Don’t Read, Reread

It wouldn’t be unfair of you to ask why I read a letter this morning written to someone other than me, or why I did so twice, once silently and once aloud, or why these were the fifth and sixth times this week that I had read this same letter.

“Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it.”  So claimed Vladimir Nabokov, on whose work I wrote my senior thesis some years ago. He continues, “A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader,” and goes on to defend this claim on the artistic grounds that, in order to enjoy and evaluate a book properly, one must be able to experience it as one experiences a painting, outside the linear passage of time, which one can do with a book only once one knows all its parts well enough to consider them as a simultaneous whole.*

If you struggle through a textRe-reading is of value not only for art-critical purposes or for the wonder of returning to a beloved book after a long interval.  There is also the wise language learner’s habit: rereading a text on the same day or on several consecutive days.  There may be no better way for a language learner, once she has achieved a minimal level of proficiency, to obtain meaningful, understandable input in the target language, and there is almost certainly no better way to lock specific turns of phrase into one’s mind.

One of the reasons such rereading is effective is that, while it may be rewarding to work one’s way through a difficult text, the real language acquisition comes from then rereading the text so as to understand it in “real time.”  This may not happen until the severalth time through, but it’s important to realize that it is not until one is able to read a text, with understanding and at a decent clip, that efficient language acquisition is taking place.  If you struggle through a text, looking up a lot of words, perhaps translating here and there, you may, by the end, have understood the text, but you won’t have done much for your fluency in the language.

I have found that rereading, along with its paramour, relistening, has been the single most potent factor in my acquisition of Latin. Currently, I am rereading the letters of Seneca to his protégé Lucilius—not only reading them again after having read them some time ago, but rereading the same letter several days in a row: For a week, I read the same letter over again every day; the next week, I read the next letter every day, and so on.  Every Friday, I record myself reading the letter aloud, so that I can listen and relisten to the letters, usually while driving or doing chores.

My basic practice is to readI am also reading and rereading the five-act comedies of the Roman playwright Terence, according to the following scheme: on Days 1 and 2, I read and reread Act I, on Days 3 and 4, I read and reread Act II, and so on.  When I’ve finished the play this way, I reread the entire thing, so that I’ve read through the play three times after two or three weeks.  If the text were harder for me to understand, I would read each section even more times.  My basic practice is to reread a text however many times it takes for me to be able to read it “full speed,” and then read it at least once more.  (In some cases, as with Seneca’s letters, understanding comes quickly, but I still reread several times in order to thoroughly internalize not only the language itself, but also Seneca’s style and thought.)

My motivation for rereadingWhen I told a friend about my rereading habit and mentioned a particular book whose 35 chapters I had read about fifteen times each, she said, “You must be pretty patient.”  I’m not.  My motivation for rereading is precisely that I don’t like to waste time.  From the perspective of second language acquisition, the only way to waste time reading is to read a text exactly once.  If you never touch the text, you won’t waste any time.  If you read the text many times, your fluency will skyrocket.  Lots of language learners waste time by struggling through texts that are too difficult for them or by immediately moving on from a text without having absorbed much of its language or content.  By rereading, you ensure that a text does all it can for your fluency, and that all the time you spend reading actually translates into increased fluency.  (Note that, outside the realm of language acquisition, there might be lots of reasons to read a text exactly once, e.g., to gather news, to say you did, or to learn that you never want to read it again.)

So, find a text you think you might enjoy reading multiple times, and do it!

Next time, I’ll share a more active spin on rereading, Three-Reading, that can be used as a recurring assignment for students.


For related ideas about Extensive reading, check out this article.

*Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures On Literature, New York: Harcourt, 1980

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  1. I couldn’t agree with you more.

    In my decades as a Latin teacher and Greek teacher, I find that students really profit from re-reading the material. Re-reading a text in these languages that are so difficult for English speakers allow them to actually experience the rhythms of the language in a way that turns on their intuitive grasp of language so they begin to fell the cadences of Greek and Latin.

  2. How do you know you are reading at “full-speed”? Is it better to read while pronouncing the words out loud so as not to think in English? Sometimes it seems to hard not to translate – is there a way to help keep the mind in English that you have found which works?

    • Hi, Matthew, my apologies–just discovered this comment after rereading(!) this post for the first time in a while. I think the issue isn’t so much speed as ease: If you have to struggle in order to make sense of a text, or even to make it through the text, it’s not (yet) a text whose reading will do much for your proficiency in the language.

      As for pronouncing the words out loud or subvocalizing, some people find this helpful; others find it distracting. I would play around with it a bit and see what you think. The best tactic I’ve found for consciously avoiding translation is to go back to texts that are “way too easy”–so easy that there is no need or temptation to translate–and use those to get the brain used to the idea of understanding the language on its own terms.

  3. No wonder my progress has been so slow. “Lots of language learners waste time by struggling through texts that are too difficult for them or by immediately moving on from a text without having absorbed much of its language or content.” Yeap, that’s what I’ve been doing for the last couple of years. (I just thought I was dumb!)
    Okay, I’m turning over a new leaf. I started reading Lingua Latina Familia Romana (again) from the beginning. But now from Chapter 20 on, I am reading (subvocalising and moving my hands where possible) each individual part many times until I can under in real time. I am also “working on Pro Patria” I have to decode each chapter first, and reread each chapter at least 5 more times. As it gets more challenging, I reread it even more times.
    Thank you, thank you, thank you, it’s really helping 🙂

  4. What’s your recommendation for reading longer works, like Harrius Potter. Is there more benefit to re-reading individual chapters on consecutive days over re-reading the book as a whole (so re-reading something perhaps 2 weeks after wearing it before)

    • Good Q! I don’t have a scientific answer, though I frequently do both types of rereading. The two main factors, I think, are (1) your actual interest in rereading the chapter and (2) how well you’ll understand a given chapter if you wait a few weeks before rereading it, as opposed to rereading it within a day or two. Have you tried one or both options?

  5. Hi Justin, Neil here.
    I have reread this and another of our posts several times and think they are both excellent. I am almost near the end of Familia Romana and have read every chapter at least five times and some fifteen times. My goal is 20 (I use tally marks to keep track).
    I teach Chinese as a foreign language (not my native language) and have been influenced by several methods that the Chinese have been using for thousands of years. One, in particular, is the morning reading (早读), which basically means reading the same text every morning for a considerable length of time. My daughter is nine and can recite reams of literature/philosophy because she goes to a local school in Nanjing, China.
    Anyway, just wanted to share this with you and to let you know that such methods exist.
    Thanks for the great article.

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