There are many problems with the way Chinese is normally being taught, but one of the most obvious ones is how reading is approached. By far the most common way is to use a series of textbooks and work your way through roughly one book per semester (depending on the intensity of the course), which will leave you at some kind of intermediate level after a few years.
If you’re only reading your textbook, you’re doing it wrong
The problem with this approach is that it gives you very narrow knowledge about a small portion of the Chinese language. By relying on words introduced in earlier chapters and books, the texts become fairly advanced, but as a student, you can only cope if you stay within the narrow scope of the textbook. If you move to authentic texts at roughly the same level, you might feel like you’ve learnt nothing. I’ve written more about this here:
That is to say: If you follow the pace of most language programs I know, you will spend almost all your time reading a very small number of texts. This is not good!
Extensive and intensive reading
This is what’s called intensive reading, i.e. when you read relatively short and difficult texts with the aid of a dictionary, word list or similar. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do this at all, but it certainly shouldn’t be the only thing you’re doing. In fact, in terms of time spent, extensive reading should take more time. Extensive reading is the opposite, i.e. reading many/long and easy texts where you don’t need much assistance.
There are several reasons extensive reading is important:
- Focusing on very few and short texts gives you a narrow proficiency which is not enough to deal with real, authentic Chinese. Reading more but easier texts gives you a broader foundation.
- By following a textbook series, you will soon start learning low frequency words before you have learnt most of the high frequency words. In some textbooks, this problem is extreme. Early use of chengyu is a good example of this.
- Intensive reading does not show you the variety of contexts in which a word can be used. Even though some textbooks offer more than one example, this is still far from enough.
- Building a feel for how the language works requires a lot of comprehensible input; you can’t just read about how it works, you need to give you brain enough data to work with.
- It’s taxing to read texts where you understand 80% of the words or less, so reading a lot is harder, which likely means that you won’t do it enough.
- Extensive reading offers plenty of opportunities to consolidate what you already know. Even if you know almost all words, you still need to reinforce your knowledge about them, and reading meaningful text is a good way of doing that.
- If you understand most of the words, learning unfamiliar grammar becomes much easier since you are sure to understand the context and content words. By contrast, most textbooks mix new words with new sentence patterns, making it needlessly hard to learn both.
How difficult is difficult? The case for 98%
So, how difficult should the text be for optimal learning? This has been researched a lot and knowing 98% of the word seems to be the most common answer. That sounds like a lot, but only before you actually compare. The difference is huge.
John Pasden over at Sinosplice recently wrote an article titled What 80% Comprehension Feels Like in which he quotes Marco Benevides, who has created an excellent demonstration of what different levels of comprehension feels like (check his presentation here). In the text that follows, the author has inserted nonsense words at a frequency of 2%, 5%, 10% and 20% to simulate 98%, 95%, 90% and 80% known words respectively.
This is 98%:
You live and work in Tokyo. Tokyo is a big city. More than 13 million people live around you. You are never borgle, but you are always lonely. Every morning, you get up and take the train to work. Every night, you take the train again to go home. The train is always crowded. When people ask about your work, you tell them, “I move papers around.” It’s a joke, but it’s also true. You don’t like your work. Tonight you are returning home. It’s late at night. No one is shnooling. Sometimes you don’t see a shnool all day. You are tired. You are so tired…
It’s easy to see that reading can be meaningful at 98%. If you read more, you would probably be able to guess the meaning of many of the unknown words, but even if you don’t, if you read an entire novel with this level of understanding, you would be able to understand it and enjoy it.
This is 95%:
In the morning, you start again. You shower, get dressed, and walk pocklent. You move slowly, half- awake. Then, suddenly, you stop. Something is different. The streets are fossit. Really fossit. There are no people. No cars. Nothing. “Where is dowargle?” you ask yourself. Suddenly, there is a loud quapen—a police car. It speeds by and almost hits you. It crashes into a store across the street! Then, another police car farfoofles. The police officer sees you. “Off the street!” he shouts. “Go home, lock your door!” “What? Why?” you shout back. But it’s too late. He is gone.
While this still makes sense and you can guess what’s going on, it’s easy to see how you can lose the thread in a longer story if every paragraph feels like this. Still, reading at this level is sort of okay. Most of my reading practice in Chinese felt like this for many years.
Now let’s check 90%:
“What’s prippy fy?” you ask yourself. Suddenly, a man runs by. He is viggling toward the crawn kofoon. There is blood all over his shirt. “Baboot!” you shout, but he doesn’t stop. You follow him. Outside the kofoon, you stop. A loopity is lying on the ground. She is not moving. “Hey!” you shout. “Are you OK?” She doesn’t answer. Her nawies are closed. Chay her fingers are moving. Open, close; open, close. “She’s alive!” you say to yourself. “No! Don’t gleep her!” someone frickles. You look up. Three people are waving at you from across the street
Now it starts being difficult to understand what’s going on, but wait until we get to 80%:
“Bingle for help!” you shout. “This loopity is dying!” You put your fingers on her neck. Nothing. Her flid is not weafling. You take out your joople and bingle 119, the emergency number in Japan. There’s no answer! Then you muchy that you have a new befourn assengle. It’s from your gutring, Evie. She hunwres at Tokyo University. You play the assengle. “…if you get this…” Evie says. “…I can’t vickarn now… the important passit is…” Suddenly, she looks around, dingle. “Oh no, they’re here! Cripett… the frib! Wasple them ON THE FRIB!…” BEEP! the assengle parantles. Then you gratoon something behind you…
Imagine reading a long text written like this (John says he’s working on one for Chinese, which I’m looking forward to very much). Or perhaps you don’t need to imagine it, this is what it feels like when reading an unfamiliar Chinese text for most learners; sometimes it’s much worse!
This text is not suitable for extensive reading and you need scaffolding to make sense of it. There are ways to make sense of difficult texts, of course, especially by using digital tools such as pop-up dictionaries. Read more:
The texts above are excerpts from Extensive Reading: Benefits and Implementation. Benevides, Marcos. J. F. Oberlin University, Tokyo. Presented at IATEFL 2015 in Manchester. The original text is from Zombies in Tokyo by Andy Boon.
There is no magic number
The question whether extensive reading is the best way of expanding vocabulary and how well it works on its own for second language learners is far from settled, but we needn’t concern ourselves with that too much. The exact number isn’t that important. Depending on the text, the student and the tools or scaffolding being used, 95% might be fine. With some studying, 90% works too.
The point is that the more you need to study (look things up, learn new words, check grammar), the less text you cover. I’m not saying that you should only read texts where you understand 98%, but I am saying that you should do that as much as you can. When you feel you have the resources, energy and time to go for something more difficult, by all means do that. But don’t do only that. Most teachers and students do exactly that, though, which is part of my motivation for writing this article.
The 98% figure refers to unaided reading and shows that you really need to understand almost everything to be able to figure out and learn the few words you didn’t already know. However, nothing says you have to read completely unaided, so the take away is more in the direction of “the more you understand, the better; 98% is great if you can get it”.
Do 2000 characters really give 98% comprehension?
While we’re at the topic of percentages and comprehension, it’s time to debunk a myth.
Most learners of Chinese have seen some numbers thrown around when it comes to reading comprehension. A very common claim is that learning 1000 characters will give you around 80% reading comprehension or that 2000 characters will give you 98% or similar.
There are several problems with such claims:
- Meaning in Chinese is mostly conveyed using words, not single characters. Most words contain two characters and knowing the constituent characters doesn’t necessarily mean that you know the word. Then there’s grammar, collocations, idiomatic expressions, cultural knowledge and so on, none of which are included in the number of characters or words you know. In short, knowing the characters does not mean you understand the text!
- Knowing 80% of the characters will not give you 80% reading comprehension, even if you know all the words that can be created with them (which is highly unlikely), all the grammar and so on. If you read the quoted passage 80% known words passage from Zombies in Tokyo above, can you truly say that you understand 80% of the text? Definitely not. If you imagine a standard reading test with questions at the end, you are not likely to answer 80% of them correctly. Perhaps you wouldn’t even get a single question right, so at least in some cases, knowing 80% of the language can still mean 0% comprehension.
Many students have the illusion that cramming a certain number of characters or words will give them a high level of reading comprehension. This is just wrong. It’s true that I have argued that in some cases, learning individual characters can seriously boost your ability to guess the meaning of words from context, but this is a very special case (learning the individual meanings of high-frequency characters you have already learnt in words).
In general, reading more is much more likely to lead to better reading ability compared to cramming words from a list. It’s also more likely to be good for your Chinese studying in general, especially your vocabulary and writing.
So, let’s recap. If your comprehension of the material you read is below 98%, you’re going to need to actually study the text to learn from it. If you’re good at reading and inferring meaning from context, you can still learn a lot. But if you only do that, you will not see enough text in Chinese to learn how the words are used in different situations and you will end up with an advanced but very narrow proficiency.
If your comprehension level is close to 100%, it means that you should be able to pick up the few remaining percent simply by reading a lot. Since you understand so much of the text, you will often be able to infer the meaning of unknown words, and even if you can’t always do that, you will often be able to enjoy reading the text anyway because you understand most of it.
I advise you to focus on extensive reading as much as possible and only spend time on intensive reading occasionally. Naturally, this is easier said than done for beginners, but it gets easier the more Chinese you learn. When you get closer to an advanced lever, you can often find authentic texts that are easy enough to understand. At a beginner and intermediate level, you’re often limited to material written specifically for language learners like you. This is okay, but it severely limits your choice of texts.
There are ways of finding texts suitable to your level, which will be the topic of the next article in this series. In the meantime, check this article:
After that, I will write about extensive listening, which is perhaps even more overlooked than extensive reading. It works pretty much the same way though, with the difference that listening speed becomes a problem for many students. Stay tuned!