Reading books and articles in Spanish is a great way to increase your vocabulary and get an intuitive feel for the language. Unfortunately, it’s also easy to get overwhelmed by long lists of new words and unfamiliar expressions and quit reading altogether.

How can you get the benefits of reading without the frustration of looking up every other word in the dictionary?

When reading challenging texts in Spanish, alternate between casual reading and deliberate reading.

The main goal of casual reading is to get a good-enough understanding of the text so you can infer the meaning of new words through their context.

You are better at this than you might think. If you can get over the mental barrier of not always knowing exactly what you’re reading, you’ll be surprised by your brain’s ability to identify patterns and fill in the blanks.

As a quick exercise, try reading the following paragraph in casual-reading mode. There will probably be words that you’re not familiar with, but see if you can figure out the situation it’s describing:

El primero que nos dimos no fue especialmente romántico. Fue en el Patrick, un bar de Ventura Rodríguez. Yo había ido con mi amiga Lucía para celebrar que por fin habíamos terminado el maldito máster de mercados financieros. Él iba allí todos los viernes por la noche con un grupo de compañeros del trabajo. No recuerdo cómo empezamos a hablar. Probablemente fue él el que se acercó diciéndome alguna tontería que me hizo gracia. Lo único que recuerdo es que olía muy bien y que me gustaba cómo se reía. Una hora después nos estábamos besando.

If you’re in intermediate purgatory, you have enough of a base to understand the gist of most of what you read (the paragraph above, for example, is talking about the first kiss between two people), the problem is finding ways to go deeper.

Casual reading is a great mindset to cover a lot of ground, but if you want to go from kind-of-understand to completely-understand, you need deliberate reading. This is the kind of reading that happens when you’re actively engaged with the text. As you read, you ask yourself “is this something I’d be comfortable using on a conversation? If not, it’s time to do the detective work of figuring out where the difficulties are.

In this article, I want to show you three ways to apply deliberate reading:

Comparing what you know with what you don’t

Let’s imagine that you’re already familiar with the expression La primera vez que te conocí (the first time I met you), but that you’re a bit confused by this one:

El primero que nos dimos no fue especialmente romántico.

You can use the expression you know to understand the one you don’t. Your inner dialogue could go something like this:

  • We say la primera vez because vez is feminine, but since this sentence is using el primero, it must be talking about something masculine.
  • The main similarity between te conocí and nos dimos is that they’re both pronominal verbs (conocerse, darse) in the preterit tense.
  • The main difference between la primera vez que and el primero que is that the in the second case, the noun after primero is omitted. What happens if I add it? El primero beso que nos dimos….
    • I’m not sure, but I think that sounds a little weird. Let’s check Google.
      • Ok, I just remembered that when adding a noun after primero, it loses the o, so it should be el primer beso que nos dimos.
  • I think I’m more comfortable with it now. If I can say el primer beso que nos dimos, I could also say la primera vez que nos conocimos. And likewise, la primera vez que te conocí is the same pattern as el primer beso que te di.

As an intermediate, most of the new structures you come across will remind you of others you’ve seen before. Applying this technique will help you figure out these similarities, and you’ll get better at catching subtle differences like the one between primer and primero.

Simplifying complex structures

The best way to deal with a complicated long sentence is to reduce it to its smallest components. For example, how would you simplify this sentence?

Yo había ido con mi amiga Lucía para celebrar que por fin habíamos terminado el maldito máster de mercados financieros.

One way to do it is by removing the specific details (the personal pronoun, the name of the friend, the thing they’re celebrating):

Había ido con mi amiga para celebrarlo.

If you were confused by the original sentence, but not by the simplified one, you’re ready to go up one level of complexity:

…para celebrar que habíamos terminado el máster.

Let’s go up another level:

…para celebrar que por fin habíamos terminado el máster de economía.

How would you have translated “to celebrate that we had finally finished the Economy Master’s degree”? Is finalmente a valid option? Does por fin always go after que? Are you comfortable using por fin in a conversation?

One of the benefits of deliberate reading is that it gives you a clear understanding of what you haven’t mastered yet. You can’t practice using por fin in a conversation until you realize that this is something you’re not comfortable doing. Once you see your limitation, you can do something about it (for example, building a scaffold sentence around it).

Test-driving different contexts

Here is a sentence that can be challenging when read in casual mode:

Probablemente fue él el que se acercó diciéndome alguna tontería que me hizo gracia.
Probably, it was him who approached, saying some silly thing that I found funny.

Let’s say you’ve identified the challenging part to be él el que se acercó: you know what it means, but you’re not comfortable using it.

One of the things you can do to internalize it is to test-drive it in different contexts and see where the difficulties are.

  • By changing the gender, you might realize the connection between él and el que: Fue ella la que se acercó.

  • By changing the number, you might realize the connection between fue and acercó: Fueron ellos los que se acercaron.

  • By changing the verb, you might realize that what you find confusing is the se in acercarse: Fue él el que desapareció.

Other contexts you could try include changing the sentence into a question (¿Quién fue el que se acercó?), making it negative (No fue él el que se acercó) or changing the verb tense (Es él el que se ha acercado).

Thinking about how the sentence changes depending on the context gives you a deeper understanding of the moving parts. Once you internalize these patterns, you can apply to other sentences, which has a direct effect on your ability to speak fluidly in a live conversation.

Spanish takeaways

Building a daily reading habit is one of the best things you can do to learn Spanish.

To avoid burn out, combine your casual reading with deliberate reading. For example, you could set a daily casual reading goal of 500 words (from a book, a newspaper, or a magazine) and then use deliberate mode to work on the most interesting paragraph from that day’s reading.

When you’re in deliberate reading mode, your inner dialogue should be one of constant questioning. How would I say this? What is that word doing there? Does it work if I do it like this?

Use what you know to decipher what you don’t. When you feel confused about something, instead of trying to handle all the complexity at once, try to simplify it. To be really sure you understand something, test-drive it in different contexts and see what changes are required. Once you understand the role of each moving part, you’ll have an easier time internalizing it.

Take something you read last week and read it again deliberately.

Let me know how it goes, I’d love to hear from you.