Can't understand graded readers below my supposed level

Currently I am around JLPT N5-4 minus the kanji (I have all N5 grammar learned +about half of N4 and the majority of vocab from other studies-about 2000 words), but graded readers and the other resources I’ve tried that are supposedly N5 level are hard for me to understand. At this point, I can think in my head some way to convey pretty much whatever I would need to say, which I’m not sure is normal? seeing as how I’ve heard it’s generally supposed to be easier to understand a language than speak it. I haven’t really tried any listening resources because my parents don’t really let me on youtube :') and I can’t really spend more money than I already am on japanese, so if there are any good resources for that that I should try please tell me (even if it’s a youtube channel, maybe I can convince my dad lol) but mostly what should I be doing so I can understand the stuff I should be able to understand.


In terms of reading you’ll have to read to get good at it, no way around that. This article may be helpful for setting expectations. I spent over a month reading my first manga, just doing 1-3 pages a day most days, but by the end I was going faster and understanding things more easily. Good luck, you got this:)


This post by ChristopherFritz is also worth reading imo

Have you been studying grammar grammar, not just from an N5/N4 list? Sentence structure, particles, verb cases, etc. Even if you can’t get on youtube, there are a bajillion sites that you can find for information (just be sure to cross reference several). Since I don’t use a textbook, I just pick something to learn for a “session” and totally dive into it and write down notes. You can find a lot by typing things into the search bar on google and reading websites. Just think of it as absorbing as much knowledge as possible. As your knowledge builds up, it should be easier to understand.


I suspect the main challenge is that stories are a completely different style of writing than that which is used for the JLPT; just think how in English you’re unlikely to encounter phrases such as ‘Once upon a time’ or ‘The End’ while reading a newspaper article.

As Beyond_Sleepy wrote above, reading is going to make you better at reading, so just stick with it and you’ll see improvement.


Well, it depends on how you’ve been studying; you get better at what you practice, so if you’ve been doing a lot of “how would I say this?” effort and no reading practice, that will show in what feels easier.

“I could figure out a way to get my point across to a willing listener” is pretty much where ‘beginner’ level grammar (N4, or end of 2nd vol of Minna no Nihongo) will get you, incidentally – it has all the really important basic tools like tenses, conditionals, giving and receiving, passive and causative. Grammar you learn after that is is more about being able to more precisely or smoothly convey your point with the nuance you want.


I think I’m right in saying that most graded resources in any language are created as a target to aim for, not something that people at that level should understand with ease. There would be little point buying them if we learned nothing from them. I think in any second language even the simplest stuff mostly remains a lot more work to understand than our native language. So if I go to a party in France, even if my level is B2 and I have a shot at taking part, I will likely be exhausted by the end. If these resources are below your level you can expect they are still written to challenge a non native speaker and make their Japanese grow. So growing pains are to be expected I think


One thing I haven’t seen here yet, is that you can ask questions here, if you feel like a sentence is out of your grasps. Many people are willing to answer these and help with them, and it’s probably better to stumble through your first reading experiences with some aid than without. This is why book clubs are great.


Are you able to watch anime? As long as you’re aware that anime speak is a bit exaggerated, you can actually learn from it. If they’re hesitant to allow it, you can always let them check a parents guide on something you want to watch.

Also it might be worth a shot if you can ask your parents to use YouTube kids. I’m not sure what’s on there, but surely there can be some JP content found.


Reading is a skill you need to train. So that’s gonna involve a lot of not understanding things at first. Since you are really young in your Japanese journey, I would suggest doing a couple reads of the same graded readers and first read it through (no look ups) then look up what you definitely didn’t know. Read again (no look ups), and look up after, repeat. Soon you’ll be able to get the image in your head more naturally and you can move on to the next one. Some people wait until much later to get reading. So I think you’re doing the right thing. But my advice for those people is usually just: “READ ALREADY!” but since you are just starting out, repetition and learning to read will come with practice. Which you seem to be doing. Good job!


As other have said, reading is a skill that needs to be practiced.

Still, it would be useful to figure out exactly what is stopping you:

  • Do you have trouble recalling grammar / vocab outside the context of lessons ?
  • Do you have trouble parsing the sentences without spaces ?
  • Are you reading hiragana-only text and having trouble figuring out the meaning without kanjis ?
  • Is the book simply too hard, or there’s too much slang in there ? Do you mind sharing some example of books you’ve been trying to read ?

I’ve recently been looking back at my reading stats.

In 2020, when I’d have been around N5 level, I read 3 books, all aimed at kids (though not all easy, and I really battled through them).

In 2021 I appear to have read no Japanese books - I didn’t complete them, I tried reading コンビニ人間 but it was above my level, and also read one of the Doggy detectives books really slowly - finished it the next year, At that point I’d have been around N4.

2022 I read 24 manga and 5 books - one of the books was a proper book aimed at adults rather than kids. I’ve just passed N3.

Even now, I struggle with some reading. Every time you start something new there’s a new style to get used to. The current ABBC pick is not actually very easy and it takes me some time (good on those who are absolute beginners, I’m not anymore but I think it’s difficult)!

Reading will come with time. The other thing is that it’s much easier to persist with something motivating, which is where I find the book clubs useful. There’s a schedule, and others who are finding the same things difficult. Also, I read much quicker when I’m interested in the material. So picking a club or a book which you think looks interesting will help.


Yeah, I think that a lot of those things mentioned are an underlying problem, I do feel like even with my limited kanji knowledge it makes things a lot easier when I look at it, I think that’s probably a good tip to look at the kanji first.
I’ve read some of the random free graded readers on various websites like natively and others (although natively’s grading system seems to be better than other ones imo) which seem like I can read the absolute beginner stuff easy but as soon as I jump up a bit, it becomes impossible to understand. I’ve also read some Yotsuba to! which I have the first 5 pages of absolutely nailed because of the amount of times I’ve read them, and diolauge of the younger characters is more comprehensible to me, and I can understand what’s going on decently well, although if it was just text I don’t think I would. I think that if I just stick it out and go through the whole thing, it could be a good starter book.

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I’m not sure I understand what you mean by “I think that’s probably a good tip to look at the kanji first.”

Are you reading a text with furigana and not looking at the kanji ?

In my experience, the paid graded readers by tofogu (those ones) are doing a very good job at gradually getting harder. I’m currently at a low n4 grammar level with about 1000k vocab, and the level 1 paid readers feel quite easy to read.

The free readers (those ones) are not a clean as the paid ones tho.

I have not started reading Yotsuba yet, but I believe that at your level (and mine), it’s normal to struggle.

Maybe the issue is your expectations ? When reading, it’s perfectly fine to not understand everything. As long as you get the general idea of what’s going on, move on. Try not to stop at each word to look it up in a dictionary, or the whole thing will become fairly frustrating.

If there is a part that you can’t understand, move on.

Don’t look up all the words afterward, try to figure out which words were the important ones.

(also, I recommend the book “Japanese Short Stories for Beginners: 20 Captivating Short Stories to Learn Japanese & Grow Your Vocabulary the Fun Way!”.
Stories are not captivating at all, but it’s a fairly easy read, and reading it made me feel much better about my progress).

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I’m not sure I understand what you mean by “I think that’s probably a good tip to look at the kanji first.”
Are you reading a text with furigana and not looking at the kanji ?

Yeah I have a habit of completely ignoring the kanji when there’s furigana, I tried reading some more yotsuba today while forcing myself to look at the kanji and it was much easier.
Also- thank’s for the reccommendations, I’ll check them out :)))

Which graded readers are you reading. I am using the ones by Lingo Mastery and while you struggle, you can actually see yourself improving. And it also has the English translations that you use after struggling through understanding to ensure that you are correct. I think for our level, there is nothing wrong with using bilingual books so that we can slowly work our way up to monolingual. (I mentioned this in another post but don’t sleep on the reading in the back of the Genki books if you own it/them).

Although it’s probably best to read both Furigana and base text, it’s equally important not to overwork yourself too early on.

Probably, take time to learn and worry more about the overall message, and eventually, speed.

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