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Focusing Exclusively on Reading


ablindwatchmaker
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Hello! I would like some advice on a learning strategy I’m planning to implement in the very near future. 
 

Basically, I have had the luxury of studying all day the past month or so and will continue to have a lot of free time over the next few months. Inspired by @pinion to start reading aggressively, I think I am going to drop active listening practice and focus exclusively on reading to get my speed and vocabulary up to a more acceptable standard. My current reading speed is around 60 CPM, and I am not satisfied with this. Up to this point, I’ve been getting around 3 hours of active listening practice per day, and another 3-5 hours of reading practice per day. 
 

I’m curious if anyone has any objections to simply going all-in on one aspect of language learning, as opposed to dividing my time up between reading and listening. My current rationale for focusing on one objective, reading, is as follows: 

 

1. I’m still encountering far too much new vocabulary in my active listening than I would like, and vocabulary acquisition via listening content is not as efficient as getting it through reading. I know, ear training can’t be avoided, and reading is not a substitute for listening practice, but I would like to get to a point where listening practice is mostly ear training, as opposed to an activity where new vocabulary is as big of a problem as the parsing of speech.  
 

2. Active listening causes a lot of mental fatigue, and it really drags down my focus when I start to read. If I choose listening practice first, it hurts my reading, and if I choose reading first, it dramatically drags down my listening. 
 

3. If I could double, or even triple, my reading speed in the next 3-6 months, assuming I can read a million characters per month, I would be able to reintroduce a predominantly listening-based approach in the future. This is because I would be able to get through more material in less time, would have a much larger vocabulary, and fatigue would be less of an issue. This would allow more time for listening while still being able to plow through a substantial amount of reading material. 
 

I would appreciate any thoughts on the following approach! 

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It's hard to answer without knowing why your reading speed is 60cpm. It can't be because you're not used to reading Chinese - beacuse you say you're reading 3-5 hours a day (which is a lot I think - I could never do more than 4 solid hours a day reading novels).

So is it because you're encountering too much difficult grammar and/or too much unknown vocabulary when reading? That is, are the texts you're reading too difficult for you?

If that's the case I'd suggest finding texts that are better suited to your level. Textbooks and readers - up to and including readers with wholly unedited, native texts - are all helpful. Reading comprehension textbooks are designed for skills training so you can read quicker, in terms of taking control of a text and actively searching it for information.

 

I had a recent reading binge to try to regain some rusty reading ability. But I've since scaled down from a novel per week (ish) to a novel per month, because I want to redirect much of that 'extensive reading' time to more focused or 'intensive' study.

 

Doubling or trebling your reading speed would be a huge step, but it's not clear whether just spending hours and hours reading is the best way to achieve that.

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@realmayo

 

I failed to clarify my current reading level and the cumulative amount of text I’ve consumed. Not counting the input I’ve accumulated through traditional, classroom work (pretty negligible), I’ve read 3 novels and am half-way through my 4th novel (死神永生). My comprehension is comfortably above 98% and usually around 99%, in terms of my vocabulary. I’ve done a considerable amount of flashcard work, which inflates my vocabulary above what would be expected for the amount of input I’ve had. If I had to guess, using CTA to inform my opinion, I definitely know more than 12,000 words. 
 

I think my speed is low for two reasons, basically. I take my time understanding what I am reading and do not move on when I fail to understand. I aim for 100% comprehension, so in a sense I am intensively reading many hours a day. The majority of time reading is probably taken up with trying to fully understand lengthy sentences and new vocabulary, with complex sentences being the main barrier. For instance, I recently started 活着, reading it along with 死神永生,and I find the latter significantly harder than the former. I can comfortably read 活着,mainly due to how short the sentences are, while I frequently have to take my time with 死神永生 because the sentences are so long. 
 

This is why I think I just need more input, but I could be wrong. I have a rare opportunity to read all day for the next few months, and that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon, or ever again, for that matter. With listening, I can do quite a bit while doing other tasks, whereas with reading I have to fully dedicate myself. I believe that if I can get through 35,000 characters per day (about 60 pages based on what I’m currently reading), then I should see noticeable improvement in the coming months. 

At the end of the day, this is about trying to optimize my time so that I can get through more text in less time in the future, which allows me to keep improving my reading and vocabulary while focusing more on listening. In other words, if I can plow through 20 pages of text in 90 minutes instead of 180-210, then it become a real game-changer going forward. I think this is more efficient, but let me know what you think. 
 

Apologies for the essay. 

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OK interesting - especially becuase I've been thinking about these same things for myself recently.

Quote

in a sense I am intensively reading many hours a day

That explains why the reading speed is low. And I think leads to another question which I guess no one can really answer: is it better/worse to spend hours and hours each day on that intensive reading versus extensive reading versus a mixture of the two. (That's assuming you have the stamina for hours of very close reading every day, and it seems you do.)

 

Maybe think about how reading is beneficial. Let's say novels have three types of sentences: easy (you can read without really noticing any effort), moderate (takes some effort but immediately or quickly comprehensible) and hard (you've got to stop and re-read multiple times before you largely or fully comprehend).

 

The only benefit of reading the easy sentences is that you might improve your reading speed, but at least they don't take up much time and effort. Moderate sentences force you to think and ultimately reinforce words or grammar that you've only been loosely familiar with, as well as introduce you to words or patterns that you can correctly intuit. Hard sentences do the same, and can provide a real workout for the brain, but they take up a lot of time and effort.

 

I'd suggest that hard sentences take up so much time and effort that too many of them make reading inefficient. If you had time to read 10 hard sentences and 10 moderate ones, or 5 hard sentences and 50 moderate ones, my hunch is that the latter is the better choice.

 

There's also the risk that the hard sentences contain unknown words or grammar that are very rare, and it's a more efficient use of your time to learn more common vocabulary and grammar before moving onto the rarer ones.

 

So if it were me - I'd focus on more extensive reading, and do hours and hours of that, to see where you get to in terms of reading speed. So you would either carry on reading the same kind of books, but be prepared to skim over some of the hard sentences. Or split your time: mainly extensive reading of 'moderate' books, with some time spent slogging through (perhaps with some assistance) hard texts.

 

Also if you aren't 100% comfortable about abandoning listening, then get audiobooks for the novels you've read!

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On 10/19/2021 at 9:38 AM, ablindwatchmaker said:

If I could double, or even triple, my reading speed in the next 3-6 months, assuming I can read a million characters per month,

If you want to get faster at reading, one other way is explained in one of Imron's posts about re-reading the same passages again and again and timing yourself. It is a matter of developing sight recognition of as many words as possible.

 

On 10/19/2021 at 10:54 AM, ablindwatchmaker said:

I aim for 100% comprehension,

 

If you can read 1 million characters per months at 98% comprehension, it means you encounter 20000 new characters/words per month. This is 666 new character/words per day.  If you aim for 100% comprehension, then this is either mental suicide or poor maths.

 

On 10/19/2021 at 12:07 PM, realmayo said:

Also if you aren't 100% comfortable about abandoning listening, then get audiobooks for the novels you've read!

 

This sounds like a great solution to me. Read a book chapter by chapter and listen to the audio book at the same time. 

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@ablindwatchmaker I did the same thing starting a year ago, inspired by @pinion's post, and in the last 5 months decided to double down and focus only on reading.  Before that I did both reading (slowly, on and off), and watching a Chinese TV show at the same time. 

 

I came to the conclusion that reading is the skill that compounds the best.  If I read faster, I can read more in the same amount of time, and nothing beats reading a ton of characters for improving comphension, gaining vocab, learning grammar, word choice & sentence patterns, ultimately leading to fluency.

 

For me, the first 600k characters or so were the hardest because you're still figuring the knack of reading.  I think picking 三体 1, 2 & 3 to start with is a huge challenge, and you should be proud you got through it.  That's the steepest part of the climb.  (The second hardest hurdle is stamina and you seemed to have passed that as well).

 

I started with 活着 and 3 translated English children books that I read as a kid.  My speed for the first 600k characters or so were around 80 cpm (high double digits but def < 100).  I didn't get to consistently 100-150cpm range until I was past 1.5m characters.  (I'm now at almost 4m characters, and I'm just finishing up 兄弟2 at around 205cpm -- I'll post my data in the Extensive Reading thread when I'm done with the book.)


From my research & experience, I don't think you can improve speed without just getting through the requisite number of characters.  Most L2 readers are not that fast at reading because they just don't read enough. 

 

In addition to recognizing characters, a big part of reading fast is learning to process / parse chinese at a higher speed.  I haven't practiced listening at all, but my listening has improved from my reading just because I'm now able to process the words in my brain at a higher speed.  The paper I cited in the Extensive Reading thread suggests that for L2 readers, your optimal comprehension speed is often the same as your reading speed (i.e. you're already reading as fast as you can comprehend; recognizing chars faster is not the limiter).

 

From my own experiements, just from improving my Chinese comprehension ability, I've improved my listening ability.  I can now listen to Chinese at full speed and understand it to about the same level as I could before listening at 1/2 or 3/4 speed.  This is due to speeding up my brain (as my ears haven't improved -- apparently they were already functioning well enough for my now speedier brain).  Natural speaking speed is 250cpm, so if I read faster, I think I'd listen even better. 

 

In terms of book selection, I mainly do extensive reading (reading at a subjectively comfortable level rather than reading at a challenging level).  If books are too hard, I save them for later.  Right now, I'm trying to improve fluency rather than sophistication.  I'll take a harder book every 3 or 4 books just to change things up, just I like to sample from a variety of genres so that I am exposed to many different subject matter, but I'm not worried about books being not challenging enough.

 

Instead, my newest wrinkle / experiment I'm testing now is to listen to audio books of old books I've read in the past.  I'll play them in the background and I find can understand a lot of it without subtitles, something which I never could do before.  I can't do this with chinese text that I'm unfamiliar with (like podcasts), so doing this with old books is perfect for my current level. 

 

After 兄弟2, I'm going to read 三体 3.  At the same time, I'll also listen to the audio book of 三体1 in the background (in the car, doing chores etc), a book which I read about 4 months ago.  Because I don't have to concentrate, it's much easier to find time for this among other stuff. 

 

I don't know if this is the fastest way to improve, but I've found it reasonably fast, and I find it less boring than textbooks & exercises.  At some point, I'll go back to textbooks, just to make sure my formal grammar stays on par with my improved language comprehension ability.  But right now, I am sticking with reading, at least until I get to 250cpm (natural speaking speed).

 

If you do engage in this plan, please post your progress in the Extensive Reading thread.  Collecting more data from different experiences will help everyone in figuring out how to guide their own learning.  Happy reading!

 

https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/60492-extensive-reading-and-reading-speed/

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On 10/19/2021 at 3:54 AM, ablindwatchmaker said:

I aim for 100% comprehension...

 

Are you sure this is the best strategy? I tend to cut myself a little more slack. Just be satisfied with "getting the gist of it" if a sentence or passage is extremely convoluted. 

 

Quote

At the end of the day, this is about trying to optimize my time so that I can get through more text in less time in the future, which allows me to keep improving my reading and vocabulary while focusing more on listening.

 

Sometimes I will make a pencil mark in the margin of a book if I come up against a puzzling sentence or phrase and come back to it after finishing the chapter. Often it is clear once I have more context. 

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@realmayo

 

This is a great breakdown of the situation. Once I finish 死神永生,the next book I pick will be a bit easier in terms of the sentence structures and grammar. I’m also going to limit my reading of that to 20 pages per day. To get my daily total to 60, I’ll then find a book of moderate to easy difficulty and read 20 pages of that. Finally, I’ll get my last 20 pages from something like Harry Potter, which is really easy in terms of sentence structure and grammar. 
 

Thanks for the thoughtful post! 
 

@Jan Finster

 

I don’t actively study every new word I encounter, and I use Pleco for unknown words, so getting to 100% comprehension of text, or very near it, is not that difficult in terms of vocabulary. In fact, while I do make new cards for unknown words, I don’t have time to study all of them and just focus on new characters encountered. Right now, based on the unknown words I find, I encounter about 1.5 new words per page. But it goes up sometimes, so I just say 98% for the sake of convenience. The lengthy, convoluted sentences are the real barriers to my comprehension and are where I’m really spending a lot of my time. I’m going to follow @realmayoadvice and introduce more easy material to get more done. 
 

@abcdefg

 

This is a great idea. Way more efficient than just stopping for 3-5 minutes to analyze a sentence during a dedicated reading session. I still have very high comprehension, even if I do just skip a sentence here and there, and I don’t feel like it would be “cheating” to just skim some of them. If I really must, I’ll just come to the sentence after the session and do a brief review session. 
 

@phills 

 

How many new words are you encountering per page, on average? 
 

Improving comprehension speed, adjusting for vocabulary, does seem to be the central task, as opposed to just simple decoding—thanks for this little gem. It’s also extremely encouraging to hear that you’ve managed to improve listening through getting better at reading, and it does make sense. 
 

I was using audiobooks as my primary form of listening practice before, and it did absolute wonders for my listening ability—it transferred to other listening tasks very well, in my opinion. I managed to get comfortable with native speed in television pretty quickly using this exclusively (now it’s an issue of grammar, dialect, vocabulary, and subtext). Actually, I am planning to go back and listen to everything I read once I complete this reading phase, both passively and actively. 
 

I’m glad to hear you’ve run this experiment and seen such awesome results, and I absolutely will be posting a detailed spreadsheet of my progress over the next 6 months. 
 

Thanks for all the tips, everyone! 

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On 10/20/2021 at 2:00 PM, ablindwatchmaker said:

How many new words are you encountering per page, on average? 

 

I read in a text editor, so I don't know how many pages I'm reading. 

 

I tend to collect from 50 to 200 new words a book (maybe 1 per 1-2k characters), depending on how hard the book is.  I don't save down every word I don't know, I tend to only collect those words & chengyu that I see repeatedly, or seem like a cool way to express things, or are key to the plot. 

 

If I don't think a word is going to appear again (some weird sound word, random animal / plant), I'll skip it for now.  If it does appears again later, I'll probably save it down.

 

Good luck!

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On 10/19/2021 at 1:08 PM, Jan Finster said:

this is either mental suicide or poor maths.

 

I would say both :)

 

If op learns 20,000 new words/month s/he will know all useful and useless Chinese words in 5 months (I quickly googled "how many Chinese words are there?").

 

With each new word studied, the comprehension rate of op will crawl above 98% and tendentially approach 100%. So the number of new words/day would be 66 on day 1 and then slowly and steadily decrease - if the op survives week 1, that is.

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@laurenth 

 

It’s been absolutely brutal so far, but I’m chugging along pretty well. I’ve completely abandoned trying to make flashcards for all of the vocab and am just looking up words as I go. 
 

I’ll post a progress report at some point and provide some stats, probably in a few months. 

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On 10/25/2021 at 6:51 PM, ablindwatchmaker said:

It’s been absolutely brutal so far, but I’m chugging along pretty well. I’ve completely abandoned trying to make flashcards for all of the vocab and am just looking up words as I go. 
 

I’ll post a progress report at some point and provide some stats, probably in a few months. 

 

I think abandoning flashcards is a good choice with your reading regime.
 

I got inspired by your project and decided to record stats for my reading WoT from the beginning too. Let's see how long I can manage to keep it up. I tend to burn out after a month or two and go do something else.. 😂

Also I don't have anywhere near the time you have to dedicate to this. I can currently read between 5000 to 10000 characters per day. However I'm in the ninth chapter of The Eye of the World already and feeling like I'm getting the hang of it again. It was odd how different the setup was after reading the Lord of Chaos and the first chapter seemed to be full of new vocabulary.

Here are my stats for reading speed for each chapter so far. I'll post more with some analysis in a few months if I can keep it up.

Chapter 1: 56 cpm
Chapter 2: 68 cpm
Chapter 3: 78 cpm
Chapter 4: 75 cpm
Chapter 5: 68 cpm
Chapter 6: 71 cpm
Chapter 7: 75 cpm
Chapter 8: 82 cpm

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On 10/25/2021 at 5:03 PM, alantin said:

I think abandoning flashcards is a good choice with your reading regime.

@alantin 

 

It takes too much time, and I’ll never be able to review so much even if I make them. I haven’t even been able to make myself review new characters because I’m too fatigued after 8 hours of reading. I’m covering about 60 pages per day, spread across 3 books, which is insane considering that the most I’d ever read in one sitting prior to a few weeks ago was 20 pages (10-14kish characters). I just finished 活着 in 7 days lol. Granted, it’s not long, but 120k characters is a hell of a lot for me in such a short period of time. I guess I’ll replace it with another 余华 book 🤷‍♂️
 

The Eye of the World is a very different book from LoC even in English. WoT really becomes its own thing after The Eye of the World and gets better, in my opinion. 
 

Your reading progress is awesome! I think 5-10k is really solid if you have other obligations.
 

I really need to get through 三体 3 so my reading speed isn’t getting dragged through the mud so much. @phills Knows what I’m talking about lol. 
 

Are you doing any listening practice or are you just focusing on WoT for now? 

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On 10/26/2021 at 12:03 AM, alantin said:

I can currently read between 5000 to 10000 characters per day.

I am glad I am not the only one with such modest numbers. After all, there is life, nature, work and what have you waiting for their share of my attention. 

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I'm in the same boat as you since I've moved on to primarily study Japanese.

 

Since I only read physical books I've never really counted characters, but since I have both Taipei People (which I'm currently reading) and the Harry Potter books (where I'm much quicker), I could check. I generally tried to read two chapters per day of Harry Potter when I moved over to the traditional versions, which seems to be a bout 45,000 characters. In Taipei People that's just not possible, since I have to look up several words per page, sometimes per paragraph or even per sentence. In Taipei People a chapter seems to be about 15-20,000 characters, and I've tried to read a chapter a day, but sometimes I have started out to late in the evening to make it through. The vocabulary in yesterday's chapter was insanely difficult for me personally, but I still think it's good exercise and I enjoy reading it. A lot of the unknown words are dialectal expressions, Buddhist terms, chengyu I still haven't learned (although these are few and far between by now due to my previous study method) and most of all proper nouns. Like others here have mentioned, I don't move on to the next sentence before I understand the one I'm at. This is primarily because I've stopped making flashcards for now, so looking up words and understanding them will be even more important.

 

Note that the numbers mentioned above are not yearly averages, since there are weekends where I don't read at all, although I try to read almost every day as of late. But I'm also is studying full time, so there is always the risk of burn out if workload in that area increases drastically.

 

Some of my previous novels were translations of English works (like The Da Vinci Code, which I didn't like at all), but jumping into native material is so important for grammar structures and cultural references. I still think translations are an excellent crutch when one has just started reading, but reading stuff like Under the Hawthorn Tree and Yu Hua quite early has done a lot for my reading ability.

 

The only thing I feel Anki might still be a place for now that I don't have a lot of time for it when it comes to Chinese, would be new characters or morphemes (or a middle ground, a new reading for a new or old character), since there are only a few new ones per book, and I probably won't learn both their meaning and reading effectively if they turn up so seldom.

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On 10/26/2021 at 9:44 AM, Jan Finster said:

I am glad I am not the only one with such modest numbers. After all, there is life, nature, work and what have you waiting for their share of my attention. 

 

Everything you read is important, I recall Paul Nation (whom you mentioned in another thread) said you don't have to read a lot per day for it do be a big difference. I believe that to be true for reading, but perhaps not for listening.

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On 10/26/2021 at 10:35 AM, realmayo said:

Paul Nation also says you won't become a fluent reader by reading difficult material, which is food for thought.

 

I need the reading ability for my master's, way more than I need any kind of fluency. My fluency training comes much more from listening practice than reading as of now (music, podcasts, news).

 

I guess that also depends on how you do it. My plan is to read it all over again after I've gone through it once. Mixing easy and difficult novels has so far felt effective for me personally.

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On 10/26/2021 at 3:35 AM, realmayo said:

Paul Nation also says you won't become a fluent reader by reading difficult material, which is food for thought

 

I think a little goes a long way. Once I finish 三体3, I’m going to make sure that whatever I replace it with is just as hard or harder, but I’m going to reduce my daily consumption of such material and use the extra time to reintroduce a little grammar study. Lately, I’ve noticed there are some significant holes in my knowledge of grammar that ai need to patch up. The remaining books, lighter reading, will be stuff like 余华 and translated works. 
 

@Insectosaurus

 

In your opinion, or anyone else who has something to add, what is the major downside to reading translated works? I have 15-20 books in my queue that are original Chinese works, but I’ve got a greater number of translated works. I simply don’t want to give up reading things I’ve always wanted to read, but I do want to know what the negative consequences might be with said approach. My current strategy is to finish all of the Chinese originals and then go from there. 

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On 10/26/2021 at 11:09 AM, ablindwatchmaker said:

In your opinion, or anyone else who has something to add, what is the major downside to reading translated works? I have 15-20 books in my queue that are original Chinese works, but I’ve got a greater number of translated works. I simply don’t want to give up reading things I’ve always wanted to read, but I do want to know what the negative consequences might be with said approach. My current strategy is to finish all of the Chinese originals and then go from there. 

 

I can tell you about my personal experience, but bear in mind I'm just entering my third year of studying Chinese (on my own), so there will be a lot of people on this forum with much more reading experience. One thing is for certain: I waited too long before I started reading, I always felt I wanted to prepare more. What I didn't get at that time was that reading in itself would help me understand more of what I read in the future. I'm pretty sure Harry Potter was the first novel I read, and it was incredibly difficult. I had however decided I would go through the entire series since I've never read them in my mother tongue or in English for that matter. Which each book it got easier, but I think it wasn't until the sixth book I felt I understood most of what I read and didn't have to look up characters execpt a few here and there.

 

My next book was Under the Hawthorn Tree. At first I think only reading a few pages was fatiguing, but it got better as I learned more vocabulary. At this time I still added a lot of words from the books I read. I always knew all chengyu on beforehand, which I think was good for my mental health if not anything else... I have since read two books by Yu Hua (To Live and Chronicles of a Blood Merchant), a few translations (The Da Vinci Code, The Quiet American). I have also read a few of the Harry Potter books in traditional (everything I read nowadays is in traditional).

 

Under the Hawthorn Tree is also one of the proof I got that reading physical books was the way to go. My first book was actually Under the Hawthorn Tree, but I read it in iBooks and when I started reading physical books I immediately noticed I had vastly overrated my reading abilities.

 

My take on what I've read so far is this: reading translations is good for speed, since you understand most of what you read, and if you don't understand it'll probably do anyway, since you know the gist of the story. However, the gramatical structures are way, way different. That goes for both the way people speak and the narration.

 

What you get from reading native material that won't show up in translations: very colloquial forms of expression, locations, historical references, grammar structures you've never encountered before and a lot more. I would really like to now what Paul Nation (or research in general) says about grammar structures, since they won't show up in the word family statistics. Even if it sometimes takes me some time to parse a sentence in Taipei People, when I've finally understood how that sentence was formed, this will help me understand similar sentences later in the book and in other books of the same style, vocabulary aside.

 

As I've mentioned in a few other posts, I have made sure to learn all morphemes (or word familiies) hiding behind the most common 4000 characters. I can't say for sure, but I am confident this has boosted my reading ability a lot. I rarely hesitate between different possible readings of characters, even if my listening ability is quite poor.

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