Your Portuguese skills will flourish if you spend more time with in-context reads, hands down. More so when those materials are specifically written for language learners.
In-context reads – ICR henceforth – can be fictional or nonfictional texts as long as they offer a context that the reader can easily make sense of and relate to. A short story is a good example of an ICR.
Before I lay out my arguments in favor of ICRs, I must say that I am all for a plural, unorthodox approach to language learning.
As long as it feels right, there’s no right or wrong when it comes to the methods we choose to learn a language. We all are different.
While some people love grammar and invest a lot of their time drilling it, other people avoid it at all costs and adopt a more organic approach to learning their target language.
Stick to whatever works for you, WHILE it works, of course.
The last point is relevant. What works for you today will most likely change over time as your language skills progress.
Above all, keep in mind that it doesn’t need to be either-or. In my experience, learning strategies drawing from both a conventional textbook-like approach and from more “organic” learning methods seem fit for most learners. You just need to find your sweet spot on that continuum.
Having said that, I now want to focus on the virtues of prioritizing ICRs, that is, the advantages of a learning strategy that leans more toward the organic approach.
Stories have plots, characters, and elements of tension that we can easily relate to and make sense of.
In the face of compelling writing, we are no longer only learning a language. Now we are also enjoying a read for the sake of it. We genuinely WANT to sit with it and read on… The same thing could be said of nonfiction texts provided the topics are of your interest.
This increased enthusiasm leads to greater exposure to your target language because now you are voluntarily spending more time with it, which in and of itself accelerates the learning process considerably.
Improved word retention + idiomatic feel
What this eagerness also does is stimulate your brain to the extent that newly learned words will stick more easily. That is why students exposed to ICRs learn vocab with less effort (compared with students that rely more heavily on traditional learning approaches).
Crucially, not only do ICRs improve vocab retention but also help you develop your idiomatic feel for your target language.
See, ICRs are laden with idiomatic expressions, aka idioms. The latter, as you may know, are challenging to spot and learn (since their meaning transcends the sum of their word constituents).
But because ICRs give you a wider context, you will now be more likely to succeed at decoding these idioms and integrating them in your semantical repository, which is vital for anyone aiming at a more advanced level.
Learning grammar without studying it
Last but not least, ICRs allow you to organically learn the grammar of your target language.
Accordingly, by simply engaging with ICRs, you will be automatically assimilating the grammar rules and patterns governing, in this case, Portuguese. The implications of that are astounding – you can learn grammar without actually studying it.
One big advantage of acquiring grammar in this natural way is that you will reach fluency more easily.
See, I’ve spotted a pattern throughout the years. Students relying too heavily on learning grammar tend to become self-conscious when they talk – their brains will be constantly running grammar checks as they speak to see if they are breaking any rules. This, of course, will undercut their ability to express themselves with ease.
Pick the “right” reads
There’s a caveat. For all the amazing virtues of ICRs listed above, it would be unrealistic to suggest that language learners in general (let alone beginners) could benefit from just any read.
There’s prose and prose…
While there’s some prose out there capable of holding your interest and helping you develop your language skills, most of it would have you quit in no time. The former is usually designed for language learners, the latter is what you most likely get when picking a book at random in a bookstore or library.
Importantly, there’s a sweet spot as to how difficult or advanced the text should be. That will of course vary greatly depending on where on the learning curve you are at any given moment.
As a rule of thumb, aim for materials that are one or two notches ahead of your current language skills. This will make you grow much faster.
In other words, the ICRs you are practicing on should feel challenging enough to push your skills ahead, but not TOO difficult that they will overwhelm you and make you drop out. This is a fine balance act that you want to pay attention to.
You should definitely invest some time trying to find adequate materials that are a good fit for you at any given point in time.
Luckily, there are an increasing number of reads designed for language learners graded according to CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference), which will help you a great deal in choosing ICRs that fit you.
For instance, if you’ve just started out, look for ICRs within the A1 range (beginner level) – these reads will typically cover day-to-day, concrete topics and are written in short sentences and plain language. As you enter the intermediate level, start aiming at the A2/B1 range.
I recommend you take a look at StoryLift where you can find ICRs in European Portuguese that are CEFR-graded.
If you want to learn more about CEFR, read this one: CEFR Levels (A1/A2/B1/B2/C1/C2) – What Do They Mean?
Rise to the next level
Time to up your game? There are a couple of tricks that will allow you to pick ICRs way more advanced than your current level would otherwise accommodate.
Find materials offering the integral English translation of the original text or at least a brief summary of the story. If after reading the first two paragraphs you find yourself at a loss, stop there and read the English text first. Then go back to the original and try again.
Small is beautiful
Size matters. Pick ICRs that are broken down into small chapters/sections. Small is beautiful, and more digestible too. In other words, smaller chunks of text will allow you to digest more sophisticated prose.
Move on and come back later
Never get caught up in wanting to fully comprehend the text, semantically or otherwise. If you’ve managed to get the gist of it, if you’ve learned a couple of new words and idioms, then you are good to move on to the next chapter or read.
You can always come back to it later on. That’s actually an excellent practice. You will be amazed at how you will experience the same text as being much more accessible after having put it in the drawer and taking it up again a couple of days later. This strategy allows you to go deeper and learn even more from the same piece of text.
Best practices to make the most out of ICRs
I am about to suggest a straightforward 4-step method to help you make the most out of your ICRs.
By following this method, you will be working on all fronts of language learning: reading comprehension, listening comprehension, and pronunciation.
The method assumes that you are practicing on ICRs that come with an English translation and, most importantly, voiceover/audio. Again, take a look at StoryLift because you’ll find all these ingredients there. Also, you don’t have to follow the exact sequence suggested below. Play around with it and find what works best for you.
1. Listen only → Focus on your listening comprehension
Forget about the text for now. Listen to the audio in one go and see how much of it you can grasp.
It’s perfectly fine if you miss a few words or even full sentences. It’s supposed to be challenging. And granted, listening will always be tougher than reading.
Do it once again and see if your comprehension improves. If it doesn’t, go read the English translation of the story and come back to try again.
2. Play copycat → Focus on pronunciation
Listen to it again, but now put all your focus on pronunciation. In other words, you are not paying attention to semantics but to sounds only.
Take a first round where you simply shadow what you hear, i.e. mimic the sounds as you hear them. Do it in one go. (This practice is known as shadowing.)
Pay special attention to any sounds that you are not familiar with yet. Also, notice any melodic or rhythmic patterns that sound alien to you.
Play it a second time and pause the recording at your convenience to mimic sounds and drill your pronunciation skills. Spend as much as needed in this step.
Depending on what catches your attention, you will be mimicking either single sounds, words, or even entire sentences.
Notice your lips, jaw, and tongue while you’re reproducing those sounds. The more you become aware of pronunciation’s physical dimension, the better you will perform.
3. Read → Focus on reading comprehension
Read the text in one go and see how much of it you understand.
You should, at least, be able to get the gist of it provided that the material is adequate for your level of proficiency. (You can always go read the English translation if you find it too difficult.)
Read it once again. This time around, spend as much time as you need with it to fill in the gaps, but at the same time without obsessing about understanding every single word or expression. (Remember, you can always revisit the material at a later stage.)
Don’t rush to look up new words in the dictionary. Instead, try to figure them out from the context as this leads to a higher rate of vocab retention.
4. Listen one final time → Focus on the celebration
Take a short break before this final step.
Play and listen to the audio one last time (with or without the transcript). Everything should sound clearer now.
Don’t forget to celebrate the progress you’ve just made. Well done!