Understanding text word-for-word vs. only the gist of text

Recently I’ve been trying to consume written Japanese as part of my efforts to increase my language input i.e. social media posts, short stories, reading Google results in Japanese etc

Since I’m still a far ways off from recognizing most kanji (right now, wkstats reports that I’m at 553 kanji at Guru+), I naturally run into situations where I can’t a) read the compound at all or b) deduce the contextual meaning based on the meaning of the kanji itself.

Currently I’m just glossing over the kanji I can’t read/deduce, so with my current kanji knowledge, I’m able to quickly get a gist of what I’m reading, but I’m probably missing a lot of nuance.

So my question is: if I want to continue improving my reading and comprehension abilities, should I be trying to read and understand text word-for-word, or should I continue what I’m doing and naturally acquire kanji and vocab with time?*

*“With time” here means like studying kanji through WK, passively remembering reading/vocab as I look things up in a dictionary or from recognizing the word/kanji from another source of content


I would continue what you are doing. Especially if you are feeling good doing it.

For more intensive “studying” maybe try to find something that is not as random as posts on the internet (Satori Reader, Graded Readers, Book clubs here) as addition.

But what you are doing also helps enormously. Even if you only can read a sentence here or there, getting the gist with the rest of it, seeing how sentences in Japanese are structured + getting rid of the “oh no this is a wall of Kanji I will never understand” feeling is super beneficial.

Also, the more you read, the faster you get at reading the compounds and words you actually do know, which is another benefit as well.


I do both. I think it’s not helpful to skip too much, but it will just be a bit too frustrating and slow to look up everything. So, if you feel like you just wanna move on and read about the next thing in a story, do so. If you feel like too much information is lost due to you not being able to read some kanji, then take a break and look up things more properly. :slight_smile:

There is no need for an either or approach to language learning, imo.


I struggled with this in the beginning. I wanted to know 100% of whatever I was reading, but would also get frustrated if I couldn’t figure it out easily. This got worse if it was a particularly long passage. In the end I limited myself to shorter passages, and if I didn’t know a character I would copy it into a document and come back to it later. NHK Easy News was helpful because sometimes they’ll have a little pop-up dictionary (also in Japanese) for some words.

So I guess read as much as you can but not to the point that you hit a wall and give up, haha.


There’s a skill you can develop of identifying when an unknown word matters to understanding the text, when you can make a plausible guess, and when you can just ignore it entirely (for instance an unknown adverb is often not worth looking up). I like to keep lookups fairly minimal but do still do some. If you like SRS you can set up to feed the words you looked up in as new cards.

I would also mention here that number of kanji known is less important than vocabulary in general. You can recognise words without “knowing” the kanji, and knowing the kanji in it doesn’t mean knowing the word…


Getting every nuance of a complex text requires native (or better) fluency. Many people can’t seem to manage it even in their native language. In addition to vocabulary and grammar, it requires a lot of cultural background, too, and you only get that by immersing yourself in the culture.

Which is to say you won’t be there for a while, but don’t worry about it.

The book clubs here are great for this. Have the vocabulary spreadsheet handy while you read and make a note of words to prioritize. (For instance, I think there isn’t much point in trying to learn a word if I don’t know the component kanji yet. But on the other hand if I fail to recognize a WK vocabulary word in context, maybe that sentence requires some extra attention.)


Thanks for all of the thoughtful responses, they’re very much appreciated! Considering that learning Japanese has been primarily a solo experience for me, it’s very reassuring to hear that my experience isn’t uncommon and is probably a still good path to developing better fluency.

Striking the personal balance of “read no matter what” vs “look up anything you don’t know” is certainly difficult, but it does resonates with some thoughts I’ve had, which in this case is that reading something is better than not reading at all :slight_smile:


Exactly. And some Japanese is better than no Japanese. The best study plan is the one that you can follow consistently.

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The best balance is the one that works for you. Switching back and forth between intensive and extensive immersion builds a number of different skills. Developing your intuitive ability to glean meaning through contextual clues is good, but so is filling in knowledge gaps with things you can look up.

Spending too much time in either mode will be an exercise in frustration. Looking everything up will become exhausting and stunt your reading speed, but it will improve comprehension and your efficiency with future lookups. Glossing over everything will improve your reading speed and your accuracy at guessing context, but unknown grammar structures and vocab will lead to a lot of misunderstandings and confusion.


I have one manga for mostly reading as it is. I look a few words up here and there if I want to.
It’s very relaxing. With the pictures, I basically know what the story is.

I have another text for decoding every line as best I can.
For this I use news articles and japanese national geographic.
It’s very strenuous and time consuming.