learning strategies
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My method for the JLPT reading part

Last week, I got the results of the second session of the JLPT (December 2017), and I was happy and relieved to see that I passed with 156 points!

I thought that I would pass because, after the test, I felt that my performance was similar to what I did in July 2017, when I took the N2 for the first time. But precisely because my performance seemed to be the same, I was anxious. I thought that the four months I spent working with the Shin Kanzen Master series between August and November of last year were maybe not worth it…

In this post, I am going to see what these 4 months brought me and then give my personal tips to pass the Reading section (the only section where I feel entitled to give advice).

A year of JLPT N2

A year of JLPT

I started studying for the JLPT N2 at the beginning of 2017. I used the So-Matome series, which I really appreciated. I had time (6 months), and I didn’t really stress myself with the JLPT. As you can see, I achieved the full mark in reading, but I was not satisfied with the Language Knowledge (vocabulary and grammar) section. As a consequence, I decided to sit the test one more time in December. This time, I studied the Shin Kanzen series.

Worth it?

If my goal had been to pass the JLPT, then studying the So-Matome books would have been enough. But the JLPT is not as much a goal in itself as a way to stay motivated, create a deadline and help me boost my vocabulary. Studying the Shin Kanzen series helped me do all these and I don’t regret for one second having spent so much time on it. This being said, I can’t help but think that 14 and 11 points are not much in comparison with my efforts to finish the books of the series… Of course, I am glad that I improved my score. If I hadn’t, I would have been so cast down… studying more to achieve less… But I feel like extraordinary efforts (to me) have brought a not-so-extraordinary result.

Grammar, Vocabulary and Listening

To dig a little deeper, I would say that the real improvement was in the grammar section. I did feel more at ease in December than in July, and I would not be surprised if I had got the 14 points thanks to the grammar only.

On the contrary, I didn’t feel at ease at all with the vocabulary. There were still a lot of words I didn’t know. From my experience, completing the Shin Kanzen vocabulary book does not guarantee a full mark at the vocabulary section.

As for the listening section, I think that there are 3 things at stake here:

  • Language knowledge (how many words one knows)
  • Listening competence (the ability to recognize the known words and fill the gap of unknown words. In other words, the ability to understand a text or a dialogue even with unknown words)
  • Note taking

My language knowledge certainly improved a little but what really made the difference is my capacity to take notes. In July, just the idea that I had to take notes paralysed me and I was not able to take notes while still focusing on what I was listening to. Thanks to the listening book of Shin Kanzen series, I learnt to take notes rapidly. In July, I could not answer the last questions because I hadn’t taken notes properly. In December, the last questions have not puzzled me so I might have won my points there.

As for the listening competence, I don’t think that it is something that improves through studying a textbook, no matter how good it might be. It comes from listening to a lot, which I don’t do enough.

The reading section

As I have been steady in my results for the reading section, I feel that the method I use works well for me and I will apply it when (if) I try myself at N1.

To pass the reading section, I think that one needs three things (like the listening part):

  • Language knowledge, particularly kanji. There is no secret concerning improving one’s vocabulary: you have to learn new words regularly. But, recognizing kanji is something that can be improved a little every day. When you read in Japanese, try to pay special attention to kanji. You don’t have to know how to write them, just being able to associate them with a general meaning can save you the day of the test. Even being able to say if this kanji has a positive meaning or a negative one can help understand a whole sentence or avoid a counter-sense.
  • Reading competence. Again, this is the competence that allows you to understand a text even when it is full of unknown words. The best way to improve this competence is to read a lot. Not just JLPT material, but anything you can find in Japanese. This is something that builds itself on the long-term.
  • A method to apply the day of the test. This is what I want to talk about here.

What follows is the method I applied both time I sat the JLPT. These are just personal tips that may not work for everyone.

Start with the Language knowledge part but rush through it.

Use the language knowledge section as warm-up exercises

I don’t know if it concerns all levels of the JLPT, but for N2, you have a common amount of time allotted to do the language knowledge part and the reading part.

As time is an issue, a good idea would be to start with the reading section. By doing so, you are less stressed by the clock and can read all the texts. I tried this method once when I was doing a mock test and it didn’t work at all for me. Even though the first texts are supposed to be easy, I could not understand them and had to read them twice. At the end of the test, I had 5 minutes left that I used to go back to these “easy” texts. Half of my answers were wrong and I was able to correct myself, thus winning some points.

Why did it not work?

I need some time to adjust myself and pass in “Japanese mode”. If the reading section texts are the very first thing I do, I am still not focused enough and I have difficulty understanding them. Maybe it is just me, but I feel unprepared like if my brain needed some time to really start working.

On the contrary, after having been through the whole “language knowledge” section, my brain is warm enough to attack the reading part. I take the “language knowledge” part as warm-up exercises for the reading section. Our body needs warm-up exercises before doing an intense activity, our brain might not be different after all (or maybe I have a particularly slow brain? 😐)

Don’t lose time on vocabulary

As time is still an issue, we want to gain time on the language knowledge part. I think that you should rush through the vocabulary questions. Most of the time, either you know the answer or not and if you don’t, reflecting 5 minutes on it does not really help you get nearer to the answer. I would even say that your best intuition is often the right answer. This intuition comes necessarily from somewhere, maybe you saw this word in the past and, even if you cannot remember it clearly, one answer seems more natural than the others.

The same applies to grammar too, even if some questions do require time and reflection.

The best thing to do is to know exactly what minimal time you need to go through all the texts of the reading part. The day of the test, try to devote this amount of time to the reading part, no matter what.

Don’t watch the clock once started

This is just my personal method. Please do check the clock if not knowing the time should stress you more as knowing it!

Once you know that you start the reading section soon enough to be able to finish it, there is no need to look at the clock anymore. Of course, this requires knowing exactly how much time you need and be confident about it. The only way to know it is to have worked through at least two mock tests at home. If you can trust yourself to go through all the texts of the reading part in x minutes, then looking at the clock will only bring stress and a sense of urgency that will ruin your concentration.

To understand the long and difficult texts of N2 I really need 100% of my concentration. If 20% of it is busy thinking of the time left, I will have much more difficulty understanding what I read.

One can also say that if you are not going to finish the reading section, knowing it won’t change anything. Or if it changes something, it might make things worse. If you know that you won’t be able to finish, it’s not 20% but 80% of your brain that will be devoted to time. You will be tempted to read faster, thus missing information and end up having read a text without understanding it… resulting in having to re-read it and losing precious minutes.

Be a reader, not a test-taker

These are advice that helped me a lot. It might seem too simple to be useful but it changed everything to me.

Read slowly

Reading too fast is the best way to miss a piece of information here and there and end up accumulating gaps that will lead to a misunderstanding of the whole text. Sometimes, failing to recognize what is the subject of a sentence can blur the meaning of a whole paragraph.

Reading slowly does not only mean reading at a slow pace but also implies that one should not hesitate to re-read a sentence if needed. In other words, I don’t move to the next sentence if I don’t understand the one I am reading. I prefer to take the time to re-read the problematic sentence before moving on.

Before applying this method, I used to read the text until the end, no matter how good I understood it. I wanted to believe that something would help me grasp the meaning of the text, or that the end would be so enlightening that understanding the last paragraph would be enough to understand the whole text. But it rarely works this way. What systematically happens is that comprehension gaps will get bigger and bigger. If you don’t understand a sentence, there are chances that you won’t fully understand the paragraph. As paragraphs are often constructed in relation to one another, you compromise your comprehension of the whole text.

So what happened when I finished reading the whole text without having understood it completely? I would read the questions, have no clue what the answers are and would have no choice than to read the whole text again.

In the end, if I compare reading the text slowly and reading the text twice or more, reading slowly wins.

Don’t read the questions before the text

I know that most textbooks tell you to read the questions first and this is what I have been doing for a long time. The problem is that I am too focused on the pieces of information I need to answer the questions. Sometimes, I have the impression that a paragraph is not useful to answer the questions, so I tend to read it very fast and not bother if I don’t understand it. Then, two problems may arise:

  • I realise that this paragraph was indeed useful to answer a question, and I have to read it again.
  • Not understanding this paragraph makes the comprehension of the next paragraph more difficult.

Moreover, a part of my capacity to focus is busy recalling what the questions were while I am reading, and this left me with less concentration power to make my way through the text.

What I would advice to do, is to ignore the questions and read the text slowly. When I started reading the text slowly, I realised that I knew the text well enough to be able to answer the questions without having to look at the text a second time. Or, if I really needed to check something, I would know exactly where to find what I was looking for. So what I do is:

  1. Read the text slowly. This does take time, but the idea is that I read the text only once. I will not need to go back to the text to answer the questions.
  2. Read the questions and answer them without (most of the time) having to look at the text.
Note: the last exercise of N2 is the only time when I read the questions first. You have to find relevant information in a notice or information board and knowing what information you are looking for is the first step. So, in this case, reading the questions first is the best strategy.

Make sure you want to know what the text is about

The idea is to become a reader who really wants to know what this text is about. You have to fake a sincere interest in the contents of the text. Forget that you are reading the text to pass an exam and read it for the contents it has to offer. If the author talks about his own experience, try to feel empathy for what he says or link it to things you yourself experienced. If the text explains something, feel interested in its contents, as though you decided to read it because you wanted to know what were the results of this survey or what were the social trends or latest scientific researches the text presents.

Having this kind of attitude boosted my comprehension of the text and my capacity to fill the gaps when too many unknown words showed themselves in the same paragraph. Forgetting everything about the test, in other words, ignoring both the time and the questions, and reading the text for itself, for its contents, boost our ability to guess what the author wants to say.

Conclusion

Even if I feel confident when starting reading a text in Japanese, there are times when I come to the last line of it and have no idea what it was about. What happened when I took my first mock tests was that I would read the questions and the answers, try to find the information in the text, look frantically through it, be unable to find the good paragraph, end up re-reading the whole text, re-read the answers I had forgotten, panic, look at my watch, draw a sharp breathe, skip this text and go to the next one.

To avoid this situation, I found my own method which can be summarized like this:

  • Use the Language-knowledge part as a warm-up exercise
  • Don’t lose time on the vocabulary part
  • Know the time you need to finish the reading part, so that time pressure does not kill your focus
  • Read slowly, don’t read questions first, and try to care about the text.

To summarize, the best thing is to have one’s own personal method to apply the day of the test! As you can see, my method is very different from the usually recommended ones. So my recommendation would be to not blindly follow other people’s tips (including this blog post!). Finding one’s own method is the key.

15 Comments

  1. Akylina says

    Congratulations on your results! N2 is definitely a very demanding test. I have also found out that going through vocabulary and grammar questions quickly first work best for me, since they usually don’t take up as much time and then I have the rest of my time to focus on reading and tackle the more demanding texts. I used to not read the reading questions first, but soon realised that not having a specific aspect of the text to focus on while reading it didn’t help me at all, as I ended up reading the entire text again and again after reading the questions and wasted a lot of my time. Do you plan on continuing on with N1 now?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you very much! I don’t think that I will take the JLPT this year. Studying for N2 helped me improve a lot, but it was also a lot of work and I felt that I devoted all my study time to learning vocabulary and grammar, instead of doing more pleasant things in Japanese. So I think that I will take a break in 2018 and try N1 next year!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Inhae, I just stumbled upon you blog. Congrats on passing N2! Did you just self-study japanese or are you taking japanese classes? by the way are you Korean?

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    • Thank you very much! I am mainly learning by myself, though I did take a “free talking” class last year. I am French of Korean origin, but I don’t speak Korean well…

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      • So from August 2016 you studied Japanese from scratch and passed the July 2017 N2 test? That’s hardcore! How many hours per day do you study Japanese?

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        • Haha, no in fact I studied Chinese before, so I was already familiar with many kanji when I started Japanese. Also, some knowledge of Korean grammar helped me to understand the structure of Japanese sentences faster.
          It’s hard to tell how many hours per day I study Japanese. Many, I guess! But would « reading a book in Japanese » enter in the category « study »? I don’t do much intense study now, maybe 1-2 hours a day for revising vocabulary look up and learn new words. But I do spend a lot of time reading in Japanese and I sometimes sit at my desk for one or two hours to work my way through a difficult text!

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          • I’d say reading a Japanese book count as studying! I see so you have those advantages! For an average person like me who doesn’t have any knowledge of Chinese/Korean language. I only got up to N3 level. I started from scratch (self-study), starting from the last week of August 2016 to Dec 2017. It was a trial and error for me during those times, I wasted time on the wrong material or used an incorrect method of studying and whatnot so that added to the length of time that I studied. I’m currently on my way to N2 but its a rough road so it might take me half a year or a year to be able to achieve N2. BTW, do you live in Japan?

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            • If you add up all the years I spent learning Chinese characters you can say that my getting there took much more time than one year and a half! I live in Korea, where you can find a lot of self-study materials, which is an advantage too.
              This being said, I am good at reading thanks to the kanji, but I can’t understand a film without subtitles or hold a smooth conversation in Japanese… Anyway, achieving N3 from scratch in less than two years is impressive, especially when self-studying! Good luck for N2!

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              • Thanks! So is Chinese part of your curriculum or you just studied it by yourself? I import books from Japan so my pocket is crying because of the shipping fee. Have you been to Japan before? Did you study all the grammar even the N1 grammar before you started reading novels and stuff?

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                • Chinese is part of my curriculum and I have been to Japan twice for travel. I think that you can read novels without knowing the N1 grammar, but of course, it depends on the book level. I even read my first novel in Japanese before studying the N2 grammar. From my experience, I would say that grammar is rarely a problem, it’s vocabulary that determines whether you can read a book comfortably or not.

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                  • Thank you for all the quick replies! I appreciate it! I might start reading manga first before I dive into novels after finishing the N2/N1 grammar so vocabulary will be my only problem when reading. It seems you like books, we share the same interest. I recommend Goth by Otsuichi and Botchan by Natsume Soseki. I only read the translated version but I have a copy of the original novels in Japanese. I plan to read the Japanese ver. when I actually get better at Japanese.

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                    • I also started with manga 🙂 It’s a good way to start reading in Japanese without feeling overwhelmed. Thank you for the books’ recommendation and good luck with your studies!

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  3. Congratulations! And thank you for the tips! I’m planning to take N2 in near future. I assume you’re not living in Japan, how is your speaking? Do you attend some classes or in contact with Japanese speakers?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! My speaking is really bad, much much lower than my reading. I am not practising at all because I am not a very social person and I’m not good at making friends. But I did take a “free talking class” so I feel more confident now than before. But it’s true that speaking is not a skill I’m working on. Good luck for N2!

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