Reading is an important part of second language acquisition, and scientists have studied the strategies used by foreign language learners when trying to make sense of texts in their target language.

Their aim has been to identify the various approaches learners take when reading a text and understanding their thought processes independently from the level they are at. Because of their observations, these strategies were discovered.


Vocabulary plays a major role in reading comprehension no matter if you’re reading in your mother tongue (L1) or in your target language (L2). Learners, independently of their level, focus on vocabulary, because they want to fully grasp the meaning of what they are reading. To do so, they must understand 98% of the materials. Therefore, to reach their goal, they must know at least the 5,000 most common words of the language contrarily to the 2,000 words required for daily oral interaction.

When focusing in vocabulary, readers pay attention to unknown words. They also tend to use other strategies like cognates, paraphrasing and monitoring at the same time. But when used on its own, this strategy might not be enough to help them find the meaning of the unknown words.


Decoding is defined as an attempt to read an unknown word by dividing it into parts.

Low proficiency readers tend to use this strategy more often and are more prone to focus on pronunciation rather than comprehension.

Readers at a higher level of proficiency tend to use decoding less.

Monitoring is when readers acknowledge their lack of understanding of words


This is a strategy used when readers acknowledge their lack of understanding of words or part of a text. This is again used more often by people in the low spectrum of proficiency and they sometimes are inclined to combine other strategies like decoding, inferencing, searching for cognates, translating and using prior knowledge.


Refers to when readers try to guess the meaning of words and phrases. People with middle proficiency use this strategy more often while a low proficiency level would use it less. Inferencing tend to be used in combination with monitoring and searching for cognates.


Readers in middle and high proficiency groups use paraphrasing more extensively. Paraphrasing is repeating an idea from the text in different ways. They use this strategy as a means of confirming how words and phrases fit in the context of the material they are reading.

Searching for cognates and translating are part of what is called bilingual strategies because the use of the mother tongue (L1) is required.

Cognates are words sharing the same origin English: Integration, Spanish: Integración, French: Integration, Italian: integrazione

Searching for cognates

Cognates are words sharing the same origin or are related and look similar.

This strategy tends to be used mostly in low proficiency readers trying to find the meaning of new words.But the danger when adopting this strategy is the inability of readers to recognise false cognates (words that might look similar but have a completely different meaning). For example, the word sensible in English means reasonable whilst the same word in Spanish means sensitive.


Mental translation is a common way for adult learners to process the words from their second language (L2) into their mother tongue (L1) as they read.

This may be because they want to confirm that they fully understand the text or because they try to store their new knowledge in a more efficient way.

But reliance on their first language (L1) would decline as their proficiency in L2 increases.

If used consistently, translating might prove detrimental for learners as this strategy would not always be enough for them to understand the texts they are reading.

Translating from L2 to L1 in the long run may prove detrimental when trying to understand texts.

As already mentioned, researchers have proved that regardless of their level of proficiency, readers tend to use the same set of reading strategies described above although there might be some qualitative difference according to their proficiency level.

Vocabulary strategies are more often used by low proficiency readers, but it is proven that when this strategy is used by the high proficiency readers, they are more able to fix their comprehension problems.

The higher the level of proficiency, the better readers use inferencing strategies. This help learners decide when to get help from context, and when to use their vocabulary knowledge. They are more able to identify contextual cues.

Readers in the low proficiency level, might use decoding more often, but they tend to focus more on pronunciation rather than the meaning of the word.

Paraphrasing is usually used by all proficiency levels. This strategy helps readers to think through difficult sections of the text, regardless of their proficiency.

To conclude, these are effective tools to help enhance your text comprehension when reading in a foreign language.


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