October 15


How to Choose Japanese Reading Material with the Right Difficulty

By Charles Hoshino

October 15, 2021

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As a Japanese learner, you need to be able to choose reading material that best fits your current Japanese abilities. This is true for several reasons. Doing this will help you learn faster, and you will also enjoy it more.

In the past (and in my book) I’ve written about why it is important to have learning material that hits the “Goldilocks spot”—material that is neither too difficult nor too hard. Having material of the optimal difficulty means faster learning, more motivation, and … more fun!

A related idea: It’s important to have an honest assessment of your reading ability. Most of us go by feel, and that’s what I did when I was learning Japanese. However, humans do a good job of fooling themselves, and we have a tendency to be overconfident of our own abilities.

A complete beginner can (to some extent) rely on a textbook or a graded reader to hold their hand. However, as you improve as a Japanese learner, you will need to evaluate reading material on your own. And this is important! If you choose something too hard, you could get discouraged—or even quit!

When I was learning Japanese, I mostly selected my reading and listening material by feel. However, I recently found an interesting post on a Chinese learning website that has some interesting ideas for how to choose reading material with the right difficulty.

What partial fluency feels like

The post has some examples of what different levels of fluency feel like to a reader of English. The idea is that, by reading these, you can then have a better idea of whether you can reading something with 98%, 95%, or 90% fluency. This, in turn, lets you decide whether a particular text is “just right” for you.

The original texts are from “Extensive Reading: Benefits and Implementation. Benevides, Marcos. J. F. Oberlin University, Tokyo. Presented at IATEFL 2015 in Manchester.

This is 98% fluency:

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…

This is 95% fluency:

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.

This is 90% fluency

“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.

Note how, when you get down to 90% fluency, it is very hard to learn from context, without the assistance of other tools. You will need the help of a dictionary app, a browser add-on, etc. to help you read.

Choosing the right Japanese reading material

So how can the above help us choose the right Japanese reading material? Some thoughts:

  • The lower fluency you have with a particular text, the harder it will be for you.
  • If your fluency is too high (~99%), the text will be too easy and you will not learn as much.
  • For me, the sweet spot is something around the 95% mark, though this will depend on what works best for you and what kind of approach you enjoy.

In the past, I’ve written about how you want to have about 1-2 things per sentence that you do not understand. This way, you can use the surrounding material to help you figure out what the unknown words or phrases mean. Now you have another tool. You can compare whatever Japanese material you are reading to the above paragraphs to get an idea of where along the spectrum it lies.

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