Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Best Way to Improve Your Vocabulary While Reading

What is the Best Way to Improve your Vocabulary While Reading Books?

[editing note: this is a published rough draft. Needs fewer words. Needs pictures. Needs better structure and a word level check. Could use a companion article on the web browser plugin I use to do the same thing for web articles. Needs a companion article on good ways to put your words to use - chat groups, web forums, exchange sites. Could use a note that reading is useful for many things besides vocabulary - if you read local things you can have opinions and experiences related to them, and talk about them. Calls to action are fun too, ask people to post a goal and longest streak in there.]

Many language-learning methods recommend reading books to improve your language skills and vocabulary, but HOW exactly do you make that happen efficiently, in a fun way?

I have written before that I think the best way to improve your vocabulary in general is flashcards, but I will be the first to admit that creating flashcards is tedious. I believe most people that commit to creating flashcards while reading will either stop creating the flash cards while they read, or just stop reading entirely.

There must be a better way, right? One that's fun, and also efficient? There is, and while it may require a little upfront investment I feel like this power-user trick is well worth the effort.


The basic idea is to completely separate the reading process (which should be fun!) from the vocabulary review process (which is focused and maybe not as fun). 

With some modern technology and software, this is possible. The basic outline is to use a Kindle Paperwhite to read freely-available Spanish books, quickly looking up words in a built-in Spanish->English dictionary while you just enjoy reading, then use the Kindle's built-in "WordWise" database and a connector program to periodically dump these words into Anki so you can learn them for real.

Here's how you can do it in detail:

  1.  Purchase a Kindle Paperwhite. I usually don't like to recommend people buy things, but even if you aren't doing flashcards, this can be a life-changer. It's smaller and lighter than a normal book but lets you carry 1000s of books. It is backlit so you can read in bed or at night, but doesn't do blue light so you can sleep. It syncs to the cloud, it lets you read free books, it looks like a normal hard drive on your computer when plugged in, charge lasts a month, and on and on and on. But most importantly for this guide, it remembers every word you look up and stores them in a database you can access yourself. That is unique and amazing.
  2. Get a translation dictionary for your Kindle. For Spanish->English I use the HISPANO English->Spanish Dictionary.  Make sure to deliver it to the Kindle after purchase.
  3. Download a free Spanish reader to your Kindle. There are lots of these online and lots of ways to get books on your Kindle, but getting this ebook from Amazon will make sending it to your Paperwhite very easy
  4. Get the Anki flashcard system setup
  5. Get the "kind2anki" Anki Add-on - install instructions are on that page, but basically you install the free Anki Desktop program, then in the Tools->Add-Ons menu you tell it to search for and add an add-on, then paste in the kind2anki add on code hit return, then restart Anki
  6. Set your new translation dictionary as the default - In your Kindle, go to Settings > Device Options > Language and Dictionaries > Dictionaries. NOTE! If you are tempted to try this using the Kindle mobile apps, you'll see why I recommend the physical Paperwhite reader. There is no way that I know of to change the default dictionary in the mobile apps, so this trick just doesn't work. Sorry!
  7. Read! Just enjoy reading. Don't try to remember words. Long-press on any words you don't know, and you should get an English translation unless it is a difficult conjugation with pronouns attached etc. This easy look-up makes reading in a foreign language much more fun as you stay in the story instead of hunting through a dictionary.
  8. Turn dictionary look-ups to flashcards. Every once in a while, plug your kindle directly into the computer you set up in step #5 above. Once the kindle shows up as a hard drive, copy the vocabulary database to someplace easy to find (for me on a Mac this is in /Volumes/kindle/system/vocabulary/vocab.db and I copy it to my Downloads folder). Then in Anki Desktop run Tools -> kind2anki. I dump all the words into a "From Kindle" deck, I have them set to translate to 'en', and I let it run. I get a little pop-up when it's done, telling me how many words it processed
  9. Clean up the import to make sure it's useful. I use the Card Browser ("Browse") and on the left I select the deck I imported to ("From Kindle" for me) sorted by "Created Date". I start from the top and look at each card to make sure the card looks good and alter it as I see fit. One thing I usually do is alter conjugated and participle forms to infinitive for instance. I also change plurals to singular, delete words I am certain are duplicated in other flashcard decks, verify definitions on SpanishDict.com etc. This process takes time but is important, and it didn't clutter up your fun reading time did it?
  10. Review your new cards during your normal daily Anki sessions and enjoy your new words

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