You need not understand every word. Use the dictionary
sparingly. Think of conversations you have in bars,
or at construction sites, in noisy city streets, at
stock markets...: it is impossible to understand every
word in these situations, yet you still understand enough
so that you can fill in certain gaps from the context,
and communicate successfully. Once in a while you miss
something essential and get confused, and then you ask
the person with whom you are speaking to repeat what
they said. Reading German is like talking in a noisy
room: you can fill in a lot of the gaps caused by unfamiliar
words and constructions; only when this fails should
you turn to your dictionary! The remainder of this page provides advice
of various kinds to help you "fill in the gaps" as efficiently
as possible. But first, here's a great example of how helpful reading strategies can be, from a student describing her first day in Germany. She's just arrived for a study abroad program, and is trying to find her room in the Studentenwohnheim (click here to see the blog, which is full of great insights and anecdotes, and might inspire you to study abroad. I recommend reading it chronologically, i.e. read the oldest entries first!):
- I'm in building 14, and I had to wander for a few minutes to find it. I'm on the 6th floor, which really means 7th floor. When I walked in, there was a skinny little staircase that winds all the way to the top floor, and an elevator with the words "Im Brandfall Aufzug nicht benutzen". The only words I immediately recognized were "nicht benutzen", which means "don't use". For fear of breaking rules even before I move in, I start climbing the stairs with all 80 lbs of my luggage. By the time I got to the 1st floor, I was tired enough to break some rules. But as I reach the landing, it finally dawns on me. Brand is a form of brennen, or burn. Fire. Fall means event. Zug is train, and auf can mean up. In burn event up train don't use. Don't use elevator in case of fire. What a relief! So I happily jump on the elevator and cruise up the next 6 floors without trouble.
Preread! People always want to skip this: it seems
unproductive and is frustrating, because you want to
get started right away, but prereading makes you a much
more efficient reader. In these ways it is like stretching
before exercise, or pretreating laundry, or marinating
meat, or warming up your car: a small effort that lazy
and foolish people avoid, and that gives smart and diligent
people the edge in this dog-eat-dog world. The first
thing you will learn in any speedreading class is that
you can instantly increase your reading speed by prereading:
after investing a couple of minutes in finding out what
you can expect from the text, you are much less likely
to get stuck and you will be able to read through the
text much more quickly, since the material will already
be slightly familiar, and your brain will have formed
some categories by which to organize and interpret what
We will ordinarily do some prereading activities in
class before the texts are assigned. Nevertheless, you
should spend a few minutes prereading the text when
you first sit down to do the assignment.
Try to determine...
the type of text and intended audience.
If it is a newspaper article, for example, you can expect
lots of quotations (and Subjunctive I!); if it is an
article explaining a scientific concept for laypeople,
you can expect creative analogies, examples, and a discussion
of the concept's practical applications; if it is a
section of a textbook, you can expect a more concise
Make sure you understand the title.
b. any information about the author.
You may recognize one or two of the authors whose
texts we are reading, and this may lead you to expect
certain things or at least build your curiosity (also
an important part of reading!). Occasionally there
will be a blurb telling you what kinds of text to
expect from the author of the text you are reading.
c. when the article was written.
3. Look at tables and illustrations.
4. On the basis of the above information,
try to guess/predictwhat the article might say.
Ask yourself what you hope it will talk about!
5. Now skim the whole text quickly,
without stopping, for 2 - 5 minutes, in
order to do the following:
a. recall what you already
know about this topic.
6. Read assigned questions/exercises.
These obviously tell you what to look for, but also give
you more information about what to expect.
b. repeat step 4, and refine your expectations and
c. note the text's organisation/structure.
You should spend at least one hour, but no more than
two hours on each reading assignment in 101-231.
Use the suggestions below to understand the text as
well as you can within that time.
Concentrate on the important parts! Your prereading
will have given you some idea of where these are. Important
parts are generally:
the first and last paragraph of the text, and
the first and last sentence of each paragraph.
Concentrate on the important words! In general,
the shorter the word, the more important it is that you
know or be able to guess its meaning/function. A list
of examples follows; if any of them are unfamiliar to
you, look them up NOW!!!! and note that many of them have
more than one possible meaning:
c. dates, times, measurements
and similar specific information
e. analogies explain the central
concepts of the text.
a. negations (nicht,
kein, niemals, nirgendwo, niemand, nie, nichts,...)
It will help you with all aspects of your
German to print out and learn the list of 200 or so most
used German words!
b. conjunctions (und,
denn, sondern, aber, oder, weil, daß, obwohl,
falls, wenn,...) which indicate the relation
c. question words (wie, wo,
wann, warum, was, wohin and other wo-compounds
[note some of these can also function as relative
d. prepositions (aus, außer,
bei, mit, nach, seit, von, zu, ohne, für, gegen,
statt, trotz, ohne, um...zu, in, auf, an, über,...)
d. other "power words": (usually) little prepositions
and adverbs that can indicate the focus of the sentence:
e.g. time expressions (immer,
nie, selten, oft, als, gewöhnlich, normalerweise,
plötzlich, manchmal, meistens, während,
nachdem, nach, vor, dann, schon, noch,...--note
that some of these can have other important meanings),
and various others (nur, auch,
darum, deshalb, dennoch, deswegen, außerdem,
natürlich, überall, je,...)
e. frequently repeated words
3. Guess meanings/functions of unknown words.
The less you have to interrupt your reading by flipping
through a dictionary, the better. There are all kinds
of clues you can use:
context: never look up an unfamiliar word as soon
as you come across it: first look backwards and forwards
for clues as to what meanings are possible.
Use the dictionary when all else fails, if you
think that the word may be essential to your comprehension
of the text. Most essential, besides the "power words"
described under (2), are the subject, verb,
and object(s). Click
here for some detailed advice on using a dictionary,
including some practice exercises.
b. the word's grammatical function:
is it a verb, noun, adjective, adverb,...? Word order,
capitalisation, and endings will help you determine
c. paraphrases: sometimes you'll
find the author paraphrases the word elsewhere, in
order to explain it or in order to vary her expression.
d. clues within the word itself--but
keep in mind the context, since these clues are sometimes
parts of compound words which you may recognize
(ab-, un-, mit-, ein-,...) or suffixes (-bar,
-los, -voll, -heit,...) that help determine meaning
words in English or other languages.
5. Read actively. For example:
a. Try to predict what
will come next.
6. Still stuck?? What if you identify
an essential sentence or phrase and simply can't figure
out what it means? That is the time to apply the grammar
you have learned in class in order to analyze the sentence
and get to the bottom of it. For some ideas on how
to tackle especially long sentences, click
b. Decide what is important and underline it.
c. Mark confusing passages you want to ask
about in class.
d. Mark interesting facts you learn as you
read. Bonus: tell your friends something cool you
learned from this text. Extra bonus: Hand out fliers
on the diag.
e. Ask yourself questions as you read.
f. Think about whether or not you like what you
are reading. Is it clear? funny? interesting?
boring? exciting? unnecessarily complicated? enlightening?
Questions/Finding Information: Scanning the Text
should be easy for you after prereading and reading
the text as discussed above. If you need to locate a
particular piece of information, you should once again
not plod through the text word for word, but rather
scan for it: try to find where distinctive words from
the question occur in the text; if this does not work,
think what other distinctive words might be associated
with this question and/or its answer, and scan the text
for those. Remember that scanning for information in
this way is not an arbitrary classroom trick, but rather
an essential skill in many situations: think of lawyers
trying to find precedents for cases they are working
on, or the way people read romance ads or obituaries....