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French Reading Tips

How to improve your French reading comprehension

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Reading in French is an excellent way to learn new vocabulary and get familiar with French syntax, while at the same time learning about some topic, be it politics, culture, or a favorite hobby. Here are some suggestions for ways improve your French reading skills, depending on your level.

For beginners, it's good to start with books written for children, no matter what your age. The simplified vocabulary and grammar offer a stress-free introduction to reading in French - plus the cute stories will probably make you smile. I highly recommend Le Petit Prince and the Petit Nicolas books. As your French improves, you can move up grade levels; for example, I know a 50-something intermediate French speaker who enjoys the moderate challenge of reading action-adventure and mystery novels written for teens. If you're in France, don't hesitate to ask librarians and book sellers for help choosing appropriate books.

Another useful technique for beginning students is to read original and translated texts at the same time, whether written in French and translated into English or vice versa. You can do this with individual novels of course, but bilingual books are ideal, as their side-by-side translations make it easy to compare equivalent words and phrases in the two languages.

Also consider French readers, which include short stories, novel exerpts, non-fiction, and poems chosen especially for beginners.

Intermediate students can also make use of translated texts; for example, you could read the translation No Exit in order to be familiar with the themes and events before diving into Jean Paul Sartre's original, Huis clos. Or you could read the French play first and then the English, to see how much you understood in the original.

In a similar vein, when reading news, it will be easier to understand articles written in French if you are already familiar with the topic in English. In fact, it's a good idea to read the news in both languages no matter what your level of French may be. In the translation/interpretation program at Monterey Institute, professors stressed the importance of reading a daily newspaper in each of our languages, in order to know the relevant vocabulary for whatever is going on in the world. (The varying points of view offered by different news sources is just a bonus.)

It's important to read about topics that interest you: sports, animal rights, sewing, or whatever. Being familiar with the topic will help you understand what you're reading, you'll enjoy learning more about your favorite subject, and the vocabulary you learn will help you later when speaking about that topic in French. It's win-win!


New Vocabulary

Should you look up unfamiliar words while reading?

It's an age-old question, but the answer isn't so simple. Every time you look up a word, the flow of your reading is interrupted, which can make it difficult to remember the storyline. On the other hand, if you don't look up unfamiliar vocabulary, you might not be able to understand enough of the article or story to make sense of it anyway. So what's the solution?

First and foremost, it's important to choose material that is appropriate for your level. If you're a beginner, diving into a full-length novel will be an exercise in frustration. Instead, choose something simple, like a children's book or a short article about current events. If you're intermediate, you might try more in-depth newspaper articles or short stories. It's perfectly fine - in fact, it's ideal - if there are a few words you don't know, so that you can learn some new vocabulary as you work on your reading. But if there are two new words in every sentence, you might want to try something else.

Likewise, choose something on a topic that interests you. If you like sports, read L'Équipe. If you're interested in music, check out MusicActu. If you're interested in news and literature, read them, otherwise find something else. There's plenty to read without forcing yourself to slog through something that bores you.

Once you've chosen appropriate reading material, you can decide for yourself whether to look up words as you go or just underline them / make a list and look them up later. Whichever method you use, you should reread the material afterwards, to help cement the new vocabulary and make sure that you understand the story or article. You might also want to make flashcards for future practice/review.

Take a look at improving your French vocabulary for additional tips.


Reading and Listening

One of the tricky things about French is that the written and spoken languages are quite different. I'm not talking about register (although that is part of it), but rather the relationship between French spelling and pronunciation, which is not at all obvious. Unlike Spanish and Italian, which are spelled phonetically for the most part (what you see is what you hear), French is full of silent letters, enchaînement, and liaisons, all of which contribute to the elusive nature of the French accent. My point is simply that unless you never plan to speak or listen to French, it's a good idea to combine reading with listening in order to make the connection between these two separate but related skills. Listening comprehension exercises, audio books, and audio magazines are all useful tools for this sort of joint practice.


Test yourself

Find out how well you read with reading comprehension exercises.


Improve your French
   * Improve your French listening comprehension
   * Improve your French pronunciation
   * Improve your French reading comprehension
   * Improve your French verb conjugations
   * Improve your French vocabulary
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