Learning German with stories can be a great way to expand your vocabulary, boost your passive grammar skills and get a general feel for the language, all while enjoying a (hopefully) entertaining yarn.
But how to do it the best way? Preparing vocabulary first? Or just dive right in? Today I’d like to share a few tips & strategies with you that’ll make your reading training even more effective:
1. Pick Something That Strikes Your Fancy
This may sound obvious but I can’t emphasize it enough. If you want to get the most out of reading a story, you should be really interested in the setting, characters, plot, etc. This interest is the fuel that’ll help you churn through any challenges you’ll (inevitably) encounter in the text. Put simply, don’t try reading something you wouldn’t find interesting in your mother tongue.
Secondly, your reading material should obviously be at the right difficulty level, but in case of doubt I’d always recommend to rather read something slightly more difficult that excites you than something easier that bores you.
Many people try reading children’s stories in the beginning, but the learning effect dwindles quickly since these stories aren’t meant to engage adult readers. And once your attention slips away, so do the benefits.
Need something interesting to read in German? Here’s a quick list of resources to help you get started:
- German short stories from the post-war era
- fairytales and other simple stories
- German graphic novels and comics
- literary German novels which are (relatively) accessible
☝Note: Most of these materials weren’t written for learners but native speakers. If you’re looking for stories which are specifically designed for German learners and include vocabulary and comprehension quizzes, check out our bookshop.
2. Read, Rinse & Repeat
Now that you’ve chosen a text that a) interests you, and b) is at the right difficulty level, it’s time to start reading. But in what manner exactly? Quickly? Slowly? Skimmingly? Thoroughly?
Here are a few key aspects to consider and some general guidelines:
Looking Up Words
Maybe you make it through the first part of the first sentence before you encounter your first U.V.O. (unidentified vocabulary object), maybe it’s even the first word of the story. Should you look it up immediately and note it down?
If you’ve read my books you’ll know that I generally advise students not to be too eager to look up each and every word immediately. Because when you check every second or third word you’re not reading any longer, you’re just flipping through a dictionary, which defeats the purpose.
As a rule of thumb, if you think you get the gist of a sentence despite the UVOs, don’t look them up immediately. You can always check them later. Just keep reading. Only if the sentence (and the next) fail to make any sense at all, or certain key words keep popping up again and again, look them up and note them down on your first read.
The exact ratio of looking up vs. ignoring depends on a lot of different factors (reading skills, text difficulty, etc.) but after a while you should be able to settle into a balance that suits you.
Reading Plans & Repetitions
Another important aspect of reading stories as part of your language learning routine is this: repetition. It doesn’t seem attractive, I know. It even sounds a bit boring, doesn’t it? Why read something again if you’ve already (kind of) understood it. But don’t be mistaken! Repeated readings of a section/chapter will yield huge rewards when done correctly.
Some people create elaborate reading plans for themselves where on day one they read chapters 1, 2, 3, on day two chapters 2, 3, 4, on day three 3, 4, 5, etc. It doesn’t really matter as long as you’re persistent and keep repeating certain parts while moving forward.
Adding an audio version to the mix can also be helpful. For example, redditor Henkkles describes his strategy as follows:
“This circle has three passes for each chapter, so for example on the first one you read the chapter while you listen, making note of new vocab. On the second pass you only listen to it, pausing when your comprehension falters and checking the book. On the third pass you’ll only listen to the chapter or listen and repeat, or whatever it is that tickles your fancy. You may adapt this as you see fit.”
So, whether you study a chapter every day for 20 minutes, or two chapters every day for 40 minutes, it all depends on how much time & motivation you got to spare. I’d recommend finding a rhythm that keeps you challenged without putting too much of a strain on you. If it start to feel like a chore, just stop and adjust your schedule.
During repeated readings, feel free to look up more words and note them down. But as another redditor noted: “don’t dwell on a chapter until you understand everything. don’t even dwell until you’ve learned 2/3rds. That’s the best way to drive yourself crazy.” (sic)
3. Retain & Reinforce
After having found a reading schedule that allows for a good reading flow and a certain amount of repetition it’s time to make sure that all of those new words you learned will make it into your long-term memory and not get washed out.
Flashcards are an excellent time-tested method of storing new knowledge, and whether you create your own paper cards or use a digital system, it simply works! (Note: I’ve created free flashcards for all Dino lernt Deutsch books that ship with the digital downloads.)
Additionally, you could also “gamify” your learning routine. For example, Quizlet(where I also uploaded all the above flashcards) offers various learning games that help you make memorization just a little bit more fun.
If you don’t like flashcards or games, another good way to memorize words is by using them, either in spoken or written form. Here’s a quick exercise: start by selecting 5-10 words from your vocabulary list and work them into a little text (~250 words), perhaps your own little spin-off story?