Vocab vs grammar for reading comprehension and speed

Right now my grammar knowledge basically consists of all of N5/N4, a lot of N3, and some more from exposure when reading. My vocab knowledge feels very sparse but I have no idea how to quantify it. Basically whatever I learned from WaniKani, Core 2000, and exposure from reading.

My question for people with extensive reading experience is: from where I’m at now, is grammar or vocab more important to improve my reading speed and comprehension? Right now it’s basically impossible for me to read an adult-targeted book or light novel in less than a couple months (because of time to look stuff up, parse sentences, and ultimately burnout). I can easily read a 300-500 page English book within a few days (a week if reading leisurely), so to start I’d like to get to the point where I can read a 300 page Japanese book within a month or so with good comprehension.

Thoughts? Recommendations?


My recommendation is to focus on the aspect that you find the most lacking. In your case, it sounds like vocabulary - so I suggest focusing on that.

Personally I don’t read paper books because of how difficult and time consuming looking things up is. Instead I read on Kindle, with an OCR dictionary (KanjiTomo) turned on, and I check everything I don’t understand. I do learn words like that, though perhaps more slowly, but with the advantage of being practically pain free.


Thanks. I have a strong preference for physical books so that’s what I mostly read. I don’t know about things like Kindle Paperwhite, but my Kindle Fire tablet is very uncomfortable to use for reading and if I remember correctly doesn’t have most of the dictionary features anyway.


Oh no, I don’t read in Japanese on my Kindle device, but on the Kindle application on the PC. KanjiTomo is a separate application that I run in parallel.

Using OCR dictionaries is how I learnt English - it allowed me to read things beyond my level with very little frustration, which exposed me to new words, or the same word in different contexts.


From my exposure to your posts and from talking with you, I think it’s vocab. I was in the same position as you once I reached level 60. My vocab was some hundreds of words from exposure and WK vocab.

My advice would be to define a goal first and foremost. It can be “reading 10 vols of light novels”, “reading 20 vols of manga”, all the volumes of a series that you like… whatever it resonates with you… And work on building the vocab you get from it (using SRS).

My strength right now is vocab (15-17k), but when I finished WK it was my weakness. When I’m reading, I still find words I don’t know constantly (yesterday I read 80 pages of Kimetsu no Yaiba and found ~25 unknown words), but that’s way more tolerable overall. I felt that crossing the 10k really made me gain momentum in my ability to know the words.

The biggest practical advice I can give you though is to read similar things. Whether it’s the next volumes of a series or the setting that is the same… or the genre that’s the same… the same words will tend to be repeated much more often in these situations, making the comfort of reading much more tolerable.

1st volumes are always harder, but this means that 2nd+ vols are always easier.


Thanks! I’m not sure setting a goal of how many books to read would work well for me. I should probably make my goal to consistently add words I see from exposure to SRS to review. I’ve already started making a list of words I want to add. I’m just waiting for it to reach a larger number before starting SRS so I can have a consistent lesson load for a while.

My main problem is that I have a hard time managing two SRSs at once. So if I go the vocab route, I should probably set Bunpro to vacation mode (especially since I’ve been frustrated with Bunpro lately anyway). Not to say I won’t study any grammar, I just won’t use SRS with it for now.


I think it’s fine, either way. Maybe stop with lessons completely and let the number die down a little bit. Since Bunpro follows the WK SRS intervals, getting rid of the lower SRS level items greatly improves the daily amount of reviews.

Why not now? :b Certainly doing 5 lessons a day (or every other day) is easier than a bunch of them at the same time… so you can start getting into the routine of doing lessons and once things start pilling up, the whole habit of SRSing vocab will be easier on you since you’re used to doing lessons already/checking your SRS of choice.


I already do so few lessons on Bunpro that I barely have any low level items. :sweat_smile:

I’m planning to do 5 a day. But I only have like 20 words lined up so far. Not enough to get into a routine. I’ll start in a week or so I think. Hopefully by then I should have closer to 50 words lined up. Plus I’ll be starting a book, which should provide me with more words.

Now I just need to decide if I should follow any guidelines for adding words. :thinking:
So far it’s just been “this seems useful”.


What does your reading history look like? Did you jump into trying more difficult books (light novels with sparse or no furigana, specialty books, etc), or did you start with easier ones (children’s books, learner’s readers)? And for the stuff that you’re trying to read, how often do you look up words? Do you frequently find yourself looking up the same words?

I’ve read a mix of books targeted towards elementary school kids and regular books. How much I look up varies a lot. Sometimes I can read a paragraph or a page only looking up a handful of words. Other times I have to look up a lot more, like with a light novel I read recently which was way above my level. I often look up the same words over and over again, but it’s hard to say how often this happens.

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I’ve found that there’s not really a way to guarantee the usefulness of a word that always works. Yomichan will tell me that a word barely appears in the database it is using, but then tells me it’s common in news… or that it’s rarer on yomichan but google results has millions of results. Different databases seem to vary quite frequently.

What I usually do is establish a minimum frequency of a word. Right now, I only learn words that have either at least 1 million results on google (and no chinese results) or a higher number than 2000 on yomichan. But that’s me. Since your vocab is lower, you could maybe have a higher tolerance for learning words.

Another way of doing it is searching on Core 10k. If it’s there, learn it. If it’s not there, skip it until you see it again (and then maybe learn it).

I’m not too worried about learning less common words to be honest. Hey, if that gets me to be fluent in Japanese with a high level of vocab (compared to a native), that would be pretty amazing.


Another aspect: do you need to look that much up? If so, can you find books that interest you where you don’t?

I made a sort of soft rule for myself that I would just look up stuff where I don’t know the kanji and I’m pretty OK with not understanding every word and sometimes not every sentence.

EDIT: I do study vocab in anki, so I’m not sure how much effect this has, but I am definitely able to read much more this way than when I started reading.

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Yes and no. I don’t like not knowing the details of what I’m reading. Even when I do understand most of what’s going on, it’s not unusual for me to reread the section I just finished to look up more words and see what I missed.

I’m sure I could read more the way you’re describing, but not with a level of comprehension I’d be happy with.


I totally get it. If reading doesn’t feel satisfying you won’t read :slight_smile:

EDIT: Or I mean of course you might force yourself, but why read in a way that doesn’t feel good. (I’m somehow failing to express this completely obvious thing… :confused: )


I got what you mean! That’s exactly how I feel. I want to read for fun, so I can’t completely ignore my personal preferences for how I like to read.


I see you read kimetsu no yaiba. I am fan to that it is my goal to reach that level someday

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I read the comment mentioning about been really leaning towards physical books. I think that is basically what watching raw shows and looking up by hearing alone would be in terms of listening for me. :sweat_smile: … I could do it but it … would take a lot of the comfort that technology adds.

For me using the Kindle is such a convenient way to read. Let me mention some points in case you can be persuaded :slightly_smiling_face: :

  • I read regularly while commuting. Basically is THE place where I read these days. With 2 hours on a train half the days of the week. It gets me reading, cause it’s light enough, the books are there, I don’t worry about battery and I have the dictionaries right there. So no time wasted pulling my phone and looking up for a word, which I might or might not recall the reading to do a quick search in my phone.

  • Is easy to use Fluentcards or Kindlemate to pull from the Kindle those looked up words and the due sentence they appeared on. I used to then send those to Anki and apply the frequeny list add-on, so it felt I was reviewing common words, an not just any word. I’m sure you could do the same using other SRS app too. Or use Anki to sort them by frequency only.

  • Finally, while in Japan I discovered that taking a relaxing bath is something everyone should do… everyday!! And guess what? The Kindle paperwhite is waterproof!! :exploding_head: :exploding_head: … best mix ever…

Now addressing you question about vocab vs grammar… for me quickly reviewing grammar went a long way. I would just use the dictionary if any new grammar would come up and then by the end of the day pick up the Handbook of Japanese Grammar Patterns (I think that was the name) which provided a nice explanation and samples. Then like magic I would see that new grammatical point everywhere. So the magic of the SRS felt unnecessary.

Well, in any case I’m just finishing my first adult novel now (in less than a month :partying_face: ). It’s on the easy side of the spectrum, so that probably helped. The guys/gals at the extensive reading thread probably could add more experience here :sweat_smile:


I would highly recommend you focus on vocab. Even if your grammar is great, without strengthening vocab you will likely often stumble into a lack of contextual clues to figure out the basic meaning in a passage. Also, this article sums up some of arguments linguists have been making in favor of prioritizing vocab.

I understand the strong appeal of paper books and previously purchased several physical books myself, however my reading really didn’t take off until I bought a Kindle last spring (not the fire tablet but an e-ink version). Similar to what @konekush said, with the vocabulary builder, inbuilt dictionary lookup and support for multiple dictionaries (I have E-J, J-J and Japanese name dictionaries) it completely transformed the absolute tedium and frustration I had of trying to figure out how to input unknown kanji/jyukugo to Jisho/Midori.

Obviously individual experience varies greatly, but I went from mediocre reading habits (and incredibly slow reading speed) to reading at least 30 minutes a day, and just this past weekend I somehow managed to start and finish reading a 200 page novel in record time…unfathomable just 7 months ago. I guess the Kindle has made it easy to just focus on reading, with much less brain-exhausting task-switching.

I’ve also found 多読 + Kindle to be somewhat similar to an SRS system because oftentimes a book (and by extension, author) uses similar vocabulary and sentence structure, and if I’m not sure of a word’s reading/meaning, I make a guess, and then get immediate feedback for whether I was right or wrong.

Hope this is of some help! お互いに日本語勉強頑張りましょう。

TL;DR focus on vocab, and Kindles are really useful.


@Ncastaneda looks like we’re on a similar wavelength :smile: Congrats on finishing your first adult-level novel!

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Thanks! I was stuck with another novel for months and was already thinking that I should go reading a few more novels aimed a kids before attempting looking for anything else in the regular novels section. Turned out that reading a book that’s engaging was really what made the difference. I think I was struggling as much as with my last book, but I would simply enjoy reading. :slightly_smiling_face:

I guess for the same reason I feel e-books are such a huge aid to language learners, you can read what you want sooner, and not be stuck with what “you can” for longer than necessary.