Optimal Reading Immersion - Narrow Reading
A common topic of discussion in language learning communities is what material to read and consume as a language learner. The discussion around efficiency for vocabulary retention and word/grammar acquisition is ever so common as well.
Experts generally agree that the most efficient way to acquire a high level of proficiency in a language while retaining a very large and extensive vocabulary relies on reading a lot of things over a long period of time. However, especially during the beginner stages of language learning, reading native material can be quite a struggle. It can feel like a daunting barrier that looms over you only to demoralize you further. It becomes like a language obstacle that seems impossible to break through with only limited beginner words and grammar.
For this reason, a lot of people tend to get stuck on learner material, like textbooks and dopamine-infused bird-themed language learning apps, too afraid to venture farther outside of their comfort zone. It is not uncommon to hear phrases like “It’s too early for me to read books” (despite never having tried) only to be met by more advanced learners’ dismissive replies along the lines of “just read” with very little actionable advice beyond that.
A major turning point in the career of any language learner is the moment they transition from awkwardly trying to put together weird grammatically incorrect sentences from their textbooks’ examples to smoothly reading native material with minimal aid required. There is usually a moment of “enlightenment” where your brain goes “holy shit I am actually reading Japanese” without you even realizing it.
It would be ideal for any learner to try and get to that point as early as possible. This is because getting stuck in the “eternal beginner” plateau, wandering from textbook to textbook or app to app forever, is far from advisable. Once you realize the actual practicality of the language you want to learn, a whole broader world opens in front of your eyes.
What is Narrow Reading
The idea of Narrow Reading has been heavily discussed by Krashen, the original proponent of the Input Hypothesis, initially in 1981 and later expanded and refined over decades of research.
The concept at its roots is defined by Krashen himself as “the practice of reading texts by one author or about a single topic of interest, which helps ensure comprehension and natural repetition of vocabulary and grammar.”
A common talking point among language learning communities is that you should read all kinds of topics and not get stuck on the same stuff, because you want to get a broad set of words for all situations in order to become truly proficient in the language in a well-rounded manner.
Counter-intuitively, however, this does not seem to be the case especially at the early stages of learning. Sticking to a single genre or topic of interest seems to yield better and faster results with an increased amount of comfort for the learner, to such an extent that it should be encouraged and promoted early on rather than discouraged.
There are quite a few reasons why this is the case, and I’ll be going over some of them in the following sections.
First Few Pages Effect
The biggest contributor to what I usually call “reader fatigue” has to be the so-called First Few Pages Effect. I’m sure anyone who’s ever read a book or any similarly long reading passage in a foreign language is familiar with this effect, even though they might not have been able to identify it consciously.
The First Few Pages Effect is described in a Krashen paper as “the first few pages of a new author’s work [that are] tough going [over]. After this initial difficulty, the rest of the book goes much easier.”
Speaking from personal experience from reading Japanese books on Kindle, I noticed that once I get to around 15% to 20% of a new book (as reported by the Kindle software), my reading experience suddenly becomes much easier. I need to look up much fewer words as I become more familiar with that author’s writing style. From then on, it’s all smooth sailing.
Due to this phenomenon, every time you switch from one material to another, you will have to get over this hurdle again from scratch. This compounds significantly into reader fatigue and can be very demoralizing in the long run. It may feel like you’re not progressing at all in your language learning journey!
This is also a very strong point against the reading exercises that are often presented to students by textbooks or apps that provide a variety of reading passages for beginners. It is common for textbooks to present you with various writing styles and topics (newspaper articles, handwritten letters, personal diaries, various conversations, children’s stories, etc). They want to expose you to a wide range of words and grammar patterns, but unfortunately by the time you become comfortable with one of them it will be over and you’ll have to go through another one again from scratch. It can be very frustrating with very limited rewards.
There is a strong case proposed for properly handpicked and curated graded reader collections, however in my personal experience even excellent-looking material like the Tadoku Graded Readers doesn’t really seem to cut it.
Read Whatever You Want
So then the question becomes, what should you be reading to minimize the first few pages effect, and maximize your enjoyment of reading in a foreign language?
One thing that is good to keep in mind is that interacting with things you enjoy should always be a priority. The affective filter hypothesis tells us that if we interact with the language in a manner that is stress free, enjoyable, and fun, we will acquire it better and more easily. The topic of motivation is also very important and it’s hard to stay motivated if you’re not into the stuff you are reading.
Some people have the ability to jump into very complicated stories from the get go because they want to read them so much, no matter what. On the other hand, the vast majority of people wouldn’t be able to keep such strong motivation when faced with a very steep language barrier, so it’s generally advisable to read simpler things that pique your interest.
To directly quote Krashen’s words:
“Read only material […] that is genuinely fun and interesting, material that is so easy that you probably feel guilty reading it in your primary language. This is your excuse to read comics, magazines, detective stories, romances, etc. Reading […] does not have to make you a better person, does not have to give you insight into other cultures, and does not have to improve your knowledge of history or science.”
Even if you get to a point where you feel like the stuff you’re reading is too easy, you don’t need to feel compelled to read harder stuff just for the sake of it. If you want to read harder stuff, by all means go ahead. But don’t feel guilty for not wanting to do so. Stick to what you enjoy and do it for a long time.
It is easier to read simpler stuff you find interesting over long periods of time, especially if it is the same author or book series or genre. Do not worry about feeling like you’ll be forever stuck in a single genre or author: studies show that readers gradually and naturally expand their reading interests as they read more.
Importance of Contextual Reading
Another often underrated advantage of keeping your reading habits within the sphere of familiarity is what is called contextual reading.
If you keep your reading material constrained within an area that sparks your interests, something you are already familiar with in your native language (a hobby, a specific fandom, narrative genre, etc), you will more easily be able to relate with it on a level that goes beyond just language comprehension.
It is much easier to understand what someone is trying to tell us if we already know the general contents of the message beforehand.
Narrow reading also lets us build this familiarity by sticking to a specific author/genre/series over a long period of time. We not only become familiar with the words of the author, we also become familiar with the characters, setting, way of thinking, story progression, etc. It builds intuition not only at the level of language understanding, but also within our own imagination.
There is also another added benefit to contextual reading: while we are able to intuit the meaning from pre-acquired understanding of the topic, we also reinforce certain collocations and words used by a certain author as we delve deeper into their work.
It is impossible to gain mastery of word usage by just seeing new words once, even if we make extensive use of Anki. However, by sticking to the same author or genre, there is a greater chance of coming across the same words being used in similar contexts so we can build a stronger intuition for them.
Content Words vs Function Words
On the topic of word awareness, we need to make a distinction between content words and function words.
A common critique against Narrow Reading is that by only reading a limited range of topics, you will not come across many new words and you will never become familiar with more general and useful vocabulary for everyday life.
While it is true that if you never branch out you risk never coming across certain domain-specific words, and you will have a harder time engaging with topics you are not familiar with, from the point of view of someone who’s trying to learn a language this should not be a big concern.
The main reason is that the biggest barrier a beginner struggles against the most when they start reading are content words rather than function words.
Function words, often also called grammatical words, are those words and parts of speech that provide a grammatical function to a sentence. They are things like articles or pronouns in English. Particles or auxiliary verbs/conjugations in Japanese. They are things you will find listed for example on bunpro (Note: Fitting Bunpro in your study routine) or similar grammar learning tools.
Content words, on the other hand, are where the essence of a text comes through. It’s where you find the actual meaning.
Studies show that by keeping your reading domain narrow, you also constrain the range of content words you have to learn to be able to read a certain topic smoothly. The more you read, the more familiar you become with those content words, and the more time you will have available to acquire them subconsciously in context. If you keep jumping from one topic to the next, you will encounter a much larger amount of unknown content words that will turn into a not very pleasant reading experience. This is where the first few pages effect originates from.
However, do not misunderstand. Even if you stick to only deep reading a single topic or technical field, you will quickly find that a lot of content words easily carry across domains very frequently. Narrow reading simply gives your brain the advantage of becoming intuitively accustomed to the grammatical syntax of the language and slowly trickle exposure to more and more content words (by simply reading a lot) over a longer period of time.
Another interesting point for narrow reading, especially when it comes to Japanese, is the struggle with names. Even in English, things like proper names and titles (king, president, duke, etc) have been found to be surprisingly frustrating to read for a non native. By keeping your reading narrow, you can cut off a huge source of problems as the same names and titles will often repeat, giving you more time to more easily familiarize with them.
In conclusion, the most important thing to keep in mind is that you should really just be reading whatever interests you without worrying about efficiency or productivity. No matter what, if you read stuff, you will improve your language. You don’t need to constantly challenge yourself with new or harder things if you don’t want to. Enjoy your simple reading guilt-free, it is a great experience. Try to detach from the need to study the language and just read because you find it fun.
You want to bring your second language interaction habits at a similar level of spontaneity as your first language. This also includes reading things you want to read because you want to read them. It is interesting to think about the fact that people naturally gravitate towards reading narrowly in their native language, but seem to be pushed away from doing so in a language they are trying to learn. It’s rather counter-intuitive.
While in general I can’t tell you what you should be reading, I list a few manga and light novels in Beginner Japanese Immersion Material that I think are a good entry point for a beginner. I have also written down a couple of practical tips and tools that can facilitate your reading experience here: Practical Tips to Facilitate Early Reading#, especially if you have a hard time dealing with stuff like Kanji.
If you feel lost about what your study routine should look like, on the other hand, I recommend giving Japanese Learning Loop# a read, and bookmark the Unlocking Japanese: Tricks page to consult whenever you get stuck in your immersion.
- Krashen (2018). The Conduit Hypothesis: How Reading Leads to Academic Language Competence
- Cho, K.-S., & Krashen, S. D. (1994). Acquisition of Vocabulary from the Sweet Valley Kids Series: Adult ESL Acquisition. Journal of Reading, 37(8), 662–667.
- Krashen, Stephen. (1981). The Case for Narrow Reading. TESOL Newsletter. 15.
- Mason, Beniko. (2019). Guided SSR before Self-Selected Reading.
- LaBrant (1958)
- Schmitt, N. and Carter, R. (2000), The Lexical Advantages of Narrow Reading for Second Language Learners. TESOL Journal, 9: 4-9.
- Cowan (1974)