How to not understand what you’re reading in Spanish


One of the worst mistakes that students can make when reading in Spanish (or any second language) is to look up all the words they don’t know in the dictionary. I understand that this is very tempting to do. However, it is a terrible reading strategy for several reasons. One: you do not need to know all the words on the page in order to understand a story. In general, the more words you know, the better, but it’s not necessary to know every single word. Two: looking up words in the dictionary is a very distracting process. You need to find the right meaning of the word for that particular context, and most words have multiple meanings. Finding the right meaning may take some time, and even if you’re really fast, it is a distraction from the process and flow of reading. Three: when people read fluently, they don’t read word-for-word but rather in chunks. Looking up individual words will essentially prevent you from reading in chunks (i.e., fluently). So, if I’ve convinced you to this point, let me give you an example of how to skip unknown words and still understand what you’re reading. This is the first sentence of a novel we read in Spanish 4, Cajas de Cartón:

La frontera es una palabra que yo a menudo escuchaba cuando, siendo un niño, vivía allá en México, en un ranchito llamado El Rancho Blanco, enclavado entre lomas secas y pelonas, muchas millas al norte de Guadalajara.

Let’s assume you don’t understand the words in red font. Don’t look them up! Think about what that entire phrase is doing in the sentence: it describes El Rancho Blanco. If you don’t know the words in red, you can keep reading and still know that El Rancho Blanco is located many miles north of Guadalajara. You are missing some details, but you can keep reading. The main point is that skipping words is generally a much better  reading strategy than looking up many unknown words.