In class, we get often asked to point to good quality websites to practise reading. Despite what most students think, you can start exploring French news websites quite early in your learning. The way you do it is key.

I am always amazed when I interact with non-French speaking kids in French, how they never stop to wonder what I mean. I’m talking very young children, aged 3 or 4; I’m standing there with my bag, pointing at a mess of soft toys on the floor and talking away in French to try and get them to tidy them. Hardly ever do kids look at their parents, confused as to what I mean. They get up, pick up the toys and put them away. How do they do that? My guess is that they are used to receiving orders and to not understanding all the words –  they are still in the process of learning their own language after all. But I’d say the main difference with most adults is that they don’t stop and think: “Oo, I really didn’t get that third word there – oh no!” They use context, experience and their common sense to make an educated guess. And most of the time, it pays.

Fast forward a few decades, and it seems to me a number of adults have lost the confidence to piece together bits of information they can catch in a foreign language to attempt to make sense. It is a bit like a game; and yes, you might get it wrong. However, it is a useful process to get better.

There are a few strategies you can practise to help with understanding a text.

  • Don’t rush into reading the text. You are handed out a text in class, and straight away, you are frantically reading the first sentences. But this is what I would recommend: before reading, look at everything around the text. The title, a photo, where it is published or taken from. All these are useful clues which will help a bit later.
  • Read it one first time without stopping. Just let the language carry you, don’t worry about all you don’t understand, and see if you can pick up the theme.
  • Don’t reach for the dictionary yet.
  • Start reading it again, slowly and in little chunks. Focus on what you do understand, not what you don’t.
  • Don’t reach for the dictionary.

Here are some strategies we practise in class to help you with the bits you do not understand:

  • Ignore them. Can you still get the gist?
  • Use the context, can you understand anyway?
  • Are any of the words transparent, ie look like the English words?
  • Try to replace the word by another one – you might find its meaning this way, thanks to a synonym (a word which means the same)
  • Look for the root of the word: get rid of the beginning and ending of the word and see if you recognise it:  inoubliable. Does it look like another word you know?

Only when you have exhausted all other possibilities would I recommend using a dictionary to research those words and check whether your assumption was right or wrong.

So next time you try any of these websites, focus on what you understand, and give it a try – without a dictionary, at least at first!

To practise all these techniques and others, it is still time to join our French lessons in Bath and Bristol. A bientôt!