How to Read Effectively

May 11, 2024
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A woman lying upside down on a couch reading a book.
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If you’re already far along on your Icelandic learning journey, getting comprehensible input is no problem for you. You just sit down in front of the TV and there it is: Icelandic that you understand just fine. No special strategy or technique necessary.

If you’re a beginner or intermediate learner, though, almost any text is a potential exercise in frustration because almost any text is a challenge. This is where a bit of study technique comes in handy.

Key Takeaways

Read (and watch) in 3 rounds.

  • Round 1: Survive (don’t stress, just get the plot)
  • Round 2: Look up KEY words (don’t look up every single word)
  • Round 3: Enjoy

Reading in Rounds

When reading a text, it can be helpful to read the same passage a few times, with a different approach each time.

There are many ways to do this, and I recommend that you experiment with what suits you best, but here’s the basic skeleton that I recommend everybody start with:

  • Round 1: Survive
  • Round 2: Look up KEYwords
  • Round 3: Enjoy

Round 1: Survive

In Round 1, don’t fret the details - focus on understanding the gist. Your goal is just to survive to the end, not to understand every single word from the get-go.

And for the love of Beelzebub: 


The only way to stop learning is to quit, and stopping to look up every other word is a sure-fire way to make you give up quickly.

Instead, try to guess the meaning of unfamiliar words where you can. You might have to re-read some sentences / paragraphs a couple of times, but that’s fine.


Let’s practise this a little: try and guess the blank in the sentence here.

  • The man was so tall he hit his ??? on the ceiling.

Context makes this pretty clear. He hit his “something” on the ceiling? A moment’s thought tells us that’s probably his head. At the very least, it’s a pretty good guess that lets us continue reading our story.

Possibly, in a couple of sentences, his ??? falls off and he picks it back up - then we’ll update our guess to something like “hat”, but the important thing is that we didn’t have to interrupt our flow to go running to the dictionary. Updating our guesses is a feature, not a bug.

Too many learners think that their goal is to understand every word: it’s not. That’s how textbooks like you to read, but nobody has ever finished Lord of the Rings by stopping to look up every species of leaf Tolkien described. You won’t finish much Icelandic reading that way, either.

How Long Is Round 1?

Round 1 can be done on any scale - you can try and finish a whole book, a chapter, a page, or just a paragraph. Adapt the length to your situation: if it takes you 15 minutes to get through a paragraph, don’t try to finish the whole chapter in one go. The harder the text, the smaller the scale should be.

Round 2: Look up KEYwords

After you’ve finished Round 1, you want to look up some KEYwords. Here’s a brief summary of what those are.

A keyword is a word which:

  1. Is important in the context
  2. You can’t just guess from context

If you look up every single unfamiliar word, you waste a lot of time that you could use to get more of that sweet, sweet comprehensible input.

Even after looking up only the keywords, you don’t necessarily want to add them all to your Anki. Only add words which are relevant to you. 

For instance, if you’re a volcanologist, the word jarðhitavirkjun (geothermal power plant) might be important for you: add it to your Anki. But for most of us it would be a waste of time to memorise it.

Round 3: Enjoy

Now that you’ve read the text through and gotten a general sense of what it’s about, and you’ve looked up and learned the key words, you’re well equipped to take a more relaxed look.

In Round 3, we read the text again, and this time you might find the experience not too dissimilar from reading in your own language. You’ve already laid the foundation of hard work: now you can enjoy the story.

You might need to re-read a sentence here or there or reference your notes on a word you just looked up, but on the whole, this round shouldn’t feel too hard.

It can be a good idea to come back to the same text in a week or two, when you’ve forgotten most of the details, and jump straight into Round 3. You might surprise yourself with how much you’ve learned!

Bonus: How to Watch Effectively

It’s worth noting that the methodology for reading effectively works much the same when it comes to watching videos, TV shows, or movies.

Round 1: Survive

Just watch one video / scene / episode / movie and try to get the gist. If you’re watching something long, like a TV show or a movie, don’t hesitate to break it into parts; try tackling one scene at a time. This makes it less overwhelming.

Round 2: Look up KEYWords

If you can, watch with Icelandic subtitles. This makes it much, much easier to look up words in the dictionary. Again, don’t bother with words that don’t matter to the context or that you can guess quite easily.

Round 3: Enjoy

Now that you have a general understanding and know the key words, watch again, and try to enjoy it!