Experimenting with tadoku

As its name suggests, tadoku (多読) is a reading strategy that encourages reading lots of material. It has three simple rules:

1. Choose books you find easy to read.
2. Don’t look up words in a dictionary; rather, skip over words and phrases you don’t understand.
3. If you don’t find a book interesting, start reading another one.

I usually break all those rules when reading Japanese books. I generally choose books that are above my reading level because they’re the most interesting. My strong perfectionist tendencies compel me to look up a word in a dictionary even when I’m 95% sure I know what it means! Finally, once I start reading a book, I usually persevere to the bitter end.

Taking the plunge

I decided to try tadoku for a month. The first challenge I faced was finding books that were interesting but not overly difficult. I visited the local library and borrowed some children’s books. I also salvaged some light novels that my brother-in-law was throwing out. Finally, I went to a second-hand bookshop and picked up some manga (safe in the knowledge that I could resell them later on).

Armed with these books, I started reading with my dictionary safely out of arm’s reach. I found the experience of reading without a dictionary a lot like riding a bicycle without training wheels or swimming without armbands—it was simultaneously liberating and a bit scary. On the one hand, I could read a lot faster and consequently became more engrossed in what I was reading. On the other hand, I experienced nagging doubts when I encountered unfamiliar words—maybe I was missing out on some crucial information that would affect my understanding of the book.

But in the end, the benefits won out. I realized that I could roughly guess the meaning of many words from their context. Some passages weren’t critical to plot or character development, and so it didn’t matter if I had a full understanding. Also, some passages that I hadn’t fully understood at first became clearer as I read on.

The freedom to stop reading a book that I found uninteresting was helpful. Because I wasn’t locked into finishing, I could start reading several books until I found one that was engaging and at the right reading level.

Some reflections on tadoku

I think the basic premise behind tadoku, namely reading as much as you can without getting bogged down in understanding every word, is very helpful and liberating. After all, that’s how we learned to read as children. Also, when native adult readers encounter words they don’t know, they usually glean the meaning from the context rather than look them up.

Another advantage of tadoku is language learning by full immersion. The use of a bilingual dictionary involves making connections between Japanese and English, whereas guessing meaning from context encourages thinking in Japanese.

However, I suspect that there is value in reading at a variety of levels depending on purpose, concentration level, and environment. For example, if you’re preparing a sermon in Japanese, you’ll probably want to know the meaning of all the words in the passage you’re going to preach from, but if your goal is to become familiar with the Japanese Bible, you can read it without looking up every unfamiliar word. If you’re feeling alert, you could read a book that stretches you, whereas if you want to relax after a long day, you could read at a level that you find comfortable (I found manga are good for this).

After the month’s experiment, I decided to incorporate some of the elements of tadoku into my regular reading patterns. I’ve settled for reading books that are slightly above my reading level in the iBook app on my iPad as it allows me to quickly look up words by just touching them. Even so, I try to guess the meanings of words from their context as much as possible and skip others that I think are not critical.

If you’ve never tried tadoku, I’d encourage you to give it a go. Most importantly, keep experimenting until you find a reading strategy that suits you.

To find out more about tadoku, see http://tadoku.org/en/vision http://joechip.net/extensivereading

Simon Pleasants works as an editor in the Tokyo office of a scientific publishing company. Originally from Wales, UK, he moved to Australia in 1988. He helps maintain several Japanese-related websites, including Reaching Japanese for Christ: www.rjcnetwork.org

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