan, read the Japan Post’s website. I’m both cheap and patient, so I always go with surface mail, which costs ¥2,700 (around $35) for the largest possible shipment (5,000 grams, about 11 pounds) and takes 1-3 months.

Ehon Seikatu (Picture Book Life)

  • They will ship overseas!
  • Good selection, lots of ways to find books (by series, by target age group)
  • There doesn’t seem to be any sort of handling fee (although there could be one that I’ve overlooked – let me know if you buy from them)
  • You can search by price range
  • :


  • If you use something like Rikaichan to navigate complicated websites in Japanese, the graphics-based interface will frustrate you
  • Shipping costs are calculated after you place your order
  • Does seem to be really just picture books Marketplace


  • Can use the easy-to-use Amazon system to find books
  • Many books available, many of them very cheap (as cheap as ¥1)
  • Condition of each book described in detail and rated as 可 (fair), 良い (good), 非常に良い (very good) ほぼ新品 (nearly new). (Buyer beware, of course, but the 可 and 良い books I’ve bought have seemed to me to be perfectly fine.)
  • No handling fee


  • For domestic shipping, there’s a ¥250 yen fee for each book
  • Many sellers won’t ship overseas, and for those that can, shipping can’t be combined, so you would be paying 1 yen for the book and the full price (¥2,700) to ship it
  • Not all books are particularly cheaper used, or even available used

Book-off online


  • Many used books at really low prices
  • For domestic orders, if you order more than ¥1,500 at one time, shipping is free
  • So if a book is ¥1 on Amazon and ¥250 or less on book-off online, and you’re buying enough at once to get the free shipping, book-off online is the better choice
  • No handling fee


  • Not as much selection as Amazon’s marketplace
  • No indication of condition for individual books, if that matters to you (everything I’ve got from them has been fine, so YMMV)
  • They will not ship overseas

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.


“Don’t use a dictionary when you’re reading” is the first of the three extensive reading principles my friends told me about — and yet it took me months to stop using one. I rationalized it, telling myself that I remembered words and their associated kanji more efficiently if I looked them up, that looking up a word on my computer took such a short time that it didn’t break my flow, that with limited access to books I had to squeeze all the utility from them that I could. These things weren’t not true. But the two largest reasons I clung to the dictionary were because I felt intensely uncomfortable when I didn’t know a word and years of formal classes in Japanese and French had trained me to look up everything.

When I stopped using the dictionary, it felt like a sacrifice. It didn’t seem like it would actually make that big of a difference, and it felt like I was actively throwing away a useful resource: I stopped only because I had faith in those three extensive reading principles.

Now I’ve been consistently reading without a dictionary for about three months, and if I’m reading a book within my level, I’ve learned to unconsciously use the surrounding words, pictures and grammatical context to figure out unknown words. For example, this sentence from Roald Dahl’s “The Giraffe And The Pelly And Me” (こちらゆかいな窓ふき会社, about a level 4 book by my system) provides an opportunity to illustrate my thought process:


The three words I didn’t immediately know in this sentence were ふろおけ, すさまじい and くだける. As I read ふろおけ, I first slotted it as a noun I didn’t know because it was preceded by a な adjective and followed by the particle が. So some unknown, but large, noun flew out of the window. I associated it with ふろ and ふろしき, but at the time didn’t have much else to go on (and it could have been entirely unrelated to either) so I continued. すさまじい is an い adjective and describes 音, and I can assume that this word describes the sound of some big thing flying out of a third floor window and landing in the middle of a street. As for the last one, its ending and placement in the sentence made it obvious that it was a verb, and by this time I had so much extra information that I quickly reformulated the sentence in English, in the form of a fill-in-the-blank test:

“Suddenly, a big __________ (noun) flew out of the third floor window, fell right in the middle of the street and, causing a __________ (adjective) noise, __________ (verb)!”
(My apologies to Roald Dahl. The purpose of these mental fill-in-the-blank tests is just to quickly isolate and identify unknown words.)

I can’t really figure out what “noun” and “adjective” are just from a sentence like this — although I start to have an idea about the adjective, and I imagine it to be unpleasant — but there are a limited amount of verbs that make sense in context. Something in the range of “broke” or “smashed” or “crashed,” perhaps?

So from one read-through of the sentence, I’m fairly sure I understand one of my three unknown words, and I’ve got a good lead on another. At this point, I assume that if the first one happens to be important it’ll show up again, or that there is a possibility of figuring it out from whatever comes next. Sure enough, a toilet follows the ふろおけ out the window, lending some weight to the idea that this word is related to ふろ. It makes sense, insofar as it makes sense at all. And in this case, the book has pictures, and on the next page there is a lovely illustration of a toilet sailing through the air, soon to join a smashed bathtub.

So now I know for sure that ふろおけ is “bathtub” (and I would have been about 80% sure without the picture) and from that, I can conclude that すさまじい, whatever other meanings it may have, at the very least holds the meaning of “the sound a bathtub makes when it flies out of a third story window and crashes on the ground.” That’s not the dictionary definition, perhaps, but it’s a good start.

In this case, ふろおけ was figured out mostly from the surrounding words and the picture and slightly through grammatical context, すさまじい from both the surrounding words and grammatical context, and くだける mostly through grammatical context and slightly from the surrounding words. Now that I’m writing about them for my blog I’m likely to remember all of them, but in the course of normal reading I would probably remember ふろおけ forever, as it’s a very basic word, it’s connected to another very basic word and it flew out of a third floor window. I might have a chance of remembering くだける and すさまじい, depending on what context they appeared in and how soon I saw them again. However, even if I hadn’t been able to guess a single one of them, I still would have been able to derive considerable meaning from the sentence because it’s at my fluent reading level and because I’ve stopped focusing on individual words. If a word is important to the story, it’ll be repeated and I’ll pick it up eventually, and if it’s an important part of the language at this level, it’ll be repeated in this book or another one. So I can still form a picture of the meaning even without knowing every single word my eyes pass over. (And if I can’t, then I skip it and keep going, and then if I keep having that problem that just means the book is still above my level and it’s time for another one.)

I’ve detailed my thought process here, but when I was actually reading, this was all nearly unconscious and almost instantaneous. This ability to figure things out almost immediately from grammatical context, surrounding words and pictures is what I got in exchange for sacrificing my dictionary habit and my pride. The dictionary would have delivered the same result in about the same time frame (assuming I didn’t get distracted by checking Twitter), but relying on it never gave me an opportunity to develop those skills. I also think that practicing on short, simple sentences made it easier to guess words, again aiding in the skill development.

When I first started reading without a dictionary, I felt as if I was just reinforcing the vocabulary I already knew and not learning new words, and I felt uneasy about the idea that I was just staying in place. (I even wrote about it in my first weekly update.) At first, as a bargain with myself, I would look up words after I finished a book. Later on, I would look up some words after I finished a book. Now I look up words only if I really liked the book or I was particularly curious about the word for some reason. I know I hardly retain everything I figure out in this way, but I do feel like I remember enough that I don’t worry about whether or not I’m learning enough vocabulary.

The only thing I miss about using a dictionary is making the connections with kanji. For example, すさまじい is also written 凄まじい. I know 凄い, so that’s another clue I could have used if the word had been written in kanji, and it’s something I would have missed if I hadn’t looked up these words while writing this blog entry. This may not be a problem for those of you who actually memorize on’yomi and kun’yomi properly: I can’t for the life of me remember those readings in isolation, so I don’t even bother trying anymore. Still, as the books I read get more advanced, more kanji starts to appear — which often actually makes them easier. Actually, I mentioned earlier that I guessed that ふろおけ was “bathtub” because the next big noun to appear was “toilet,” but the truth is that I didn’t know the word for toilet before, either. But it happens to be 便器, and it happened to be written in kanji, and so it immediately made sense to me because I’m familiar with both of those kanji already. I often think it’s funny that extensive reading has a large following among Japanese people learning to read English, but because of kanji, the technique is perfectly suited for those of us who are learning to read Japanese!

If the idea of extensive reading appeals to you, but you’re hesitant to stop using the dictionary, I hope this will encourage you to give it a try. For me, it’s proving to be a central part of the process, even though I didn’t understand what the big deal was when I first read about the three principles.


One of the biggest problems with extensive reading for people studying Japanese is that having ample amounts of reading material is the cornerstone of the whole experience, but it’s hard to get that reading material for those of us not in Japan. Particularly at the beginning stages of learning a language, there’s the twin demons of scarcity and expense: at the moment, if you don’t have a teacher who’s into extensive reading or access to a well-stocked library, there aren’t too many alternatives to buying books, probably online, and that’s an expensive proposition.

I’m going to write more about ways of getting books, but for now I’m just going to write about the best methods I’ve found:

Buying used books

The cheapest possible way I’ve found to get books so far is to buy them used, have them sent to a friend’s address in Japan, then have your friend box them up and ship them through surface mail.

There’s two sites I’ve used to order books so far: and book-off online. Amazon has, by far, the larger selection, and many books are quite cheap used; however, there’s a shipping fee of ¥250 for all used books. If they’re new, the shipping is free. Book-off online has fewer books, but its major advantage is that shipping is free if you buy more than ¥1,500 worth of books. So for books that you want, look them up on both sites; add ¥250 to any used book price you see on Amazon, then compare prices. As far as I know, you can’t combine shipping for used books through Amazon’s resellers. (Drat.)

This requires knowing what books you want, which is tough if you can’t see the actual text… That’s why I’m particularly interested in finding series of slightly old books, books with multiple stories in one volume and books that are particularly long for their level.

The books should be sent as printed matter, and there’s a 5 kg (11 pound) weight limit (2 kg, or 4.4 pounds, for books sent to Ireland or Canada). Sent through surface mail, which will take 1-3 months, it should be around ¥2700 for a package right at the weight limit. Emmie was able to send sixteen books in one package to me in this way, but it will depend on how heavy your books are — a lot of the ones she sent me were picture books, so were relatively thin. (That package arrived in about a month and a half.) For repaying the shipping fee, you could use PayPal or buy an gift card.

Of course, there’s always the problem of finding someone who’ll help you with this. I’m lucky that Emmie is kind enough to do this for me, but even though she’s got a heart as big as a house I can’t exactly volunteer her to everyone learning Japanese! It’s a big favor to ask of someone, and if Emmie hadn’t initially offered, I’d probably still be just thinking about it as a potential plan. I wonder if there’d be a possibility of one of the Japanese buying services out there like J-List or White Rabbit offering collections of cheap used books at various difficulty levels, or about collections of subjects?

Buying new books

If there’s a new book you want, it seems that it’s usually just about as cost-effective to buy it from Kinokuniya as it would be to buy it on, because the markup isn’t generally too bad and shipping is reasonable (and is even free if you buy more than $100 at once). (Shipping new books directly through is pretty darned expensive: ¥2,700 per shipment of books/videos to North America, plus a ¥300 handling charge per item.) YesAsia is also a possibility; their prices are usually higher than Kinokuniya’s, but they offer free shipping starting at $39, so depending on how much you’re ordering it could even out.

I’ve found Kinokuniya’s website to be a little hard to navigate. For example, you can get free shipping if you order $100 worth of books at one time, but those books all have to be from the same store. So if you ordered $50 of books from the Seattle store and $50 of books from the San Francisco store, you wouldn’t get the free shipping. However, you can’t search for book availability by store, so if you were bent on getting that free shipping you would have to keep directly searching for books you wanted until you found enough of them at the same store. Luckily, regular shipping isn’t horribly expensive. You can also special order books, and as I understand it, you can direct them to ship all of the special ordered books at once, meaning you should be able to combine the shipping. However, I haven’t ordered anything from Kinokuniya online yet; when I do I’ll write more about it.

Kanjiguy suggested bk1, which is based in Japan and all in Japanese; it offers more shipping options than Amazon does, and there’s no handling fee. Read through the shipping options before placing an order, if you go with them, because shipping overseas seems to be calculated only after your order is complete, so you can’t compare the final price effectively.

I’ll leave it there for now; if I’m missing something about either of these methods, or if there’s a cheaper way of getting books that you can think of, please let me know!


I forgot to mention one thing in yesterday’s manifesto: I keep track of my progress by the number of words I’ve read. My initial goal, like that of many other beginning extensive readers, is to read a million words. I track my progress because it’s motivating and doesn’t take much time, and I started by using words instead of number of books or number of pages because that is what my friends doing extensive reading in English do, but I’ve stayed with it because it reflects effort better: with number of books, one 2,000 word book doesn’t seem as impressive as five 400 word books, and with pages, a book with 1,500 words and one with 3,000 words might be just as long, but the easier book has bigger text and more pictures.

I estimate the number of words by flipping through the book and trying to find a page with a moderate amount of text; some pages have more, some pages have less, so I look for one that’s about in the middle. Then, I count the number of words. I omit particles but count things such as ながら and まで, and I count long verbs separately — that is, something like 描いてくれました would be two words, in my system. I tend to round down – so if there’s 37 words on the page, I’ll count it as 35. Then I count the number of pages with text on them — not the total number of pages — and multiply that by my representative word count.

I think the system’s biggest flaw is that I decided not to count particles, and now I think I should have; English word counts include words like “a” and “the,” and particles are hardly just empty characters. So now I suspect I’m significantly low-balling my word counts, and that a million words by my system would be a lot more than a million words of English. That actually feels right, because I feel I’m a lot closer to my goal than my current percentage of 16% would indicate. I bet that character count would be the best way to keep track of progress, because that you could theoretically do accurately — you’d probably just need cooperation from publishers.

Still, even if my system is objectively wrong, it’s at least consistent. There are exceptions, but a level 1 book is usually between 50-100 words, level 2 books between 100-1,000 words, level 3 books between 1,000-3,000 words, level 4 books between 3,000-5,000 words and level 5 books between 5,000-10,000 words.

I also use 読書メーター (Reading Meter) to track what I’ve read; it has graphs that show the total number of pages and total number of books read. I don’t really have any reason to do so, other than that I am a sucker for cheerful graphs.

I don’t mind the inaccuracy at the moment (I like having a crazy goal) but it might be worth revisiting. Thoughts?


I’ve been thinking about a post on Ryan Layman’s blog about how he recommends avoiding children’s books. It’s apparent I take precisely the opposite approach, but that post made me spend some time thinking about why I think extensive reading starting with extremely basic books is worth my time and that of other learners, as previously my reasons didn’t go much deeper than “This is what works for people I know, it’s currently working for me and I enjoy it!” I am all for doing whatever complements your personal learning style to gain fluency, and I’m by no means interested in insisting that all Japanese learners do exactly what I’m doing. I do think, however, that there are advantages to this method that greatly outweigh the disadvantages of being initially limited to materials meant for children and not reinforcing kanji through reading, and I would suggest that other learners consider adding it to whatever they already enjoy doing.

The most basic reason I’ve started with children’s books is that I’m mimicking what I’ve seen work for my Japanese friends who introduced me to extensive reading. In October 2009, I started using lang-8, which is a site where people write diaries in their target language and native speakers of that language correct their writing for them. I met a couple of people through lang-8 who were into extensive reading (多読 — tadoku in Japanese), and the first thing I noticed was that their English writing was admirably fluent. Keep in mind that my job is reading and evaluating essays written in English by non-native speakers for eight hours at a time, so I’m sensitive to differences in writing ability. They wrote at a high level, but in a different way from people who had lived abroad for a significant period of time, and also in a different way from people who had obviously also spent a great deal of time studying and using English, but hadn’t used the same method. I soon learned that they enjoyed reading in English and had started with extremely simple children’s books, but now were able to pick up books as advanced as the Sherlock Holmes stories and Confessions of a Shopaholic and read them rapidly and accurately.

It was from them that I learned the three principles of extensive reading that they followed:
1. Don’t look up words in the dictionary.
2. Skip over parts you don’t understand.
3. If you aren’t enjoying one book, toss it aside and get another.
These principles were created by Kunihide Sakai, a retired English professor who champions extensive reading, and loosely translated from his site

I started learning Japanese because I studied Japanese literature in college and I’m a fan of Japanese video games, so my most cherished goal in terms of my language studies is to be able to read Japanese at an adult level for fun. In other words, what they had was what I wanted, and if they got there by reading nothing but kids’ books for a year, then by golly I was not too proud to read nothing but kids’ books for a year. I have always loved reading in English, so for me the idea of improving through lots and lots of reading makes intuitive sense and plays to my strengths. I’m willing to follow the path that’s already been laid out because it happens to mesh with my personality and I have evidence it works for someone who’s dedicated.

To recap my approach, I follow the three principles listed above*, I keep track of the number of words I’ve read, and I started reading with extremely simple children’s books. When I say “extremely simple” here, I don’t mean “Harry Potter” or “short stories by Haruki Murakami.” I mean “Miffy In The Tent” and “Kumako-chan’s Polka Dot Handkerchief”: books that were well below what I could actually comprehend. (Heck, according to this interview with Professor Sakai, he started students off with books where the only text was in the title. That’s pretty hardcore.)

I consider fluent reading to be reading without translation and with a high degree of understanding at a speed comparable to my English reading speed. Books within one’s fluent reading level should have between zero and four unknown words per page; more unknown words than that, and it starts to impede understanding. I personally prefer books that are just a shade or two below my fluent reading level, but books that are at my fluent reading level are all right, too; however, I avoid books above my fluent reading level. I don’t use a dictionary while reading, and it took me a while to gain the confidence I needed to do this, but after I stopped, I started seeing more benefits from my reading and enjoying it more. On occasion I will look up something after I have finished a book, but I would rather go on to the next book instead.

*There’s one exception to this: if I’m bored with a book, but it’s within my level and I’m not actually having trouble with the content, I keep reading it so I can add it to the list in hopes that the knowledge may be useful to someone else. If I wasn’t doing this sort of blog, I would happily chuck such books off to the side.

My reading skill has improved noticeably since I started extensive reading, particularly in the months after I finally broke the habit of using a dictionary and started reading more and more, so at least in my case I can say that this method is paying off. When I started dabbling in extensive reading last spring, I started off at about level 2, when I started my blog about three months ago, I had been devoting more time to reading for a couple of months and I was about at level 3 or 4, and now I consider level 5 books within my fluent reading level and Japanese I read online seems to jump into my eyes differently than it did before.

I do think it’s crucial to stay with text within your fluent reading level and not to use a dictionary while reading, because I have experience with doing just the opposite and it did not give me these kinds of results. For example, I spent hours and hours playing Japanese RPGs long before I heard of extensive reading; I was highly motivated to understand them, and there’s no doubt that they exposed me to a great deal of text. I think that, more than anything else, was what helped me understand Japanese as a flexible, living language and not a collection of set phrases and grammar rules, and I did improve my reading and my recognition of kanji while playing them: I feel, however, that in terms of overall reading skill extensive reading has been of more value to me. That is, spending a great deal of time and effort on understanding a video game that was well above my level but of great personal interest improved my ability to play that particular video game, but only helped me slightly with the next one. Extensive reading has helped me improve my basic reading skill, which makes everything a little easier, including video games.

I also tried regular reading long before I heard of extensive reading. I picked up books that looked interesting, books that looked like they should be simple and books I had already read in English, and then I spent who knows how long poring over them, looking up vocabulary words and making hopeful little flashcard sets. I rarely got more than a chapter in. I thought the problem was with me, and I just needed to practice more and stop giving up so easily, but now I can see that I was just setting my sights too high without having the broad base of vocabulary and reading experience necessary for such material.

I also spent a great deal of time using lang-8 before I even tried extensive reading, both writing diaries and responding to comments and messages in Japanese: this definitely helped my reading skill, as this kind of text was very different from video game Japanese. Before I started, piecing together the meaning of a long and complicated message in Japanese easily took me all day; after four or five months, that dropped to a few hours. However, it was still essentially decoding. I was able to comprehend the text, that is, but it wasn’t at all within my fluent reading level.

These three experiences, combined with the results I’ve seen from low-level extensive reading, make me believe that it isn’t just exposure to large amounts of interesting, but high-level text that makes the difference. I learned a lot about reading from video games, the books I tried to read and lang-8, but I think that it was reading a huge amount of text well within my fluent reading level that had the greatest effect on my basic reading skill; I perceive that it’s changed something about the way I process Japanese that doing a great deal of decoding, being exposed to lots of high-level text and even near-daily writing didn’t. Obviously I’ve been spending much of my free time on extensive reading lately, but I’ve spent much more energy on trying to read videogames, high-level books and lang-8 comments, so I don’t think the effort I’ve expended on extensive reading is the deciding factor. I think it’s just the case that successful, comfortable reading leads to improvement in one’s reading skill more than anything else does.

I should note, as well, that my own personality and what I’m trying to do with this blog affect the way I approach reading. I personally get uncomfortable if I know I’m not understanding something, so I have a tendency to read below my fluent reading level as long as I have enough material to do so. The jargon I would use, if I was writing about myself as part of a study, is “nonexistent low ambiguity tolerance.” Others might prefer to push themselves, and that’s an equally valid approach: part of the benefit of starting with extremely simple books is that you learn what fluent reading feels like to you, so as you improve, as long as you’re honest with yourself about where the boundary between “challenging but within fluent reading level” and “too hard” lies, you’re fine. After all, rule 3 (stop reading a book you don’t enjoy) applies not only to books that are too hard, but also to books that are distractingly easy.

Also, I hope to introduce extensive reading to other Japanese learners in the area, so I feel like I have to know more about the level 1 and 2 books I have access to so that I can help even beginning learners get into extensive reading as well. If it wasn’t for that, I’d be well done with level 1 and 2 books, except for ones that are particularly fun like the ばけばけ町 books.

So I want to emphasize that starting extensive reading is not the same as sentencing yourself to easy books forever. That said, even though doing extensive reading doesn’t necessarily mean you would have to stick with low-level children’s books as long as I have, here’s why I believe they have value.

In my opinion, there are four things you can get from reading anything:

1) The sense of satisfaction you get from understanding and finishing the text

This feeling is something you might not think a well-adjusted adult would get out of reading an easy book, but when that book is in another language, it changes the entire context. Before you can read a book in Japanese, even an easy one, you have to tie together a great deal of knowledge. You have to be able to link a syllable’s pronunciation to the writing system, know how to separate words and particles, be able to quickly recall vocabulary, use grammar knowledge to understand the intended meaning, cope with non-standard uses of the language and be able to skip over or figure out unknown words from context. Not only that, but you have to learn to do all these things automatically, so you can pay attention to the story, messages and background information. Reading a book within your fluent reading level is the culmination of a great deal of effort; looking down on it as something even children can do is missing the point.

2) The actual information presented in the text

For a fiction book, this is the story, and for a non-fiction book, it’s the information about whatever the subject is, sometimes presented as a story. At any difficulty level, there are books with excellent stories or nicely presented information. Not all of them, it’s true, as Sturgeon’s Law holds in this field as surely as it does in any other. Enough, though, to make it impossible to dismiss every single one of them; enough to make it worth your time to find books that amuse you while helping you reach your reading goals.

Particularly at the higher levels – say, high level three and over – it becomes easier to find books with engaging stories. (Picture books that stand out, I find, mostly do so because of their pictures, although some are genuinely witty and pleasurable to read.) For me personally, dealing with the easier books was not a problem because I like fairy tales, stories about children and nonsensical fantasy, but even for someone with a lower tolerance for such things, I think much of what I’ve read could be interesting. I joke about reading lots of stories about happy bears baking cakes, but that’s really just a small part of what I’ve read; more memorable are the stories where I got a peek into a family’s joys and arguments or the ones about a child’s struggles with school and daily life. Also, because of this project, I’ve read about subjects as varied as daily life in the Edo period, how monkeys hang out in onsens in the winter and how Sun Tzu got a group of concubines to act like soldiers.

So when I say that it can be worth an adult’s time to read kids’ books for their content, I don’t mean that you’re somehow a better and more pure person if you can enjoy fairytales. I think that good books for children can add value to an adult perspective on life or contain useful information. “Children’s book” doesn’t automatically mean “fluffy, mindless dreck written to torment children and bore adults.”

3) Some form of improvement in your language skill

That is, reading aids in reinforcing vocabulary and structures you already know and becoming able to understand them automatically, learning new words and collocations, identifying who’s talking about what and so on. It also includes the development of high-level skills such as being able to recognize differences in writing styles, forming a sense of what constitutes good writing and bad writing and being able to complete sentences that are left unfinished. Every book within your fluent reading level that is able to sustain your interest long enough to finish it will help you develop these skills.

Reading is sometimes a more frustrating way of learning vocabulary than flashcards are, but I’ve found that puzzling out an isolated word from context makes it more thoroughly mine. If I make a vocabulary list of 100 unknown words from one book the odds are high I will only remember a small number of them, but if I read 100 books that draw on that pool of unknown words, every time the words are repeated in a different context they become a little more accessible to me and I have a better chance of figuring out what they mean and retaining them. Plus, an interesting book provides an opportunity to create an emotional connection with a word in context, making it much more likely I’ll remember it.

Low-level books also create a great environment for learning words: as you read you’re automatically and repeatedly exposed to the words used for things like descriptions of characters and places, connections between thoughts, details of the actions and movements characters make and so on. Finally, don’t underestimate what a tremendous advantage pictures are! I hardly realized this until I started reading picture books, but the pictures aren’t just there to amuse the reader: they’re there to help readers make a connection between the information they already know and the information in the story. I find that if I don’t know one pivotal word, I often don’t remember the words that support it, but once I get that pivotal word, the others just fall into place; a picture is a shortcut to realizing what that word might be.

4) Background information about the cultural context of the story

Every book is sharing messages and information with you that aren’t immediately obvious. Even the most basic kids’ book says things like “Authors, publishers, librarians, teachers and parents think that this material is appropriate, both in terms of language and content, for children” and “Children are expected to like this material and the way it is presented.” Underlying messages may be obvious in things like fables and heavy-handed kids’ books (“Bullying is bad,” perhaps, or “It’s good to be friends”) and much less of a presence in other works, where the message may be as vague as “This subject deserves attention” or “This is the sort of thing I hope will make me money.” On a higher level, each book will have linguistic information such as “Refined women talk in this particular way” or “This is how someone might reply to a question when they don’t want to answer it” as well as background cultural information such as “This is how a couple might fight,” “Children love curry rice,” “Here is how to make friends,” “It’s acceptable for a married couple to live separately because of work obligations,” and so on.

All these things are fascinating to me, and so much of it you can’t necessarily get anywhere else: even if you live in Japan, for example, you aren’t likely to have a window into the daily dynamics of a first-grade classroom unless you happen to work in a school. This may be part of why I don’t feel bored or condescended to by even a simple book: as an adult raised in another culture, I feel rather like an alien researcher at times.

I’ll be quite honest: out of, say, a hundred books that I’ve read, I would only buy about five of them. There are about ten more that I’m content letting the library store for me, if I want to re-read them at some point. The remaining eighty-five? I can honestly say I enjoyed most of them, and every single one of them helped improve my reading skill and provided me with some sort of background information, but they weren’t terribly memorable and I’m never going to read them again. To put it another way, those books were fodder. My only requirement was that they be interesting enough to keep me reading until the end, because I wasn’t reading them for their own sake: I was reading them to add what I can to the broad base of vocabulary, cultural knowledge and so on that I will need to read higher-level texts. So you could say that in terms of extensive reading I value a book for three things: its story or information, its background information and messages, and its potential to add to my language skill. I can’t think of a single book I’ve read that has failed me on all three counts.

Not everyone will want to spend their time reading a book only for the benefit of being exposed to its sentence structures and background information, which is part of why I’m writing about these books as I go, in hopes that other readers can go straight for ones that sound interesting. There are enough Japanese children’s books that it should be possible to read hundreds that not only build your skill and background knowledge but are all interesting or informative in their own right, and spend little or no time with happy talking animals if that is what you prefer. Unfortunately, as far as I know, English speakers learning Japanese don’t have the extensive reading resources that Japanese speakers learning English do, so the biggest problem with extensive reading is neither starting at a low level nor the lack of kanji, but instead identifying and gathering the required materials. This is something I will be writing about a good deal in the future. (And by now, I imagine you believe me when I say I can write a good deal about something.)

If it is genuinely so boring to read a couple thousand words of kids’ books that it hampers your overall progress, by all means don’t do it. But I think for many people, the issue isn’t whether or not it’s boring, because we as language learners are used to repetitive tasks and delayed gratification; the problem is the ego getting in the way. If you think less of yourself, or think others will think less of you, for spending time on books you wouldn’t even look at were they in English, if you get annoyed at picking up a kids’ book and finding words you don’t know, or if you don’t see the point of reading easy things and think that it would be more worthwhile to spend your time on something harder, even if it’s outside of your fluent reading level, that all will affect how you approach extensive reading. Picking up an easy book can feel like admitting, to yourself and to the whole world, that after all of your hard work on kanji and particles and advanced vocabulary, this is still the level that’s comfortable for you. I sympathize. I mean, I’m writing this blog, so I really have admitted to the whole world “I love the Miffy books!” Add that to the feeling that you might have to bore yourself with several expensive books worth of baby bunnies, and I can see why someone wouldn’t want to try it: God knows grammar is boring, too, but at least it doesn’t make you feel ridiculous. The easy books stage is, however, just temporary, and it’s in service to the larger goal of reading whatever you want.

I do agree that the lack of kanji in easier books is backwards and annoying to adult learners who have been learning kanji nearly from the beginning of their studies, and books written in all or mostly hiragana are harder than books at the same level with a generous amount of kanji. Hiragana prevents you from making those connections between words that kanji is so useful for; there has been more than one time where I’ve been reading a book and thought “I can guess the meaning of this unknown word just fine from context, but if it was written in kanji, I’d have a much better chance of remembering it next time I see it.” It also aids quick, automatic vocabulary recognition, which is a big part of reading, because it’s slightly faster to read kanji that you know than the corresponding hiragana. Also, when I’m reading a long string of hiragana with no spaces, the more unknown words it contains, the more likely it is that I’m barely paying attention by the end of the sentence, because it becomes frustrating to try to understand which word ends where. Kanji almost serves the purpose that spaces do in English, because even if you’ve never seen the kanji before in your life it at least tells you “This probably starts a new word.”

The lack of kanji just isn’t a dealbreaker for me, though, because I don’t read to improve my kanji: I read to improve my reading. Reading ability is not solely based on how much kanji you know: it’s the simultaneous application of several skills, of which kanji knowledge is just one. Not to downplay the importance of kanji, because it really is the largest barrier to full literacy in Japanese, but you also have to be able to understand complex sentences without having to stop and think about them, sort out and make use of unknown information, read long strings of hiragana, read words without depending on the kanji (as sometimes authors choose to not use kanji for stylistic reasons, or play around with differences between the expected reading and the given one), predict upcoming content, supplement the text with the cultural information you already know and summon your entire stock of vocabulary. In any case, as my reading level increases kanji starts making its way into the picture, and I predict that most of my goal words will be supplied by level 5 and 6 books, so I don’t think that I’ll be missing out on kanji practice over the long term. Ideally, kanji and reading should reinforce each other, and I personally love kanji, but if I’ve got to choose between them for now I choose to spend my time reading. There are other ways to study kanji, but the only way to improve your reading skill is to read, and in my experience reading above your fluent reading level is not as effective as reading within it.

This is slightly off-topic, but a big reason I’m writing about why I believe extensive reading is a worthwhile technique is that I cannot be the only slow language learner out there! A lot of the writing done by native English speakers about extensive reading in Japanese presumes a high level of fluency, and a lot of people who want to try reading in Japanese start with Haruki Murakami or Harry Potter or their favorite manga. If you can honestly say you read those things quickly — comparable to your English reading speed, and without translation — and you only run into two or three unknown words per page which you can figure out from context or skip over without sacrificing understanding, then that’s fantastic. But I think that this can give the impression that extensive reading is only for people who could pass JLPT 1, or that reading comes naturally to a lucky few but if you can’t understand high-level books right off the bat, the problem is with you and you should continue studying textbooks until you can read these sorts of texts. I think it’s just the other way around: even beginning students should be able to get something out of extensive reading, and if they learn basic skills such as learning to deal with unknown words and quickly reading hiragana near the beginning of their studies, I would guess that such skills combined with whatever else they do to study should help them become proficient readers.

So there you have it: an overview of why I practice extensive reading, the reasons I think that starting with children’s books isn’t a drawback and my thoughts about reading and kanji. I hope that this has been of some interest to you and, even if it doesn’t sound like your thing, that it made you think about your own tactics and approach to reading. And yes, I hope you try extensive reading and try it in this particular way, and that you love it, write excited blog posts about it and spread the word about tadoku!

If you’d like to know more about extensive reading, I suggest you start with these pages:

  • “What Is Extensive Reading?” by the Japanese Graded Readers Research Group, which created and published the only extensive readers currently available for Japanese learners.
  • The Extensive Reading Pages, which is mostly geared towards English teachers but has plenty of general information.
  • Interview with Kunihide Sakai, which describes how he actually conducted his classes.
  • The SSS Extensive Reading Method, which goes into more detail about learning English in Japan through extensive reading; on this page, you can see some of the materials English learners have access to, such as books that catalog appropriate reading material and word counts.
  • is, as I mentioned before, Professor Sakai’s website; it’s in Japanese, but if that doesn’t faze you the message board is a great place to meet other extensive reading enthusiasts, sometimes known as “tadokists.”

When I was at Powell’s picking up used books, many of the ones I bought were books that were translated from English – Murder on the Orient Express, Treasure Island. I’ve resolved to stop buying books I can’t read, but I made an exception for these, as I think I should catch up to that skill level fairly soon, they were cheap, and I’ve already read them and knew that I would enjoy them. That made me wonder: Is it better for extensive readers to read translations of books they already have read in their native language or books whose stories they’re already familiar with, or would they be better served by focusing on books that they’re completely unfamiliar with?

The thing I’ve found to be most useful about familiar material in my own reading is that I can use my prior experience to guess words that I might not otherwise be able to understand, making them easier to remember. Because readers know the overall gist of the story already, they should be more comfortable with the book and should be better able to skip parts that don’t make sense without getting frustrated, allowing them to read at a slightly higher level. If it’s a book they already know they like, that makes it more worth their money than a book they may get bored with halfway through and never pick up again, and a lot of books that have been translated are classics, giving them literary value alongside the language learning and entertainment values.

However, familiar material may permit readers to rely too much on their prior knowledge, paying less attention to confusing parts that they may have been able to untangle if they were forced to do so, and perhaps even getting bored with a plot they already know, sapping them of the drive to keep going and see how it ends. Readers may also be able to artificially inflate their reading level because of their familiarity with the text, but then feel frustrated by the words they still don’t know and become discouraged by the contrast between their native language reading abilities and their target language abilities. They may find it easier to stick to translations and not branch out to many new things, and in the case of books that have originally been translated from another language, there may be idioms or interesting bits of information about the target culture that they could miss out on.

In the pursuit of fluency I would think all reading has value, but I wonder about the comparative experiences of two hypothetical extensive readers who read at about level 5 or 6: one who makes her way through the entire Harry Potter series in Japanese (a popular starting point for Japanese language learners, it seems), and one who reads an equivalent amount of words written by Japanese authors. Would there be differences in their motivation, comprehension and overall gain in skill?

In my case, I’d rather read something I haven’t read before, and I think I get more out of it that way… but I do rather want to see how Hercule Poirot sounds in Japanese. And, of course, I studied Japanese literature in college, and one of the things that most motivates me is the prospect of reading the original versions of many of the Japanese books that I’ve already read in English. (That may or may not count; I’ve forgotten the details of most everything but the Tale of Genji!)


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.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about the classification system used in “Extensive Reading in Japanese” – it’s not that there’s anything wrong with it, it’s more that I’m never satisfied. The two major criteria are kanji and furigana use and pictures; that leaves a lot of room for variation within the levels. Picture books are usually level 2 — unless they’re like 鉄のキリンの海わたり, with over 1,000 words and some fairly advanced kanji and vocabulary. And what of books like くんくまくんとおやすみなさい that are technically level 2, with no kanji and pictures on every page, but are at least four times longer than most picture books? How about my manga history book about the Meiji period? There’s lots of pictures on every page, meaning that it couldn’t be scored higher than level 4, but its vocabulary level is certainly much higher than that of メル友からのメッセージ, which is also level 4. There is no real value in changing the system, since it’s nice to be able to look at a page from a book and be able to slot it into more or less its appropriate level immediately. I’m merely curious as to what a more complex classification system would look like.

When I’m thinking about a book’s complexity, these are the kinds of things I keep in mind:

  • How is katakana handled?
  • What kinds of pictures are there?
  • What kanji, if any, are used?
  • How much furigana is used?
  • How advanced is the vocabulary?
  • Are there chapters?
  • Are there spaces between words?
  • What is the font size?
  • How many pages does it have?
  • How many words does it have?

Assign a scale to each variable and add numbers, and theoretically, you could come up with a tidy little scoring system. Possible example:

Katakana Use

  • No words in katakana (1)
  • Words in katakana have furigana (2)
  • Words in katakana stand alone (3)

Properly calibrated, this would allow readers to determine a book’s relative complexity just from a review. (Improperly calibrated… well, my first stab at such a system gave こまじょちゃんとあなぼっこ and 鉄のキリンの海わたり the same score.) In a perfect world, then, you could perhaps go online and search for every fictional book that falls between 20 and 25 points, and wind up with all sorts of great books exactly at your reading level.

At this point I am talking to myself more than anything. The six-level classification system has made it a lot easier for me to pick out the right books, and there’s really no need to change it at this point. Instead of coming up with complex rating systems, I really should just be reading more! Still, it’s on my mind…

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