Learning Spanish By Reading: Is It Effective?

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Learning Spanish by reading is very effective if you use texts appropriate for your level of proficiency in the language. When trying to master Spanish to the point of fluency, one of the most common stumbling blocks is just a sheer lack of detailed Spanish vocabulary.

The best way to get around this is by using a multi-faceted approach that includes images, audio and reading.

But what about reading in Spanish? Is this a good way to get more vocabulary? In other words, does reading increase your vocabulary?

Understanding Implicit and Explicit Learning

In the research world, it's common to distinguish between two types of learning - implicit and explicit. Implicit learning is where you observe something being done and then pick up on its patterns and structure (also known as "learning by seeing").

Explicit learning is the kind of memory that you use for things like vocabulary definitions. You can explicitly learn Spanish words, for example, by looking up their meanings in a dictionary or flashcard program.

The advantages and disadvantages of implicit learning are fairly obvious: It's fun and easy to do, but it gives you only the vaguest idea of what's going on at a beginners level. For example, Spanish and Latin American movies are a great way to pick up Spanish when you are at an intermediate stage, but really difficult for an absolute beginner.

The advantages and disadvantages of explicit learning are less clear-cut: It takes more effort, but it supplies you with the specific details you need to really understand something.

What I'm interested in here is how implicit and explicit learning interact. Does seeing something over and over again enhance its memory somehow? Is it possible to boost your vocabulary knowledge with reading?

The research on this question is somewhat mixed. One study of second-language learners found that reading helped students learn how to speak more accurately, while another found no increase in vocabulary size among the same population. These studies were similar enough for some researchers to conclude that there may be little or no connection between reading and vocabulary growth.

But there's a big difference in these studies' results that's more important than whether or not reading helps you learn Spanish words: In one study, students were tested after they had read some material only once, while the other study had its participants repeatedly consult a dictionary to define unknown words. As any language student knows, repeating an act over and over again will strengthen its memory.

The difference in these studies makes it hard to tell if the effect of reading is to change Spanish vocabulary knowledge for good or if it simply adds a few new words to your working memory that you can then look up later. The best way to answer this question would be with a study that factors out the effect of repeated exposure.

That's exactly what a group of researchers at Harvard University did, comparing students who read texts in Spanish with those who repeatedly consulted dictionaries for definitions. The results showed that dictionary look-ups were 50 percent more effective than reading in expanding vocabulary knowledge .

I find this conclusion surprising because my own experience with reading in Spanish has been outstandingly positive. I've always thought that my Spanish vocabulary increased naturally as a result of reading, and the fact that the Harvard study found no such increase is very perplexing.

My best explanation for this difference between my own experience and the results from the Harvard group is implicit learning: In order to absorb vocabulary by reading, you need to be exposed to the words in question over and over again. If you read a new word once or twice, its meaning may stick with you for a day or two but after that it becomes inaccessible.

How Learning Spanish Through Reading Changes As You Progress

If the research mentioned above is true (and I think there's plenty of evidence to at least consider it), then improving your vocabulary knowledge through reading will take longer for a total beginner than consulting a dictionary, which you can open up at any point to learn the meaning of an unfamiliar word.

The process is also far less efficient because it requires you to look up each new word separately. However as you progress a change takes place which enables a much more fluid approach to reading. That change is based on one simple concept: context.

How Context Affects Learning Spanish Through Reading

There is a breakthrough stage in learning Spanish where you begin to get the meaning of unknown words without needing to look them up in a dictionary. Context is key to this breakthrough. As long as the unknown word is surrounded by ones you do know you can often figure it out. For examples sake, let's insert two Spanish words into an English sentence:

"The perro was scared and barked loudly, but once he realized who I was he calmed him down and wagged his cola."

Context tells us that perro means dog and cola means tail. Another example:

"I wanted to go surfing that morning, so I got into my coche and drove to the playa."

Coche is obviously a vehicle of some sort (car), and the destination, the playa, is most likely the beach.

The two examples above are simplistic but get the point across that increasing familiarity with a language leads to less reliance on dictionary lookups. There is one other massive benefit of learning Spanish vocabulary by reading: Learning by association.

Reading Spanish Increases Associated Vocabulary Learning

Learning by association (also known as Associative Learning) is a huge part of the language learning process. Your brain learns new vocabulary much easier if you give it more than just a single word or single list to work with. For example, let's say you've got a list of Spanish words to learn related to the human body:

  1. Cabeza
  2. Cabello/Pelo
  3. Ojos
  4. Nariz
  5. Orejas
  6. Boca
  7. Dientes
  8. Cuello
  9. Brazos
  10. Manos
  11. Pecho
  12. Piernas

Some are in the singular form and some are plural (ending in s). This association can give us a general clue to what some words mean. For example, you only have one nose so that's in the singular.

So instead of just telling you what nose is in Spanish, you'll likely remember it more easily if you see it in a sentence:

  • Nuestra vecina tiene la nariz grande. Our neighbor has a big nose.

You naturally pick up surrounding words without too much conscious effort when learning your target word in context. Here are some more examples:

  • Ella tiene dos ojos azules. She has two blue eyes.
  • Mi cabello es marrón. My hair is brown.
  • Tengo dolor de cabeza. I have a headache.
  • Él tiene el pelo negro. He has black hair.
  • El niño rubio tiene las orejas pequeñas. The blonde kid has small ears.
  • El joven tiene las manos grandes y fuertes. The young boy has big and strong hands.
  • El bebé tiene una boca pequeña pero muy bonita. The baby has a small but very cute mouth.
  • El hombre tiene brazos fuertes. The man has strong arms.
  • La mujer mayor tiene las piernas cansadas y débiles porque no va al gimnasio. The older woman has tired and weak legs because she doesn't go to the gym.
  • El hombre tiene un cuello largo. The man has a long neck.
  • Ella tiene muchas cicatrices en la cara. She has a lot of scars on her face.
  • El hombre tiene los dientes muy blancos y grandes. The man has very white and big teeth.
  • El hombre tiene algunos mechones de pelo en su pecho, pero no mucho. The man has some hair strands in his chest but not a lot.

One advantage with learning Spanish by reading is that Spanish sounds exactly like it is written with very few exceptions. Since you're learning the spelling at the same time as the meaning, there is no discrepancy between what you see in print and what your ear hears when someone says it. This makes vocabulary association easier to learn since reading opens another door to pronunciation for you.

It helps to read out loud in Spanish because your ear will pick out similar sounding words as you read. In the same way that listening to someone speak Spanish improves your own pronunciation, speaking as you read adds another dimension to your learning experience.

As a beginner, reading is a much more enjoyable and effective way to learn new vocabulary instead of just memorizing lists or word cards. At an intermediate and advanced level, it is also more useful than just memorizing lists.

How to Learn New Vocabulary By Reading in Spanish

Here are some simple but effective steps you can follow to increase your vocabulary knowledge with reading:

1. Choose an article or short story that interests you and read as far as you can without looking at the meaning of the Spanish words in the text.

2. Stop when you come to a word or phrase that confuses you and look it up in a Spanish/English dictionary.

3. Now see if you can figure out what the sentence means by interpreting the surrounding words before looking at the translation of the new vocabulary item. For example, let's say you come across this sentence:

  • Ella tiene los labios pintados de rojo. She has her lips painted red.

You need to know what "labios" means in order to understand the whole sentence, so before checking a dictionary, look at the context clues the author used around the word and see if they can guide you as to what it probably means.

In this sentence the author used the word "pintados" which frequently refers to makeup or a cosmetic procedure, and "rojo" which is red. So based on those two clues, labios most likely means lips .

4. After figuring out a new vocabulary item's meaning, look up its definition in a Spanish/English dictionary and write down the vocabulary item and brief definition on a word card or sheet of paper.

5. Look up 2 to 3 new items every time you read another article or story and write them all down.

6. Try to use the new vocabulary items in sentences when possible.

7. If the word has an irregular conjugation, memorize its different forms as soon as you can so that you don't forget them later.

8. Review all the words once a week to hold on to what you've learned and build even more Spanish vocabulary by learning their definitions and using them in sentences.

Keep in mind that although reading can give you a great advantage over just memorizing lists of words, it is only one piece of the learning equation. If you don't review your new vocabulary regularly and use it in sentences after learning it, chances are that you'll forget it quickly.

Are Flashcards A Better Method Of Learning Spanish Vocabulary Than Reading Full Texts?

Popular guides to vocabulary learning typically advise readers to build their lists of words with flashcards, which helps them gain the benefits of both implicit and explicit learning. You can look up a word in a dictionary, memorize its definition, and avoid the risk of forgetting it by practicing recognition with flashcards .

So if you want to get the most mileage from reading serious literature or academic texts in Spanish, I recommend that you put aside your dictionary and consult it only as a last resort. A way to do this is by learning the meanings of new words from word lists or visual aids such as flashcards or illustrations that appear in the text itself.

Conversely, you should spend more time looking up words than you would if you didn't read at all—but not too long: If you look up a dictionary entry every time you encounter an unfamiliar word, your reading speed will slow down to a crawl and you'll quickly get fed up with the activity.

Having said that, you should be ready to turn to your dictionary if the meaning of a word is crucial for understanding the text, otherwise you may not understand what's going on and begin losing interest in reading altogether.

So to answer the stated research question: The way you read has a much greater effect on vocabulary expansion than whether you consult a dictionary or not. However, this pattern is true only for those people who already have some knowledge of Spanish and want to improve their vocabulary through reading .

If your first language is English and you're relatively new to Spanish , it seems more advisable to use a dictionary every time you encounter an unfamiliar word, because it will help you quickly expand your vocabulary.

On the other hand, if your goal is writing fluency, then too much reading can get in the way of building skills that are essential for successful communication : You need to be able to write texts that accurately convey your thoughts, but this requires clarity of thought, which may be inhibited by the affective filter when you are reading in a language that's not your own. It's also much more difficult to find information on specific topics in a foreign language than it is in your mother tongue.

Speaking Spanish for fluency, then, involves striking the right balance between reading and other forms of input as well as using language to communicate your thoughts, which is another reason why I recommend making conversation a priority in addition to extensive reading.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, you can also improve your English vocabulary by reading in Spanish. That's because an effective way to learn new words is to make connections between them and words from other languages that have a similar meaning or function as synonyms.

In fact, each language has its own unique set of rules , which govern how words are combined to form phrases and sentences. To understand them, it's important to be able to identify the role that each word plays in a sentence . For example, common prepositions like "a," "de," "en," and "para" play an integral part in Spanish grammar because they determine the relationship between objects in a sentence.

Advantages of Bilingual Dictionaries When Learning Spanish

To be an effective language learner, then, requires that you have knowledge of both your first and target languages . That's why I recommend learning from bilingual dictionaries: They can open up new dimensions to reading since they allow you to look up words from either language—and that's an essential part of becoming a proficient bilingual reader.

In doing so, however, keep in mind that most bilingual dictionaries don't go into detail about the different ways a word can be translated, so it will take time and practice before you learn how to use them effectively.

Still, for those of you who are starting out as language learners and want to significantly increase your vocabulary through reading, bilingual dictionaries can be extremely valuable tools.

FAQs On Learning Spanish by Reading

Is it easier for children to learn Spanish by reading?

What's great about reading to learn a foreign language is that it can be done at any time, anywhere with no cost. The child learns the words by seeing them written and hearing them spoken at the same time. This helps put all three of their senses to work, which is something many people say makes a difference.

What's not so great is that if you don't know how to speak Spanish yourself, there may not be someone around to explain things to the child. Then again, learning without being sidetracked or going off topic may sometimes have benefits as well. You could also look into finding children's books that are bilingual Spanish-English.

Regardless of whether parents read aloud or teach themselves first, parents can work to put language into context for their children. This helps reinforce the words and sentence structure, which is necessary for building solid paragraphs later on.

What are some benefits of learning Spanish through reading?

Learning Spanish by reading is a great way to learn the language. Because when you read, you use your eyes and ears at the same time, this is an excellent method for learning vocabulary in context. Plus, it’s always available-no matter where you are or what time of day!

Of course there are some cons to this method as well-you may find yourself getting stuck on one word or sentence without understanding it fully because of not being able to hear how it's pronounced; or you might get tired of reading after awhile and then stop practicing altogether. But overall, learning Spanish through reading has many benefits that make it worth trying out!

Is there a difference between reading in English and Spanish?

Reading in either English or Spanish is good for your brain. The structure of the language, the vocabulary, and the style of writing are all different in each language. The amount of time you might need to spend learning new words will depend on what type of reading you plan to do; however, reading in any language can improve your knowledge and understanding.

What is the affective filter and why does it inhibit us from learning Spanish through reading?

The affective filter is a term used in second language acquisition that refers to the emotional and psychological factors that inhibit a learner's ability to successfully acquire a second language. This can include anything from feeling shy or embarrassed when speaking the language, to feeling overwhelmed or frustrated by the learning process.

One of the reasons why reading to learn Spanish may not be as effective for some people as other methods is because of the affective filter. If you are feeling shy or self-conscious when reading aloud, this can inhibit your ability to learn and remember new vocabulary. Additionally, if you find the learning process frustrating or overwhelming, this can also cause the affective filter to become activated and block your ability to learn.

What is a good balance between extensive reading, conversing with native speakers, and using language tools like bilingual dictionaries?

It is hard to say if there is a perfect balance between these three, but because language acquisition through reading relies mostly on one sense, sight, you may need to focus more on conversing with native speakers in order to reinforce pronunciation.

What is the best way to move past an affective filter, if one exists?

To work through your affective filter, take some time to practice reading aloud in Spanish. Pause after reading each sentence and repeat it out loud yourself. If you come across a word you don't know, take the time to look it up in a monolingual dictionary right then and there. If looking words up is too much pressure for you, remember that reading yourself allows you to revisit difficult vocabulary as many times as needed until you understand it thoroughly.

What are some other tips or suggestions parents can use to encourage their children to discover the pleasures of reading Spanish books?

Parents can help recommend specific Spanish children's books that will be interesting and engaging for their children. They can also offer to read along with the child, making a fun bedtime ritual out of it! And finally, parents should not hesitate to praise their children when they do well at learning Spanish through reading.

What are some tips for parents that want to help their children learn Spanish through reading?

Any parent who is looking to teach Spanish to their child can get started by picking up a good book about the topic. For example, there are great books on soccer, baseball, and other sports in Spanish. Parents can help engage their child with these topics, and make reading a great family activity.

How can parents encourage their children to read more Spanish books?

If parents want their child to read Spanish at home, there are many ways they can do this. First of all, make sure the house is filled with appropriately leveled books in both languages. This way it will be easy for the child to find something interesting and appropriate. Next, parents can make an effort to read aloud more often so their children are exposed to more Spanish, whether at home or on the go.

What are some positive reasons for reading in Spanish?

1. Reading can help you learn new vocabulary words and improve your grammar skills.

2. Reading can help you improve your comprehension skills.

3. Reading can help you improve your writing skills.

4. Reading can help you become more fluent in Spanish.

5. Reading can help you learn more about a particular subject in Spanish.

6. Reading can help you reduce your fear of speaking in Spanish.

7. Reading can help you learn idiomatic expressions in Spanish.

8. Reading can help you become bilingual (if reading is done in English and then in Spanish).

9. Reading something interesting will make studying more enjoyable, which may lead to better retention of what was read.

10. Reading is one of the best things you can do to prepare for any trip abroad to a Spanish-speaking country or Latin American nation because reading will familiarize you with the culture in much detail beyond what

What are some negative reasons for reading in Spanish?

1. Reading can be difficult and time-consuming if you're a complete beginner in the language. To overcome this, start with simple texts written for beginners.

2. It can be frustrating to read text that is too easy or too difficult for your current level of fluency. So make sure you challenge yourself to read more complex texts but not so complex that you have to use a dictionary for every other word.

3. Reading can be boring if the text that you are reading doesn't interest you or isn't appropriate for your level of fluency. This is probably the reason most people fail to learn Spanish by reading. So if you are interested in sports, then read a Spanish book about your favorite sport. If you are a of a particular religion, e.g. Christian, start reading a bilingual Spanish-English Bible.

4.  It can be difficult to read long passages in Spanish without stopping to look up new words or phrases in a dictionary. Make sure you are not trying to run before you can walk. Stick to texts that only require a small percentage of unknown words if this bothers you.

5. You might not have time to read extended passages in Spanish if you also have a lot of other commitments, such as a job. If your job allows, listen to audio books while working.

Reading is one of the best ways to learn a new language. However, reading in Spanish may not be as effective if you are just starting out with this language or have difficulty remembering what you read.

If either of these scenarios sounds familiar, consider some other methods for learning Spanish first before trying to read your way through it. For example, interactive apps like Duolingo and Rosetta Stone can help beginners get started by teaching them vocabulary words without having to worry about comprehension skills at all - which can be difficult for someone who does not speak the language well enough yet.

Then once they start understanding more complex sentences on their own, they will do better when reading those same sentences later on because there won't be any surprises that might cause confusion while translating.

Duolingo also helps by teaching them how to spell correctly, which they will need to do in order to write fluently in Spanish. This is another area where beginning learners usually fail when they try reading on their own - because they don't know what words should look like written out for this new language.

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