My exact step-by-step process to learning vocabulary through reading

Clickbait title aside, I came up with the idea for this post over my work today. Now that we’re here, let me preface what’s about to come:

  1. This process isn’t dependent on your level

I used pretty much the exact same process for Russian when I was learning it. Granted, that wasn’t entirely on my own but the point still stands. I learn like this at both advanced and beginner level.

2. I’ve only tried this with languages where I had knowledge of a related language

When I was learning Russian, I already knew Croatian, which is close enough to give you a major head start on the language. With Spanish I had plenty of residual knowledge of Italian and French to make my life much easier. Would this work with Hungarian? I don’t know. Not to mention something really tricky like Chinese. I’d need to try it but you’re probably not looking to learn a difficult language any time soon, so this will be helpful regardless.

3. It’s a report, not advice

I’m not telling you to follow my exact process. But you can if you want. Choose and pick what you find useful, as always I’m telling you what works for me, not what you should do.

Step 1: Skip the prep tasks

Today I was working with this:

Example of Spanish material for learning

This lesson is about speaking/discourses/communication in the broadest sense. The page above is the preparatory task for what’s coming next. All the tasks you see on this page are designed to prep you for the text that you’re about to read.

Personally, I read through them and skip them all. Prep tasks aren’t even a ton of fun when they’re done with another person, as they should be. Their purpose is to engage you with the next activity, to get your brain going and activate what vocabulary and knowledge you might already have about the topic.

But in my opinion you can safely skip them if you are motivated. Firstly, I don’t need to be entertained in order to get my interest levels up. I’m already plenty motivated by myself. If a topic is uninteresting, I will skip it entirely or just do the grammar or vocab stuff if it seems useful. Plus I don’t have the time to do every single exercise in the book, which isn’t the purpose anyway. So 95% of the time I won’t do introductory exercises.

Step 2: Read the text and underline words you aren’t 100% sure of

The next page looked like this:

Example of Spanish material for learning

It’s a text about how communication habits of stars have changed in times of social media. Fairly interesting I’d say. I read the entire text and underline words I am not 100% sure about (although I can most of the time tell what they mean).

At this point, I am not concerned with understanding every single word and I don’t let it interrupt my reading flow.

Why?

Think about how you read in your own language. The goal of reading an article like this is to get the gist of it. You want to soak up the main information but you are not concerned with every single word and why the author has used this word instead of another one. Especially these days, we read in a very superficial way and skim a lot of the text. That’s the reason why paragraphs are getting ever shorter. How often do you read something and if someone asked you to summarize what you’ve just read (like in a textbook), you’d have trouble doing that?

For that reason I am not concerned with the meaning of every single word. It does help though to think about the text for a second after having read it and summarize it in your head in a sentence (in the target language, of course).

Step 3: Look up the underlined words and write translation or synonyms into the text

If you can decipher it in the picture, you’ll see that I used mostly English translations and a few synonyms. English is close enough to Spanish and a lot of words have common roots, therefore, it makes sense to use it. Sometimes I’ll write a synonym instead of a translation if I think it makes more sense or if it’s a very similar word. I work with Wordreference in this case.

Then I read through that particular sentence one more time and that’s pretty much it. Unless I had difficulty understanding the gist of the text, I don’t bother with reading it again entirely. I’ll go over it plenty of times in the discussion part, so there’s no need for that.

Step 4: Skip almost all the related tasks (again)

You might be wondering why I am working with a textbook in the first place if I decide to skip all the tasks all the time. The reason behind that is that a) there are too may f them and my time is limited. And b) their objective is to develop your reading skills, but I read already well enough and I don’t need to practice looking for a particular piece of information or give examples why this text is biased or ironic or whatever.

Instead, I mark the questions I consider interesting and want to discuss with my teacher and that’s it. Almost always, that’ll include the “sum up the text” exercise, which is the most realistic, and if I consider something else worthy of discussion, then that as well.

If you don’t do this and don’t prepare texts, or your reading/language skills, your teacher will use all the questions as guide for the lesson (as he should). That’s probably less interesting than discussing something that exceeds the source material, but it’s easier for the teacher. It’s on you to make it more interesting by showing prepared.

Step 5: Do the vocab/grammar work

Most of the time, there’s a bit of both. Today, I did only vocab (will do grammar next time). In this case the task looked like this:

Example of Spanish material for learning

In the trabajar el lexico part, you’re presented a few common verbs and different variations how they’re used. In this case with or without prepositions, reflexive or not. I knew all of them, so I wasn’t really bothered with marking a lot or translating anything. In other exercises that might not be the case and then I look up the words in context in a translator, like I did for the text.

Step 6: Do the productive task

These exercises always come with a productive task. In this case I had to write fictional headlines with the verbs:

This is where you actually learn vocabulary.

I went the extra mile here and didn’t do five verbs as suggested, but all of them (there are two more pages full of notes). Productive tasks are when you actually start learning and memorizing the words. I use a translator , in this case Wordreference, if I want to write an example but cannot think of a particular word. That also helps with recalling forgotten words or memorizing new words.

If you understand Spanish, you’ll see that most of my examples are either realistic or close enough. Since we learn through stories and memories, it helps to base your examples in reality or if you construct a funny story around them. Most of my later examples actually revolved around the Ronaldo leaving Juventus.

This is only the first step to learning new vocabulary. For example, now when I’m writing this post I already cannot actively remember some of the words that I used in the exercise. But that’s fine. You need to see and use a word/an expression several times before remembering it. Tomorrow I’ll read through them again and then I’ll check them with my teacher and then I’ll have the chance to use them in our discussion if the opportunity arises. Maybe at a later point I feel like I need to have a brief look at the unit again and will revise them.

That’s why you can visualize learning new vocabulary like a pile of compost. You put something throw something on the pile of dirt but it’ll take some time until you get fertile soil out of it.

Step 7: go over it with the teacher for corrections and discussion

This particular topic I’ll probably only discuss in a few days so I’ll have an extra day to skim it again. But when we do the lesson, I send my teacher the text, read my sentences (or other written work/exercises) to him to check for correctness and discuss the questions I marked and whatever else. I also have the book ready so I can actively use some of the vocabulary I prepped, which will come up naturally. Often our discussion takes a left turn and we end up discussing something other than the text, but that’s exactly how conversations flow in real life as well.

What I don’t do: write down words in lists

To be completely honest, I used to do this way more and I’d probably do it if I was learning a language which is completely new to me (like Hungarian). In that case just reading a lot won’t cut it because your brain doesn’t have knowledge of cognates to help along with retaining the vocab. But overall I am not a massive fan of lists or flashcards anymore. I still think they are useful and have their time and place but it’s not the most efficient method for me.

Conclusion

This entire process took about an hour today. That’s without getting distracted 10 minutes into it, which I did. If that seems like a lot of work, it’s because it is a lot of work. You don’t get fluent in a couple of languages overnight, even more so if you are not living in the country to increase your contact hours. I found it to be worth the time though and I’m making very fast progress. Reading a lot is the best way to build up vocabulary quickly.

On a final note, I don’t do this type of work every day. Sometimes I have extra sessions already prepped or I did something else or I just don’t feel like putting in the time. As long as you do something, that’s still alright.

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