How you approach beginning reading largely depends on your interest, your patience, and the time you take outside of reading to enhance your ability to read.
I will give my approach, but I forewarn, I am a very stubborn person, so my process is much slower to start in order to more quickly gain the ability to speed up. If you are easily discouraged or frustrated, my way is probably not for you!
Step 1: Find something that interests you. Some may say read something easy, light in text amount, or a graded reader, but my opinion is that you’ll succeed more if you are tackling something you have a personal investment in. In addition, tackling something you know is above your current level guarantees the ability to learn more and a great feeling of accomplish once you finish. Of course, this also means you may choose something that is too far, where you can burn out of it. Do pay attention to relative difficulty (for example, floflo lists relative difficulty. Something of “Very Difficult” is probably too far. I definitely believe interest overcomes difficulty, but there is a limit. My personal policy was 2 hours per page when I started. If it took longer than two hours to translate the first full page of a light novel, I put the book aside and found another.
Step 2: Diagram sentences. This may sound like something out of English class, but one of the best ways to figure out Japanese grammar through reading is to figure out where everything is and why. Ideally, this should turn out like Mad Libs, where sentences beome a mixture of understood phrases (where grammar and meaning are understood), known phrases (where either grammar OR meaning is understood, but one is not), and unknown phrases (where neither are known).
At level 10, unless you have decent grammar behind you already, most content will likely fall into the unknown category. This is fine. It will feel intimidating, but it is very easy to turn those into known phrases. It is the understanding that is difficult, but, unless you are reading high level text, you don’t need to fully understand in order to figure out the general idea.
Step 3: Filter and research. Once you’ve identified what you can and can’t read, it’s time to fix that. Your first priority should always be text in ひらがな. At first, filter out the unknown kanji/words. I will detail this in the next paragraph. ひらがな is usually the bulk of your grammar, and hence, the bulk of your meaning. The faster you learn how these work in sentences, the faster and easier your reading becomes. As you are already familiar, it is common practice for advanced readers to not research unknown words. As I often read away from my computer, I have a small notepad pinned to the book I read in which I quickly write any words I don’t know when I come across them. If you’ve ever played Mad Libs, you should know it feels to read with some unknown words. While it may be frustrating to miss meaning, the time it takes to look up everything, especially when you start, will burn you out.
Why should you not immediately look up unknown kanji/words? Rentention. Take the following sentence: 某は猫でござる。(それがしは ねこ でござる。) Assuming you are familiar with でござる being used as the token samurai speech in anime/manga, likely the only kanji/word in that sentence is you don’t know is 某. Hopefully, one can deduce that it is likely a pronoun (I, you, or he/she/they). Seeing as context would text you whether the cat is talking or not, you then have learned a new kanji/word without researching it first. You are much more likely to remember it after that than if you look it up (similar to completing math homework by just writing in the answers at the back of the book instead of solving the problems yourself).
Step 4: Researching Kanji and Words. At this point, you’ve hopefully created a glorious example of Mad Libs, with sentences formed and needing only an assumedly large number of blanks to fill. So how do you go about filling those blanks?
First, research verbs. Usually always located at the end of clauses, verbs are the most critical words to learn, as they largely determine the grammar (as most verbs have matching relationships with particles). Verbs, unless tied with する or compound, will also usually use their くんよみ, meaning resources like Google Translate probably* won’t mess up the reading. If you don’t have verb conjugations memorized, do it before you start. It will save you so much time.
Second, discover unknown kanji. Start with readings, and, if you are familiar with how phonetic patterns work with kanji, try to guess the reading before you look it up. Ideally, figure out kanji in じゅくご with kanji you already recognize first, since you are more likely to understand the meaning. Learn the reading, check for the possibility of a stand-alone readings (usually* くんよみ), and, if you really want to progress, use Anki, Kitsun (if you aren’t signed up to try to get in now, you totally should ), or another flash card resources to drill those kanji. It may also be a good idea to see what level in WK that kanji is contained (if it is) to get an idea of where you’ll be at that level. Always try to guess the meaning of a word by looking at its kanji meanings before actually looking up the word itself.
Third, discover unknown words. Sometimes じゅくご aren’t easy to figure out, and sometimes they’re just あてじ that are designed to either mess you up meaning-wise or reading-wise. Ideally, understanding all of the kanji combined with context will provide you the means to understand the sentence. Realistically, however, there will be plenty you won’t be able to get. Look them up after a reading session (however long you deem that) and compare any guesses you could possibly make. Making wrong guesses is good experience, and helps you remember those words in the future. If you’re dedicated, add those words to a flash card/SRS resource and drill drill drill. Otherwise, move on and hope your memory holds when that word inevitably pops up.
Step 5: Reread everything. Probably what I consider the most important step in learning by reading, make sure to reread any text you read after you have finished researching anything. The best way to both solidify the information you’ve learned as well to give yourself a nice pat on the back for your efforts is to read through what you now “understand.” If your process is working, you should be able to very slowly dig through and get a mostly clean picture. If you find yourself getting caught a decent amount but still able to get through most of it, tweak your research and study habits. If you essentially can’t reread it, you are probably reading something too difficult.
- If it’s not interesting, you likely won’t manage to get through it.
- Separate what you understand, what you recognize, and what you don’t recognize.
- Filter the above content and research, starting hiragana/grammar > kanji > vocabulary.
- When researching kanji, start with reading then meaning. Always research verbs first.
- Reread anything you translate both for confirmation of understanding and to feel how you’ve progressed.
Notes: My approach assumes you are writing/typing a translation while reading. I highly recommend against attempting straight reading without physically translating as a beginner, as sight-reading and mental translation is highly less effective at retention and provides no lasting feedback about your progress.