Yesterday once again marked the end of another month-long reading contest over at ReadMOD, and having sent my last update to the automatic abacus at six minutes to midnight, I finished with a grand-ish total of 565.45 pages. Of this 212.7 pages were of books, 1731.4 of manga (counted at 20%), and the remainder sentences (17 sentences to the page). This is nearly triple my effort of six months ago where I managed just over 200 pages.
I think this time I got considerably closer to the ideal of what extensive reading is meant to be about. I got that feeling right from the start, when I finished the several level 4 graded readers I hadn’t looked at yet. At first I was thinking – “this is too easy, I know almost all these words, this grammar is simple” – but, of course, that is exactly the point. When you are clipping along and the pages flow readily, the occasional word causing you to think a little, or maybe look it up (I know, not supposed to use a dictionary – but I’m curious!) – that is when you are in the best state to get used to reading and get used to the language. That’s exactly why it’s recommended to read something at 90% or better comprehension level. Think of the cyclist in training; instead of struggling up the mountain in the highest manageable gear, stopping every ten metres to gasp for air, he keeps a pace that will allow him to ride steadily for an hour or more. Do that enough, and eventually that mountain becomes no obstacle at all.
That’s when I ran out of graded readers and piled into my manga. Sketchbook isn’t really difficult, but suddenly I was finding a lot of new words, a lot of katakana (Kuri-chan’s beloved insects all seem to have names made of a dozen katakana), trying to figure out Natsumi’s dialect (Hakata-ben), and fairly frequently coming to the end of a four-panel strip and having to say “I didn’t get a single bit of that!”. Sometimes I’d go ten pages without needing to look up anything though – overall I’d say comprehension was in the range of 70ish%. So not bad at all, but not precisely in the spirit of things. I finished the six volumes in a week or so, and also somehow flailed through a volume of Zetsubou Sensei, which I could understand enough of to realize that I should wait with the rest until I could fully appreciate its genius.
At that point I’d run out of manga with furigana (sadly, still very dependent on that), so I started rereading. The readers were easier the second time around, no surprise there. Then it occurred to me that I’d only ever read through my seven volumes of Yotsuba&! once. Those were the best days of this contest – back to the flow, enjoying the stories and characters and not worrying about the language. Rereading a couple of Sketchbook rounded out the month, and those were also a lot easier the second time. I’m even more convinced now that rereading is one of the keys to making extensive reading work the best.
Aside from all its intrinsic benefits, extensive reading throws weak spots into clear relief. It quickly became clear what I need to work on the most. After the contest I had had in mind to study through two more grammar books (I know it sounds terminally dull, but I find it interesting enough that it really helps me; also SRSing the example sentences makes sure that the patterns stick); however, I found that there were very few points where odd grammatical structures gave me pause. Rather, there’s a tremendous quantity of words that I need to learn. Also, to break out of the furigana trap, learning kanji readings is top priority. The plan now is immediately to tackle both problems at once by going through the second volume of Remembering the Kanji, using the order given and most of the example words, and making sentence cards exactly like all my other sentence cards for them. This ought to give me about 2500 kanji readings and as much vocabulary in roughly four months or so, and once I have most of the kanji readings under my hat acquiring new vocabulary will also become far easier. Reading will of course continue and more books are already in the mail.