Language Learning Tip #10

Problem

I read too slow. In fact, it is so slow, it is embarrassing!

Idea

Reading is a skill that is acquired in stages. At every stage, until you are quite advanced, I advise the same thing:

Practice reading aloud.

First, I want to say something that will most likely make no sense at first.

Many people read slowly because they are trying to read too quickly.

In the last message I talked about the stages of reading as decoding. There is, of course, much more to reading than decoding. Mental interaction with a text is crucial, but that’s another topic. When it comes to speed, decoding and processing is the key.

Question: How do I get the practice I need to move on to the next stage?

 Answer: Practice a lot of easy reading.

Practicing difficult readings may help your vocabulary and analytical skills, but it will not help you to increase your speed much. However, finding easy reading in Arabic is almost, but not completely, impossible.1 Nonetheless, you can do “easy” reading by re-reading texts, dialogues and stories that you have already learned in previous lessons. Read these texts aloud without looking up anything. Or, read familiar stories (childrens’ stories, Bible stories, etc.) Because, if you know the story already, your mind does not have to bother with trying to figure out the meaning. Certainly you will encounter words or expressions that are new. Don’t stop. Just keep on reading. The best texts to use for increasing reading speed would have about 95 to 100% of the words already known.

Why read aloud?

Reading aloud is one way of making sure you are actually reading with understanding. When you read aloud, your intonation, pauses and phrasing will give you immediate feedback regarding your level of understanding. When your natural phrasing breaks down, you sense immediately that you have lost track of the meaning.

Why read slowly?

If you are reading slowly enough to understand, you will be reading phrases instead of words. The meaning in a text (or in speech) is not found at a word level. Meaning is communicated at a phrase level and in “lexical chunks.” For example, “the” has no meaning by itself. “horse” is an abstract category of animals. “black” is a color. “big” is a size. But “the big black horse” is a phrase that means something in the context of a story. When you read aloud at a reasonable pace, your eye will read the whole phrase “the big black horse” and make sense of it. If you read “the big” and then work to decode “black” before you move to the next word “horse.” You lose the meaning of the phrase. Many people, in a rush to read faster and faster, are decoding one word at a time. They read and say a word before they even look at the next word; then they immediately try to say the following word without even thinking about the meaning or how the 3 words relate to each other. If you want to see how this phrasing works, take a familiar text and draw vertical dividing lines between the phrases. Then look at each phrase as a unit, and say it as a unit. This is how the mind reads most effectively.

And so what is the connection between decoding the written words and decoding meaning?

As your number of “sight words” increases, it becomes easier to group them into phrases. As your knowledge of vocabulary and grammar increases, you begin to anticipate what the next words could be. As the decoding of the words becomes automatic and subconscious, decoding meaning takes your attention. Efficient reading is by gestalt.2 This process is the same for reading in any and every language. It just takes more time and practice in Arabic because the writing system is different.3

 


 

  1. Believe it or not, the Kaliila wa Dimna stories we use are actually simplified. Your Al-Kitaab texts, however, are not simplified in any way. The tasks you are given in Al-Kitaab are sometimes simple, but the texts themselves were not created for people learning Arabic as a foreign language. This is done intentionally as part of their educational philosophy (one with which I disagree).
  2. “gestalt” — a structure, configuration, or pattern so integrated as to constitute a functional unit with properties not derivable by summation of its parts.
  3. Further evidence of these phenomena is the fact that Arabic writing was first designed as a kind of short-hand. The letters were only written to remind the reader of things they already knew. That’s why early Arabic not only had no vowels, it had no dots either. Meaning was found not in decoding the text syllable by syllable (no vowels or dots means no written syllables) or even word by word (without dots a simple word could mean girl, house, between, distinguished, or nonsense sounds beeb, neeb, teet, teen, neet, yeet, neyyet, teyyen, etc …) Meaning is found in phrases.

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