Deciphering Vs Reading

I think I’ve slowly begun to realise that free-flowing, extensive reading of material, that is appropriate enough for your level to be able to do this, is the absolute key to rapid progress. Progress in reading, but also in speaking/writing/listening.

I spent so many years choosing material that is a level (or more) too hard for me, and I think that may have been the reason for why my progress was so painful and slow.

I’m convinced that ‘deciphering’ isn’t reading, and won’t produce the same results, or even anything like the same results as fluent reading does. The key is to find level-appropriate content.

I guess Steve would argue that the tougher the material the more new words you’ll expose yourself to, which would make logical sense if you could read intensively at the same speed as you can extensively. I’d argue that the extra speed of reading level-appropriate content, where you have like 97%+ coverage of the words, will make up for this.

You also get the massive benefit of acquiring a lot more of the grammar patterns, and you give yourself the opportunity to encounter many more different genres and writing styles than you would if you fought your way through harder material at a much slower pace.

Obviously, enjoying what you’re reading is the most important thing, but if you can find comfortable content to read that’s also enjoyable, I now believe that to be the sweet spot of language learning.

It’s also important not to jump too far ahead of yourself. For instance, if you just finished Roald Dahl, you can tackle Harry Potter, and then perhaps Lord of the Rings after that. I see a lot of people on forums stating that they read one Harry Potter book and were then able to “read” adult novels aimed at natives. I find it hard to believe, with so little reading experience, that what they’re doing is ‘reading.’ I think they’re doing a lot of deciphering, which is slow, often painful (depending on how enjoyable it is), and as I’ve said, I don’t think we’re getting the same benefits of grammar exposure and overall fluency development.

I’m becoming more and more convinced that quantity is the most important thing. The words will come with quantity, no matter how few new words there are in what we’re reading. I’d love to put that to the test actually - to find out just how many new words an extensive reader gets Vs a more intensive reader. If there is a difference, I doubt it’s that big of a difference, given how much more material the extensive reader can get through. If that’s true, and we add in the extra benefits stated, then surely extensive reading is more efficient?

I don’t think finding level-appropriate material is all that tough these days either, finding enjoyable level-appropriate content is a little tougher but definitely doable. If you find engaging content (I honestly think it’s doable), then you’re golden.

I’d like to hear your thoughts if you have the opposite view and you’re more of an intensive reader.


If you’re saying that reading material that is too hard for you is likely to slow you down I think in hindsight I agree.
My own challenge is I couldn’t find anything that is precisely n+1 without being bored to tears by it. Roald Dahl type stuff is slightly too difficult (but also too boring).
So I have probably been using material that is n+2 levels and yeah I think my progress has slowed down.
That said, I’m not putting in the same number of hours than I was before and I definitely have made progress.
I guess for me, it’s just that the level I’m in is bigger than the all the levels put together beforehand so it might make logical sense that it’s taking longer.
Anyhow, I’m happy enough that I can more or less engage with material now even if I do require the crutch of lingQ.


Yeah, I guess I’m mostly saying that learning new words is best done whilst acquiring the patterns of the language, which is best done by reading fairly fluently (quickly, I guess). It’s also thought (If not proven) that vocabularly acquisition is most easily done when we know most (if not all) of the surrounding words. The argument that “it will take too long when there’s only 2-3% new words” is, IMO, offset by the speed we’re reading the more comprehensible content at, but I might be wrong.

I can see Roald Dahl being a bit boring, but perhaps you can find an alternative that isn’t quite so boring. Graded readers are an option, but then they’re likely more difficult to get your hands on for certain languages. ChatGPT must now be an option. You could ask it to dumb down more interesting content, say a Wiki article written in A2 or something like that? Not the absolute ideal solution since you’re relying on accuracy. It’s pretty good at English and Spanish (from what I can tell) but perhaps it’s less accurate with Asian languages, for example.

Personally, I don’t usually find kids stories that boring because I’m using them as a tool to do something that isn’t boring to me, which is to learn a language. That said, there have been times where there was little learning going on and I was just left with the story.

It’s just a case of knowing where to find the gold, which admittedly isn’t an easy task, but probably not impossible for most languages, and definitely worth the time investment.


Depending on the language you’re reading finding content can be easier or more difficult. Studying German/French/Spanish for example, it was really easy to find books and even ebooks versions of books I had read in my childhood translated into English. I’ve found these books are the best graded readers to level up (I.E. Harry Potter etc) but it takes me more than one book to level up like you said. I think you’re right about level appropriate texts giving the best bang for the buck but you also need to find them interesting. Studying Japanese… aside from Harry Potter… finding books translated from English into Japanese was really hard for me. I’m sure it’s getting easier all the time.

But I did find a solution of sorts a week ago. I tried translating a book I read as a kid into Korean using DeepL. If I could pay for a human edited translation I would but that’s just not an option and this one doesn’t seem half bad. I can follow the story at least and I’m learning new vocabulary and getting better at reading Korean.

I can imagine the horror some people reading this might be feeling however.

But I absolutely agree with this. Graded readers or level appropriate material or gateway books are very necessary to getting through those intermediate stages.


Totally agree. We have to consume the language, not just words. So if it’s too much of unknown wors per page, it’s becoming more like flashcards without context. And words without context and examples of actual usage just don’t make sense.

I’m not sure though that Steve claimed that the more unknown words per page we expose ourselves to, the better. I always thought that his point is that the more words we’re getting to know through reading the better. Maybe I was luckily wrong :slight_smile:

Never tried graded readers because they can take toll on our society because I didn’t know about them at the time, but I always enjoyed kids’ stories, fables, YouTube shows for kids on any subject, and fairly cheap self-improvement motivational pocasts kind of “Today we’re going to chaaange yooour life!” because it was of my level and I was happy to understand what I was reading and listening to.

I think the only case when easy material doesn’t help anymore is when it’s two and more levels below yours. For hard material the bar is much closer. Just one level above yours and you end up struggling and losing motivation. And not consuming the language actually, just flipping “flashcards”.

“Flashcards without context.”

That’s a perfect way to put it.

I agree with what you said about moving up a level. It doesn’t take much of a step up for the content to become almost useless when we’re extensive reading.

That’s not just words either, it’s also grammar patterns we’re not quite ready for. I have many nightmare memories of reading novels, too advanced for me at the time, and treating every complex sentence like a math puzzle to be solved, haha. I’m now fairly sure that was just wasted time, or at least time spent extremely poorly.


Yes, I can absolutely see the problems you’d have with languages far removed from English. Lack of content, or rather lack of level-appropriate content, is actually the main reason why I don’t think I’d ever attempt to tackle a “harder” language.

I think the lack of content is there in e.g. Spanish or French as well. The issue as I see it is there is an enjoyment gap between being equivalent to a kindergardener (5 years old) “cat sat on the mat” and being a 3rd grader (8 years old) and Roald Dahl or CS Lewis or Robert Luis Stevenson or equivalent.

In the case of Spanish and French you get a huge lift because of all the cognates so the kindergarten-grade 3 gap is quick. So quick you don’t notice it. The content isn’t really there though. Just you jump quickly.

In the case of e.g. Russian the content is also not there and due to the lack of cognates and the highly inflectedness of the language (similar to the Spanish verb conjugation hell) you’re basically grinding it out for a loooooooooooooooooooong while. I’m just barely under the level of Roald Dahl/CS Lewis/Robert Luis Stevenson.
I’ve read 4 books from the Narnia series, but it was a grind. And I am about a quarter of the way through “Treasure Island” by Robert Luis Stevenson. It’s also a grind. I tried reading Charlie and the Chocolate factory but it’s also about the same level as Narnia or Treasure Island and I just can’t stay awake.
Regardless, I think those novels are maybe n+2 or n+1.5 instead of n+1 so I’m not sure I’m getting full benefit as I’m basically decoding instead of reading and looking up occasional words.

For russian:
Where there is level appropriate content is schoolteacher stuff on youtube but that is also boooooooooooooring. The one teenage youtuber is probably at n+1 so I’m watching him. Also yefgeny’s stuff (frequent contributor on here) is about level appropriate. Maybe in about another couple months I’ll be able to read the 3rd grade style novels without it being a grind.

Anyhow, these are just gripes. It’s needed to grind it out.

Depends on what “removed” and “harder” mean in this context.

If you stick to “bestsellers” like Harari’s “Sapiens” (an excellent B1 level non-fiction book) or Stephen King’s books like “It” (a great B2 level popular fiction book), finding suitable reading material shouldn’t be a problem.

Learners could probably learn most majority L2s just by reading (and listen to) S. King’s novels alone, see: Lilja's Library - The World of Stephen King.

The problem starts when learners want to learn L2s that are only orally transmitted minority languages being endangered (Are dying languages worth saving? - BBC News)… but that’s another story.

“I think I’ve slowly begun to realise that free-flowing, extensive reading of material,

I’m becoming more and more convinced that quantity is the most important thing.”

Sure, but how many times have we discussed these points in this forum?

Probably in hundreds of threads and thousands of posts in the last four years alone…

But no news is probably good news in this case :slight_smile:

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If you find you’re “deciphering” and you prefer a more immersive experience, then do that lol. Just don’t pretend that you’re superior for having that preference. Immersion requires a lot of dedication, patience, memorization, and structure; all things I struggle with.

Every one has their own goals, preferred style, and relationship with language learning. For me, 99% of my interactions with my non-native language is through media consumption and I found that’s how I like to learn. As someone who excels in expressive grammar and struggles with vocabulary, this tool is perfect for me. I have quit more apps than I can count due to how boring they are and how much pressure they put on me for learning how to order different types of regional soup. I’d rather just read my favorite stories in their original language.

You’re passing through the Spring territory. Watch your steps, be ready for any thing beneath your feet can suddenly mutate into a Karen!