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Currently viewing the tag: "manifesto"

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.”