6 tips to improve your French reading comprehension tips

Posted by Josh on 7th Feb 2023 in the blog in the learning french category

Reading is one of the best ways to improve your French — and it’s one of the easiest, too. Unlike listening, you can really take your time with a written text, and it’s much easier to look up words and make notes.

You probably know this already. What you might not know is that there is an art to effective reading comprehension. You can save yourself a lot of time by learning how to read French in an effective manner. If you’re wondering how to improve your reading comprehension, try incorporating these simple tips and tricks into your reading practice.

1. Read everything a couple of times over

Comprehension doesn’t come automatically, especially when you’re encountering words you aren’t very familiar with. Sometimes you need to soak them in, so to speak, or keep reading on in order to understand the wider context. While you read, your brain will continue to process the words, expressions and grammar points you’ve passed, meaning that when you come back to revisit them, you’ll have an easier time making sense of them.

There are a variety of ways you can do this, and since you’re not constrained for time as you would be in a listening scenario, it's a good idea to try out different approaches. For instance, if you’re reading something short like a social media post, you may wish to read the whole thing from start to finish before going over it again. But if the material you’re reading is longer — a recipe, for example, or even a chapter of a whole book — your best bet might be to read each sentence twice over as you go, breaking down the text into digestible snippets. As ever, the most important thing is to do what works for you.

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2. Don’t look everything up

Stuck on a word or phrase? An easy way to get over this hindrance is, of course, to look up what it means — but that can quickly turn into a hindrance in itself, especially when you find yourself spending more time combing through the dictionary than whatever it is you're reading. Oftentimes you can discern the meaning of a word or phrase by paying attention to the context. Reading to the end of the sentence or paragraph can reveal clues as to the meaning of a particular word. Certain verbs or adjectives can illuminate the meaning of a noun, and vice versa. Take the statement 'La grenouille a croassé', for instance. If you know that 'le grenouille' means 'the frog', you're only one educated guess away from figuring out that 'croasser' means 'to croak'.

It won’t always be possible to figure something out from context, but it’s worth trying this approach first to save yourself a lot of time, and habituate yourself to this practice. Even advanced French speakers will often need to rely on context to understand a word, and in some situations you won’t be able to look up words — so, as they say, context is key.

3. Take notes!

The great thing about written French - as opposed to spoken French — is that you can interact with it. When encountering a text, you can scribble on it, plaster it with post-it notes, colour in words and cross out others — not to mention anything else that comes to mind. So be sure to use this to your advantage and get creative.

For example, you could try underlining words you’re unfamiliar with, which will make it easier to compile a list of new words together for future reference. Or you could colour code verbs, nouns and adjectives differently to get an improved sense of sentence order. Make notes in the margins about any observations you may have, or tips for remembering certain words - the more you interact with a text in this way, the more you’ll be able to overcome the obstacles in it and memorise the things you've learnt from it.

Programs like Word and Google Docs are good alternatives to a pen and paper if you’re reading a text on the computer. But if you prefer your reading material a little more tactile, you can always print off the text and go over it like any other document

Just make sure only to do with this with texts that belong to you. No annotating library books or graffitiing public placards!

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4. Combine it with listening comprehension

We often think of reading and listening as separate aspects of language — but they don't have to be! You will often be able to study and improve both at the same time.

It's not uncommon to come across French reading exercises that have a supplementary audio version, including many of our blogs. Always give these a listen to get a sense of the sound of the language. If you're looking for a bigger challenge, you could also try listening to an audiobook while you read the hard- or paperback version.

A good trick is to approach material that is intended primarily as a listening exercise. YouTube videos, for example, will very often include subtitles or closed captions, that you can read as you listen to the French.

Even if you can't get access to an audio version of a particular text, try sounding out the words in your head or out loud as you read. Not only will it help get you used to hearing the words, and speed up your French when it comes to speaking, but it will also help you identify which words you have trouble pronouncing.

5. Hit the sweet spot

When it comes to effective reading comprehension, you need to perform a bit of a balancing act. If what you're reading is too easy, it may help you feel good about your skills, but you won't learn very much! On the other hand, if it's too difficult, you'll have trouble getting a good sense of the text, and it's very likely you'll be frustrated and put off. The trick is to find the sweet spot. Read something that employs aspects of the language that you're familiar with while stimulating and challenging you, and teaching you new things along the way.

But how do you know how difficult a text is? Once you've determined your level — and if you don't already know it, take our test to find out — you'll be able to find appropriately graded texts online. For example, if you're at B1 level, typing in 'B1 reading exercises' should yield a variety of material to read that is adjusted to your level.

Another idea is to visit a bookshop or online bookstore and browse books to get a general sense of their difficulty level. Different types of written media will generally be produced to a different level, too. If you find yourself visiting a French-speaking country, you'll see that the public announcements on transport, for instance, will generally be written in a style that's quite easy to interpret; whereas written material produced for more specific categories, such as museum displays or leaflets, may be more challenging and contain less common vocabulary. Likewise, literature intended for children will of course be easier than that intended for adults.

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6. Remember to review what you’ve learnt

People only remember 20% of what they read. The number is even lower when it comes to reading something you don't full understand, such as a text in a foreign language.

Luckily, this only accounts for things you've read once. You have a far better chance of remembering something if you read it over and over again.

It's vital that you return to reading material periodically to review and memorise what you've learnt from it (and this is where tip 3 comes in handy). The more you look over a written text, the easier it'll be to remember all the lessons you've learned from it.

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