Developing a reading habit

Once you reach an upper-intermediate/advanced level of Chinese, one of the most beneficial things you can do for your language skills is develop a reading habit. Regular reading will:

  • Expand your vocabulary
  • Expose you to common sentence structures and grammatical patterns and help you develop a feel for the language
  • Reinforce your existing knowledge of the language
  • Increase your ability to read for long periods of time
  • Show you the world as seen through Chinese eyes, which can be invaluable in helping you understand the Chinese thought process

It’s something that requires little investment from you (apart from your own time), and if you’re the sort of person who likes reading, it can also become an enjoyable pastime.

You can choose to read anything you like - newspapers (online or offline), comics, magazines, novels, Internet forums, blogs, graded readers - just make sure it’s something you find interesting. Nothing will kill your motivation faster than reading something you find boring.

Unfortunately, developing a reading habit can be hard because unless you already have a lot of reading experience, reading for sustained periods of time will be difficult and tiring. Not just because of all the unknown words and characters that you’ll be encountering, but also because it takes effort for your mind to process and parse the sentences that you are reading, and the concentration that this requires means that you will tire of it quickly (far more so than if you were reading in your native language).

When I first started to build a reading habit, I found that reading for extended periods of time (half an hour or more) was a struggle and it was easy for me to get distracted. This was despite already being able to read and understand Chinese well. It took about four novels before reading for this length of time or longer became enjoyable and not just something I was forcing myself to do. It probably took a further four novels after that to get to a point where I could be engrossed enough in a book that I wouldn’t notice that three or four hours had passed.

If you want to develop a reading habit, you need to prepare yourself for the fact that you’re going to need to put in hard work and effort for a sustained period time before it becomes rewarding. Regardless of your current level it’s going to be difficult when you start out but the good news is that like most things, the more you practise, the easier it gets, and the stronger your skills will be - you just need to push through the difficult early stages.

The way to do this is to set yourself a target of reading at least half an hour a day and stick to it every single day no matter what (tools like 100% or Don’t Break the Chain can help with this).

This half hour should not include time for learning or memorising new vocabulary. That is, don’t spend ten minutes reading and twenty minutes looking up words. You need to make sure you’re putting in the reading time. This means you may need to set aside at least an hour a day - half an hour for reading, and another half hour for learning new words and revising previously learnt ones.

Whatever happens you need to make the time for this, and you need to keep at it every day in order for it to become a habit. In the beginning it will be painful and slow, but it will get easier the more you do it, especially as you will be learning new words as you go and this in turn will make future reading easier, creating a virtuous cycle.

Another important thing to do is choose material at the right level. If you start reading something and there are too many new words it will mean constant interruption to the reading process, which will make things less enjoyable and also give you the feeling that you are making no improvements. If on the other hand you pick something that is more suited to your level the opposite will be true.

For a real world example, when I first decided I was going to do more reading, the book I chose to start with was 金庸’s 《书剑恩仇录》. Although I could read it, there were too many unknown words per page to strike a balance between reading and learning new words. It’s not that I couldn’t have read it, but more that I wanted to focus my time on reading rather than on learning new words, and so 10-15 pages in, I put it aside in favour of something easier.

9 months, 10 books and some 2 million characters later, I picked it up again and this time was able to breeze through it. This was partly because I was now much more comfortable reading for extended periods of time and partly because by reading those other novels, I’d already learnt many of the words that had previously been new to me. All that other reading of easier novels meant that I had been exposed to those words gradually and it was great to do something like this because it provided positive feedback showing me the progress I’d made over the year and how much my vocabulary had grown.

This leads in to another important thing, which is not to learn too many new words per day. Even once you’ve picked something at about the right level, you will still be getting exposed to many new words.

Don’t feel that you need to learn all the new words at once.

That will just suck up your time. Instead, set yourself a daily quota of new words, and then don’t worry about learning any words after that. The important ones will come up again another day, and the ones that don’t are not worth spending time on until they do start appearing more frequently.

It’s also a good idea to prepare in advance what you are going to read next, especially if you are reading novels/comics. By having your next few books planned out and in your possession (physically or electronically), then as soon as you finish you can start on the next one without stopping for a few days to decide what you are going to read next. Otherwise those few days will probably turn in to a few weeks and then suddenly you’ve dropped out of your reading habit.

If you find something too difficult or if it can’t hold your attention, don’t be afraid to put it down and pick up something easier or more interesting. It’s important not to stress out over what you are reading because that will make you less likely to spend time reading. If it’s something you really, really want to read, you can always come back to it later once your reading skills have improved.

Finally, don’t think you have to wait until some indeterminate point in the future when your Chinese will be ‘better’ before getting started. Reading is how you will make your Chinese better.

Even if it seems difficult at first, doing the thing that you want to be able to do is the best way to learn.

In summary:

  • You don’t need to wait until your Chinese is ‘better’ before starting to read (even beginners should be able to find suitable content)

  • Mentally prepare yourself that it’s going to take months before you are comfortable reading for an extended period of time

  • Commit to spending half an hour a day on reading (not including time to look up and revise new words)

  • Choose content suited to your current level, leaning towards easier content rather than more difficult content

  • Prepare content in advance so you don’t need to think about what to read next

  • Be willing to put aside anything that is too difficult or too boring. You can always return to it later once your level improves.

  • Don’t try to learn every new word. The useful ones will appear again later, and if they don’t, then by definition they are not useful to you yet.

  • Read. Every. Day.

© Copyright 2021 Imron Alston