Reading for Pleasure in the Target Language

Guest Post by Shannon Mason

When I finished my six-month stint as a university exchange student in Japan, going back more than fifteen years now, I was given a Japanese novel by my practicum supervisor. He said that one day I’ll be able to read it and tell him my thoughts. I set a goal to someday read a novel in Japanese, but it sat in the cupboard for some years. Occasionally, during a bout of motivation or optimistic craziness, I would get out that novel, with my pencil and electronic dictionary, and slowly go through each sentence, circling the vocabulary and characters I didn’t know, looking up the meaning and writing notations. It became a slow and uninspiring process, and I can still see to this day that the notations end on page ten.

Some years later I became a teacher and later teacher trainer. For a year I did a circuit around the state of Queensland, delivering professional development to Japanese language teachers on how to teach the reading and writing of Japanese in beginner classes. As you can imagine, one of our biggest challenges in teaching Japanese to young students is the complex writing system, and in particular to help them overcome their fear of Japanese writing system, which is sometimes formed because of teachers’ own fear of teaching reading and writing.

The philosophy I espoused was a balance of bottom-up and top-down approach, teaching explicit characters and words, but also exposing students, from the very first lessons, to whole and authentic texts from which to deduce pertinent information. It involved giving students the skills to navigate texts and bridge the gap between what they know, and what they don’t know.*

At around the same time as I was preaching the importance of teaching reading strategies, I was reading the English translation of Orhan Pamuk’s novel Benim Adım Kırmızı (My name is Red). I came across some word I had never heard of, and within half a second I had worked out due its position in the sentence that it was an adjective, and approximated a meaning based on the context, and read on. The only reason I noticed that I had even done that was that I had my constant talk of reading strategies in the forefront of my mind.

So, I set to complete my goal. This time around I approached reading as it should be in any language – for enjoyment. I chose a more appropriate text for my level. Harry Potter was a perfect start. I’ve read it before in English and have seen the movie several times so it’s not unfamiliar territory. Because it’s aimed at children (although I would argue that statement myself), it includes furigana (simplified Japanese) alongside the more difficult kanji (Chinese characters).

I decided to practise what I preached and use the skills and strategies I try to instill in my language students. Leaving the dictionary and pen behind, I read. When I didn’t understand, I negotiated an approximate meaning and moved on – as I realized we do it in our own language all the time without being conscious of it, and without berating ourselves for the limitations in our knowledge.

It took a slow 2 weeks and was rewarded again with lots of wonderful adventures, many that I’d forgotten. Based on no empirical evidence but purely on my own experience, I observed my vocabulary and kanji knowledge improve organically throughout the process – the book has a range of unique vocabulary and kanji that are repeated throughout the story, and use of common grammar structures used in context. Indeed, the process was more effective than my previous strategy to sit down with a pen and paper, not only because my motivation was upheld, but also because I was engaged in the act of reading for pleasure. I can’t make any claims about the links of reading for pleasure and improved reading proficiency or vocabulary acquisition, but in my case I felt my reading fluency improved with daily practice, and the idea is certainly worthy of further investigation.

*For more info see Mason, S. (2010). Improving students’ reading skills in Japanese. Modern Language Teachers Association of Queensland Journal, 150.