This post, we will tackle reading. In the previous posts about listening and speaking, I covered some of my experience and hard-earned tips for acquiring Spanish skills.

While it may have been many years since you have had reading instruction, you are using the fundamental skills you learned when trying to conquer English the first time. In many ways, those same basic approaches for new English readers can be applied to learning to read in Spanish.

So let’s start with a basic skill: practice. A methodical routine of reading will mimic what you experienced in early grades. Setting aside time to practice your reading skills, even if it’s only 15 minutes a day, can have positive impacts on your overall language development progression.

But practicing is only part of the process.

A large part of language acquisition comes from vocabulary and sentence structure. That’s right, all of those sentence diagrams you did in elementary and middle school may finally pay off! Gentle readers, you have to be consuming written material that is at your specific level, and continue to build vocabulary as you read.

So let’s start with vocabulary. I’ve already covered the Zettelkasten method in a previous post, but here’s the short description: use flashcards to methodically build your working vocabulary. There are even tools to help you do this (including AnkiQuizletRemnote), but a stack of 3×5 index cards works like a charm, too.

With so many ways to discover new reading material, but what you choose initially must interest you. Gentle reader, I think life is too short to read sample paragraphs about topics that aren’t important to you. For example, I can give you a list of topics that really pique my interest and help me learn vocabulary at the same time:

  • Cooking: That’s right, cookbooks and cooking blogs are a great way to learn useful vocabulary and often come with a simpler sentence structure. Since I enjoy cooking, this was a great way for me to learn step-by-step sentence structure and the names of all sorts of ingredients.
  • Science fiction and fantasy: I really like going to fantastical places when I am reading. Young adult fiction often provides exactly what I am looking for, wrapped up in an entertaining tale.
  • History of ancient cultures: Think National Geographic-level reading, with LOTS of pictures and illustrations. I enjoy learning about faraway places and events in English, so why not in Spanish, too? At a local newspaper and magazine shop (yes, those exist here in Spain!), I was able to find a number of glossy special-interest books in Spanish that are full of learner-friendly vocabulary.

But what was I talking about with sentence structure? Well, think about the difference between a science journal article and a newspaper article. The sentence structures of these two types of publications are designed for two different types of audiences. As sentence structure becomes more complex, the grammar being used is also more complex. The reader must be prepared for the mental gymnastics required to “decode” a written concept and make sense of the words.

As an experienced reader, you have an existing framework for your reading skills. You may not be the most knowledgeable about the specific parts of sentences, but you know how to use a language to communicate an idea. In reverse, that means you are able to read something in another language and look for the subject, the verb, and the object of a phrase or sentence. As with speaking and listening, it’s important to start at your level. If that means you are reading beginner books from the library, that’s okay. Your level is probably not Miguel de Cervantes or Benito Pérez Galdós. It may mean that a picture-heavy magazine may be a great place to start.

There are also many newspapers, both online and in print, that may help you build your familiarity with a new language. Often, newspapers work to appeal to a wide variety of readers, so the sentence structure is simplified and the vocabulary is limited to the context of the story. When I read a newspaper, I also feel like I am adding to my cultural knowledge and I can use those topics to have conversations with local people.

The next step

Okay, now that you have identified what you want to read, the next step is to start reading with a stack of notecards or a vocabulary flashcard tool and translator handy. As you look up words, make a note of the new vocabulary. Break sentences down and try to identify the subject, the verb, and the object. You will probably be reading sentences three or four times to get the details clarified.

Another activity that I have used to help me develop my reading skills is to pretend that I am a translator. In a notebook, I will translate a paragraph and struggle through the vocabulary, the presentation of topics, and the connections to the larger written piece. While it’s easier to do that in my head after practicing so much, I still find value in writing out the translation for a section of literature.

Bonus tip

If you’re really feeling brave, then find a reading selection that also has an audio component. This is a great technique for building fluency, but it takes a lot of concentration (you can call it “study” if you wish!). See if there are books or magazines on Amazon or other book seller services that are combined with the audio version of the writing. Listening to your audio book at a slower speed can help you establish a mental reading pattern along with correct pronunciation and inflection. Over time, you will be able to increase the speed.

Language learning is not a simple task, and your brain is actually developing new neural pathways to build literacy in a new language. You will benefit from regular learning activities and practice. Good luck, gentle reader!