Reading Strategies

Reading Strategies


1. You need not understand every word. Use the dictionary sparingly. Think of conversations you have in bars, or at construction sites, in noisy city streets, at stock markets…: it is impossible to understand every word in these situations, yet you still understand enough so that you can fill in certain gaps from the context, and communicate successfully. Once in a while you miss something essential and get confused, and then you ask the person with whom you are speaking to repeat what they said. Reading German is like talking in a noisy room: you can fill in a lot of the gaps caused by unfamiliar words and constructions; only when this fails should you turn to your dictionary! The remainder of this page provides advice of various kinds to help you “fill in the gaps” as efficiently as possible. But first, here’s a great example of how helpful reading strategies can be, from a student describing her first day in Germany. She’s just arrived for a study abroad program, and is trying to find her room in the Studentenwohnheim (click here to see the blog, which is full of great insights and anecdotes, and might inspire you to study abroad. I recommend reading it chronologically, i.e. read the oldest entries first!):

  • I’m in building 14, and I had to wander for a few minutes to find it. I’m on the 6th floor, which really means 7th floor. When I walked in, there was a skinny little staircase that winds all the way to the top floor, and an elevator with the words “Im Brandfall Aufzug nicht benutzen”. The only words I immediately recognized were “nicht benutzen”, which means “don’t use”. For fear of breaking rules even before I move in, I start climbing the stairs with all 80 lbs of my luggage. By the time I got to the 1st floor, I was tired enough to break some rules. But as I reach the landing, it finally dawns on me. Brand is a form of brennen, or burn. Fire. Fall means event. Zug is train, and auf can mean up. In burn event up train don’t use. Don’t use elevator in case of fire. What a relief! So I happily jump on the elevator and cruise up the next 6 floors without trouble.

2. Preread! People always want to skip this: it seems unproductive and is frustrating, because you want to get started right away, but prereading makes you a much more efficient reader. In these ways it is like stretching before exercise, or pretreating laundry, or marinating meat, or warming up your car: a small effort that lazy and foolish people avoid, and that gives smart and diligent people the edge in this dog-eat-dog world. The first thing you will learn in any speedreading class is that you can instantly increase your reading speed by prereading: after investing a couple of minutes in finding out what you can expect from the text, you are much less likely to get stuck and you will be able to read through the text much more quickly, since the material will already be slightly familiar, and your brain will have formed some categories by which to organize and interpret what you read.


Note: We will ordinarily do some prereading activities in class before the texts are assigned. Nevertheless, you should spend a few minutes prereading the text when you first sit down to do the assignment.

1. Try to determine…

a. the type of text and intended audience. If it is a newspaper article, for example, you can expect lots of quotations (and Subjunctive I!); if it is an article explaining a scientific concept for laypeople, you can expect creative analogies, examples, and a discussion of the concept’s practical applications; if it is a section of a textbook, you can expect a more concise summary, etc.

b. any information about the author. You may recognize one or two of the authors whose texts we are reading, and this may lead you to expect certain things or at least build your curiosity (also an important part of reading!). Occasionally there will be a blurb telling you what kinds of text to expect from the author of the text you are reading.

c. when the article was written.

2. Make sure you understand the title.

3. Look at tables and illustrations.

4. On the basis of the above information, try to guess/predict what the article might say. Ask yourself what you hope it will talk about!

5. Now skim the whole text quickly, without stopping, for 2 – 5 minutes, in order to do the following:

a. recall what you already know about this topic.

b. repeat step 4, and refine your expectations and hopes.

c. note the text’s organization/structure.

6. Read assigned questions/exercises. These obviously tell you what to look for, but also give you more information about what to expect.


0. You should spend at least one hour, but no more than two hours on each reading assignment in 101-231. Use the suggestions below to understand the text as well as you can within that time.

1. Concentrate on the important parts! Your prereading will have given you some idea of where these are. Important parts are generally:

a. the first and last paragraph of the text, and the first and last sentence of each paragraph.

b. definitions

c. dates, times, measurements and similar specific information

d. lists

e. analogies explain the central concepts of the text.

2. Concentrate on the important words! In general, the shorter the word, the more important it is that you know or be able to guess its meaning/function. A list of examples follows; if any of them are unfamiliar to you, look them up NOW!!!! and note that many of them have
more than one possible meaning:

a. negations (nicht, kein, niemals, nirgendwo, niemand, nie, nichts,…)

b.conjunctions (und, denn, sondern, aber, oder, weil, daß, obwohl, falls, wenn,…) which indicate the relation between clauses.

c. question words (wie, wo, wann, warum, was, wohin and other wo-compounds [note some of these can also function as relative pronouns])

d. prepositions (aus, außer, bei, mit, nach, seit, von, zu, ohne, für, gegen, statt, trotz, ohne, um…zu, in, auf, an, über,…)

d. other “power words”: (usually) little prepositions and adverbs that can indicate the focus of the sentence: e.g. time expressions (immer, nie, selten, oft, als, gewöhnlich, normalerweise, plötzlich, manchmal, meistens, während, nachdem, nach, vor, dann, schon, noch,…–note that some of these can have other important meanings), and various others (nur, auch, darum, deshalb, dennoch, deswegen, außerdem, natürlich, überall, je,…)

e. frequently repeated words

It will help you with all aspects of your German to learn as much as you can of the German 221/231 Kernwortschatz [the roughly 1,000 most frequent German words/phrases], linked near the top of this page.

3. Guess meanings/functions of unknown words. The less you have to interrupt your reading by flipping through a dictionary, the better. There are all kinds of clues you can use:

a. context: never look up an unfamiliar word as soon as you come across it: first look backwards and forwards for clues as to what meanings are possible.

b. the word’s grammatical function: is it a verb, noun, adjective, adverb,…? Word order, capitalization, and endings will help you determine this.

c. paraphrases: sometimes you’ll find the author paraphrases the word elsewhere, in order to explain it or in order to vary her expression.

d. clues within the word itself–but keep in mind the context, since these clues are sometimes misleading:

    • parts of compound words which you may recognize
    • prefixes (ab-, un-, mit-, ein-,…) or suffixes (-bar, -los, -voll, -heit,…) that help determine meaning
    • cognate words in English or other languages.

4. Use the dictionary when all else fails, if you think that the word may be essential to your comprehension of the text. Most essential, besides the “power words” described under (2), are the subject, verb, and object(s). Click here for some detailed advice on using a dictionary, including some practice exercises.

5. Read actively. For example:

a. Try to predict what will come next.

b. Decide what is important and underline it.

c. Mark confusing passages you want to ask about in class.

d. Mark interesting facts you learn as you read. Bonus: tell your friends something cool you learned from this text. Extra bonus: Hand out fliers on the diag.

e. Ask yourself questions as you read.

f. Think about whether or not you like what you are reading. Is it clear? funny? interesting? boring? exciting? unnecessarily complicated? enlightening? wrong?

6. Still stuck?? What if you identify an essential sentence or phrase and simply can’t figure out what it means? That is the time to apply the grammar
you have learned in class in order to analyze the sentence and get to the bottom of it.  For some ideas on how to tackle especially long sentences, click here!

Answering Questions/Finding Information: Scanning the Text

This should be easy for you after prereading and reading the text as discussed above. If you need to locate a particular piece of information, you should once again not plod through the text word for word, but rather scan for it: try to find where distinctive words from the question occur in the text; if this does not work, think what other distinctive words might be associated with this question and/or its answer, and scan the text for those. Remember that scanning for information in this way is not an arbitrary classroom trick, but rather an essential skill in many situations: think of lawyers trying to find precedents for cases they are working on, or the way people read romance ads or obituaries….