Struggling to read. Keep at it, or find different resource?

The other day my italki teacher suggested I should pick up and struggle through a light novel, and suggested 「デュラララ」so I picked it up on kindle. We worked through the prologue and it seemed surprisingly doable but picking up chapter 1 the next day I did pretty poorly. In description-heavy portions I’m hitting up to 2-3 words I don’t know per sentence, which feels crazy considering how much I’ve already studied. Last month I finished up reading all the 多読 graded readers (levels 3 and 4) which certainly wasn’t trivial or anything, I’m just looking for more to read, and really love novels in English.

So, do you think it’s worth it to press through hard material, or do you think it’s better to stick to simplified material? If I switch, do you have any recommendations other than 多読 and manga?

If you think it’s best to stick with it, what’s your strategy for reading very difficult material? Do you stick the unknown words? Do you look everything up? Do you build Anki decks out of all of the words you come across while reading? If you do that, do you skip the words you will learn later in WK, or just study them in both? Do you read the same book over and over again until you understand all of it? Do you re-read the same chapters that way? Any tips for tackling materials that’s a step or two beyond your level?


Hmm… Can’t really make the call whether to stick at it or to switch, but if you decide to switch, I recently bought a big bunch of what should be easy light novels for reading. See
My order hasn’t arrived yet, so I can’t confirm the difficulty, but I’m pretty excited about some of the titles, so maybe something from that list might catch your eye?

Personally, I tend towards reading simplified material, since I actually like reading for reading’s sake, and struggling through overly difficult material just feels like a slog. In a similar way, even when I’m reading difficult material, I’ll tend to read without a dictionary or doing anything aside from actually reading. Stuff that’s too hard is tough for me though. Often I’ll rely on secondary crutches like furigana if it’s available or the audio if it’s a game or anime or something.

I have tried childrens books but havn’t been all that successful. Instead I have worked with NHK Easy news and turned off the furigana. They typically only have 6 articles per day, but that can be quite enought with a busy schedule. I even use an IOS app called Sokuji which is really beta (and can’t recommend it for any real reading) to read the material so that I can quickly look up stuff. It doesn’t work directly on NHK’s easy website, but there is a thread on Reddit that posts the text without furigana and people reply with translations.

Other than that, I am thinking about going to a manga cafe when I get to Japan in July and start looking for good materials to start reading. So hopefully I can find something there that I can start reading for real other than news.

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Question: Are you at least generally interested in what you’re reading?
Suggestion: If you’re really feeling like you’re stuck and need a bridge, check out Read Real Japanese, which I talk about in more detail in another post. It’s basically training-wheels to the bike that is literature intended for Japanese people; the author picks 6 fiction stories that are unaltered save adding furigana for each kanji (right page), and on the left page is a loose translation of the right page. He devotes half the book to looking at every sentence that features an N3? or above grammar point/interesting word and explaining it in detail. So the book is basically ~40 pages of short stories that are then annotated with ~120 pages of explanation, designed to ensure that you not only understood what was said but why it was said that way in terms of nuance and grammar.

If you like the book, there is a sequel, featuring 6 essays/non-fiction things.

On beginning to read in a foreign language
Sure, it’s a pain in the ass, and slow-going. But do you feel good about what you read in the prologue? Do you want to see what happens next in the story? If it were in English, would you enjoy reading it? If yes, stick with it.

An interesting take away from a quirky little book called Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve is that individual authorstend to have words they like and use frequently (authors from similar demographics also tend to share similar language use); their own style, an idiolect. The beginning of a book is the most painful part of it for a few reasons, mainly chocked up to the fact that even if you’re familiar with Japanese, you might not necessarily be familiar with this idiolect of it.

(a) there is a lot of theme-specific vocab you’ve got to get through that you might have never been in a relevant context to encounter before, and it probably comes up frequently. It takes to time to get familiar with these new words and speech styles.
(b) written content differs in consistent ways from spoken content – it’s going to take awhile to adjust to reading; frequently used phrases, fixed phrases for dictating dialogue, common grammar for making metaphors, whatnot.
(c) sometimes there is just no good reason to use a word like mauve, but Nabokov likes it.

The bad news is that you probably won’t encounter this stuff outside of reading – we don’t narrate things like he nodded in agreement or she said softly, with a voice smooth like a good piece of メロンパン. The good news is that it comes up a lot… so after a miserable beginning, it does get easier.

It does get easier. So:

If you like the book, stick with it. Take the first third of your book and look under every slightly unfamiliar stone; new words and grammar. This will allow you to get used to the author’s writing style and also pick up important vocabulary – in order to read 「デュラララ」 you don’t need to learn “more Japanese”, you need to learn “more Japanese relevant to 「デュラララ」”. Everything you look up within that book is going to be relevant to helping you understand the book, and it will probably come up again and again in the book.

A lot of books that I struggled to read in the beginning had came to be “on autopilot” by the time I got to the end of it.

My strategy for reading
My reading strategy is basically based on the forgetting curve – we’re programmed to forget a lot of stuff, and we particularly don’t remember things that our brain doesn’t deem as being of interest or importance – and the personal preference that I want to devote as much time as possible to using a language: I think that reading a book or having a conversation is using a language, whereas I see memorizing kanji on WK or sentences on Anki as preparing to use a language. I think that we often overestimate just how prepared we must be to use a language.

SO, in bullets:

  1. I just read the book. I typically stop to look up everything I’m not confident about (I have a tendency to “think” I know how to read unfamiliar words") – but on the kindle, that takes literally one second.
  2. I do not write the vast majority of these unknown things down, especially if they’re just random vocabulary words. I know that a given book will tend to feature the same words… so in my current book, I saw no reason to make a flashcard for 隙間 (sukima; crevice/small opening, for example, even though I had no idea what it was or the first kanji there. It has indeed wound up being used a number of times, and now I’ve learned that first kanji and the word is in my active vocabulary even though I never “studied” it. I forgot it several times and had to look it up each time – but again, on the Kindle, all that came out to was putting my finger on the unknown word. No sense to waste your time in Anki when you’ll pick up such words for free just by continuing to read.
  3. I do write down any sentence that I think is interesting, that I feel like I might want to use myself sometime, that I for some reason want to remember, or that I struggled to understand even after I looked up all of its unknown words. I do not add these into anki right away – just like the words in part #2, some phrases/grammar/whatever you will just see so many times that you learn them “for free”. Instead, I just highlight the full sentence in my kindle… and then once a week or so I go through my highlights and hand-write them into a notebook. After finishing the book I go back through my notebook and add any sentences to Anki that I still don’t feel confident I know. See below for some examples of sentences I personally made note of, if you’re unsure, and I’ll talk a bit about why I wrote each one down.
  4. I personally make cloze-deletion Anki cards out of these sentences (52 second video). Basically, because of how I choose sentences, there is probably one specific thing with each one that I would really like to remember. I make this one specific thing the “cloze” – for example, in the sentence: – それがいかに致命的なことが、時間がたつにつれて理解した。what I wanted to remember was this grammar point “につれて” – it means, “as A, B”. So when I see this card on Anki, I see: それがいかに致命的なことが、[…]理解した (with the passage of time) – and I’m shooting to produce 時間がたつにつれて (shown on the back of the card) based on the sentence context and the little English bit.

(from 3) For me, this looks like:
→ I wasn’t sure about this fixed phrase, meaning “before long”
→ I felt like getting comfortable using ~ながら like this would help me express myself more naturally

→ literally, “the tips of her lips bending” and “smile floated” – I just thought it was pretty
→ I had recenly discovered that 笑み is read えみ、not わらみ as I had thought.

→ I thought that using あり / “ますdropped verbs” might help me sound more natural
→ specifically, I saw (location)から(verb of motion)て(time required) as a fixed-phrase I could myself use to describe location. At that time I’d just been asked where my home state was and remembered being unsure about how to say “about 10 hours by car above Texas” in a concise fashion. Boom, copy and paste that fixed phrase next time, no worries.

In each of these sentences I’ve got a specific reason for choosing them – maybe it’s a useful grammar point, a phrase I’d like to learn… or maybe I understood the entire thing, but just thought it was a pretty sentence, and wanted to remind myself that even though I’m still “learning”, I’m capable of finding beauty in the Japanese language.

The sentences that you might choose to make note of (if my strategy appeals to you at all) might not be the ones that I would choose to keep. That’s okay. You’re using Japanese for yourself, and the stuff that you think is important is different than the stuff that I think is important. It’s important that the things you make note of are (a) interesting to you, and (b) things you could see yourself using or being used around you.

Getting to the point where you can read in Japanese is only going to take a finite (if lengthy) amount of time. I think the most important thing is to progress in a way that leaves you feeling encouraged to come back and keep reading, even if it isn’t necessarily the most efficient way of doing things. In order to understand a given book you only need to understand so many words and grammar points… and if you just keep at it, you’ll get through them.

If you’re enjoying yourself in Japanese, you’re doing something right.


My past strategy

  • Japanese Graded Readers. Currently lv2. Working well so far, but I can’t progress to lv3, while maintaining 多読 (Well, I can read, but not 多読らしい.)

My future strategy

  • Jtest4you sentences N4 + 新完全マスターN4; and then N3 and so on. This is because I got stuck at grammatical structures N4.

Honestly, it depends on your goals and your interest in it.

If you’re actually interested in Durarara, it makes it much easier. If not, and especially if this is the first novel you’re taking a wack at, I’d suggest dropping it and picking up something you are interested in. You can always come back to read it later :stuck_out_tongue: Compared to other light novels, Durarara is a little more difficult reading wise because Narita sometimes has one heck of a way of writing scenes.

I think there’s a difference between picking a difficult novel for one’s first novel to read and reading difficult material in general. If you’re interested in the material you picked despite its difficulty, stick with it. But for one’s first light novel? Something more of the “slice of life” genre would help introduce you into the groove of reading a full on novel. It does take a little consumption to get the hang of how different it is to do. I’ve only looked through a few of them, but there is a significant difference in the style/structure of graded readers vs. novels.

I’m in camp “look a majority of what I come across” up. Especially since I primarily read digitally and all one has to do is highlight to look things up. Combined with the anki app its highlight, look up, add a card straight to anki. I mainly read on Android and it’s just so easy took things up I don’t personally see the point in skipping. I never bothered skipping over WK words. It was easier to just highlight, look up, add to anki and keep going.

No, I don’t read the same book over and over again until I understand it all lol. I don’t tend to re-read novels in general so not the best person to ask haha Sometimes I will re-read sections I’ve made note of though. You mentioned that you’re using Kindle (high-five fellow kindle book reader!) and if you can make use of that highlight/note taking feature. So. Helpful. I read primarily for pleasure but I love learning and figuring things out. So when I came across passages I was unsure of/wanted to come back to/phrases I liked/fun things; I’d color code highlight and make notes of the stuff. Going digital in the first place, I feel, already helps you out greatly; it’s the tip I would give and makes life easier! Also, when possible read out loud. Haha holy crap this helped with my reading fluency so much.

If there’s an anime or game or something you like, maybe look up and see if it was based on a light novel. That way you’re already interested in what you’re reading :slight_smile: If you’d like recommendations for novels, I can try to think of some. I’ve read a crap ton of novels in Japanese by this point and have so many I love!


I have the same problem with large paragraphs - but it really depends on the writer, their style, and whether I’m interested in the topic. Not even on a broader scale, but on a really small scale.

Right now I’m reading New Penguin Parallel Text Short Stories in Japanese, and let’s take, for example, the third story, Genjitsu House. The prose was, for me, impenetrable. I’d pick up on phrases and ideas, but the grammar was so reflexive, so self referential, that I could barely read it. As far as I could tell, it was much more conversational than the previous piece, which was by Yoshimoto Banana. I can understand why people suggest her as an author for people studying Japanese.

However, the next story, The Silent Traders, starts with a little anecdote about cats in a park. It’s easy to read, the prose is pretty clear, and it’s nowhere near as reflexive. It doesn’t, however, use quotation grammar marks, making it slightly less clear. But, Genjitsu House, by nature of being SO freeform in comparison, has prepared me for the next piece.

It’s a slog, reading. For sure. I’ve studied Italian as well, and reading is way easier, because you know how it sounds when you look at it automatically, and kanji is a killer for this exact reason.

in answer to your questions:

  • I don’t stick the unknown words. Reading is ALL about context, and it’s how I learned to read when I was a kid.
  • I don’t look everything up. Parallel readers are great for this because you can use context clues to guess.
  • I don’t build Anki decks for anything. I should probably be building some decks for non-kanji vocab but eh
  • I do re-read. I must have read Kamisama by Kawakami Hiromi like five times now, but that’s also because it’s such a charming story. If I go back I have no doubt I’ll pick something up I missed.
  • The same thing I recommend for difficult books in English. Just dive. Submerge yourself and you’ll pick at least a few things up. If you can’t pick subject from object, though, it might not be a good idea.

@krestel When in Japan, make an effort to hit a Book-Off or two. Tons of used books/manga/games for a few hundred yen each. Manga, particularly might be as little as 108円 per tankubon.

Speaking of book-off, has anyone managed to order from book-off online using a proxy or freight forwarder? I tried a little while ago, but they didn’t like my credit card for some reason…

Oh wow, yeah, that would be super useful if you could recommend some lighter light novels! If you’ve read デュラララ and you think there are better alternatives for first novel, please definitely let me know! It’s interesting to learn that my italki 先生 might have recommended something inappropriately difficult…


You don’t just like reading novels, apparently you write them yourself! :-p

Your only read question there is “do you enjoy デュラララ?” and the answer is “yes”. Do I especially enjoy it (more than I would any other novel)? No. It’s super gory so far. But yes, “generally interested” for sure, because it’s a novel and I just really enjoy reading novels.

I will definitely keep your method in mind, thank you for taking the time to write it all up!

Thank you for sharing; very informative. And yes, those colloquial expressions/ figures of speech can be very confusing in the beginning. But, as you pointed out, you’ll likely see them again and they’ll eventually become second nature (…eventually!!).

To the OP, I agree that you should read what you enjoy. If it’s not fun or interesting, or just too hard at the moment, find something else that interests you for the time being. I just started reading the Japanese translation of Winnie the Pooh. I happened upon it recently and felt such nostalgia I couldn’t resist. Just goes to show the possibilities of reading (in any language) are endless! ^~^

I can recommend 小学館ジュニア文庫 for beginners, especially the detective conan novels, I still read them to this day.


I’ve got a sort of in-between solution for you…
Find another light novel that interests you and is easier. On days where you feel ambitious, keep pushing through Durarara! On days where you don’t feel you have the mental energy, take a break with the easier material.

For both, skim a few pages ahead to put kanji and words into Anki or HouHou, and work on those a bit before you get to reading.

I’m not yet at the light novel stage myself; my grammar just isn’t at that level yet… But I’ve got a whole set that I really want to read. Every once in a while, I go through the first few sentences and check if it’s any easier. Last week, I finally started the skim + add thing… I grabbed myself 12-15 kanji and vocabulary words… I’m due to add more. A few were from later WK levels, but since I’m not actively working on HouHou like I am WK, a bit of pre-study won’t hurt me…

If I think my grammar likely won’t be there for another few months, 10-15 new book-specific words/kanji a week on top of continuing WK normally should help a bunch by the time I get to it.

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