A few tricks for increasing your reading speed in a foreign language

By | October 31, 2015

When studying a foreign language, one of the more difficult things to achieve is a reading speed close to that of your native language. Unless you were lucky enough to begin studying the foreign language at a very young age, processing and understanding each sentence will take much more effort and time, even assuming you know the meaning of all the words you come across. For each unfamiliar word or grammatical pattern, extra time will be required to either look up the meaning, or to try and infer what it might mean from context.

In the beginning, learning as much grammar, characters (in the case of languages like Chinese and Japanese with thousands of them), and vocabulary words will the fastest way to increase your reading speed, since having to look up words frequently will slow you down significantly. However, once you build your lexicon to a certain point you’ll reach a plateau where it’s harder to further increase reading speed without significant effort. Simply reading more will also increase your speed, but only to a point.

Here are a few suggestions to help you increase your reading pace even more, especially for those who have plateaued out.


Picking a certain genre and reading a few books exclusively from that genre will help increase the rate at which you read since you’ll start seeing similar words again and again. For even more effect, choose a single author and read a bunch of their works. For example, I read a a bunch of mystery novels by Keigo Higashino, and by the fourth or fifth one I was reading much faster than I was initially.

Gradually increase difficulty

Whatever your level is, there will always be some books which are hard enough to make reading them a chore, whether it’s because of unfamiliar words or complex grammatical constructions. It’s possible to force yourself to get through these, but you’ll probably retain less by the time you are done, and enjoy the story much less.

Instead, gradually ramp of the difficulty of what you read so that you can avoid this trap. It may take some time to find works with the perfect difficulty, but once you do this you’ll learn much faster than forcing yourself to read overly difficult ones.

As mentioned above, you can pick a single author and read a few of their books until things start to feel easy,  then move onto someone else.

Read to the end

A rule I’ve followed pretty strictly since I was young is to always finish a book, and I have tried to carry that over to my foreign language reading as well. Besides being able to appreciate the story, you have a better chance of getting in ‘the zone’, where your speed quickly increases once you adjust to the author’s writing style and begin to predict where the story will go. For novels, this jump generally happens for me after the first 20-40 pages or so. If you get frustrated and quit after only a few pages, you are giving up on the possibility of this happening.

Another rule I follow before buying a book is to read the blurb on the back of the cover. Since that is often at a higher level than the actual book itself, it’s usually a good idea to read the first page or two as well. This will help you avoid getting stuck in the situation where you force yourself to read a book that is too far above your level.

A corollary of this is that reading longer books is generally better.

Optimize the lookup process

Even if you are an advanced student of the foreign language you are reading in, there will always be times you have to look up a word, phrase, or grammatical construction. There are many ways to do this, including a paper dictionary, online website, mobile app, or a special-purpose electronic dictionary. Whatever method you choose, make sure you can enter in a word as quickly as possible, ideally only in a few seconds. Since you’ll be repeating this process again and again, the more you optimize this the faster your overall reading speed will be. Consider reading books in digital form, since often they allow you to look up a word quickly by simply touching the word.

You also have the option to look up each word as you come to it, or save the words you don’t know until the end of the paragraph, page, or even chapter. Looking up words in a group is more efficient, but you have the trade off of forgetting where they were, plus the context around them. If you don’t mind marking up your book you can use a highlighter or pencil to quickly annotate the trouble words and come back to them later. Some e-book readers or applications may allow you to highlight words as well.

Don’t overdo tracking your reading speed

At times I’ve been tempted to keep a log of each time I read, with number of pages read and total time. While this might yield interesting data, I feel that if I get too focused on reading speed I either read slower (since I am thinking about the fact I have to read faster), understand less, or both.

Maintain a well-balanced study schedule

I feel that a well-balanced foreign language study schedule, with elements of reading, writing, listening, and speaking, will help improve reading speed more than just focusing blindly on reading. In particular, listening practice will help with reading dialogue since you will start to see common lines repeated. Also, using words in spoken or written conversation that you picked up in a book or magazine will help you remember those words better, so next time you come across them you don’t get tripped up.

Read with a goal in mind

Reading simply for pleasure is great, but if you have a more concrete goal established I think you’ll more likely to learn to read quickly with better understanding. Examples of this are reading the email of a friend, whose content you are very curious to know, or reading a manual for a product for which you need assistance with.

For example, if you have one or more children, consider reading a book on child upbringing in the foreign language you are studying, since you will have a stronger motivation to efficiently read, understand, and retain that information.

With a goal like this you are also more likely to read to the end and not give up midway.

Read out loud to someone

Reading at loud adds extra difficulty because you have to pay attention to how words sound, and in some languages like Japanese you may understand the meaning but not know how to say the word.

However, when someone is listening there is the natural motivation to read mistake-free, and at a consistent pace. Once you get more advanced at this, you can add inflection based on the flow of the story, just as you would in your native language.

I don’t recommend doing this too frequently, but once in a while is it is a good exercise. At first, try this with children’s books.

Apply other speed-reading techniques

There are many techniques touted to increase your reading speed in your native language, and many ways to learn these including books, online videos, and classes. Such techniques include learning to skim when it is appropriate and using your peripheral vision to avoid having to constantly move your eyes back and forth. I haven’t applied these too much myself, but I feel that are worth investigating to see which techniques fit well with you.

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3 thoughts on “A few tricks for increasing your reading speed in a foreign language

  1. Stathes

    Great article. You mention some very interesting points there.
    I would like to mention another one though. If you are using your book as learning material, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to try to get hold of a translation in a language you understand better and compare the two texts as you go along.
    I’m doing this right now with a Murakami novel and it’s proving very helpful. 🙂


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