Traffic Light Reading Explained

Traffic Light Reading Header
The ultimate technique to take your reading game to the next level. How to find new vocabulary and activate it so you can use it confidently straight away!

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Language learning is difficult. All the vocabulary, grammar, word order and endless exceptions. How can you possibly learn it all? Well, the answer is usually time and practice (and plenty of patience). But, you can make the process a little easier for yourself. There are lots of different techniques you can use to boost your learning. Focusing your energy for better results.

Today I want to share one of my favourite techniques to make your time spent reading, a lot more productive.

So, why is reading important?

Reading some language books in Foyles London

All four language skills are important. But, each plays a very different role in your language learning journey.

Reading is a very powerful tool to help you absorb lots of information. You can actually see all those grammatical structures and phrases you have been learning in print. Or on your screen, if you are anything like me. Having the words sitting in front of you, and the time to think about them, is a vital.

There are lots of different theories about learning styles. But, the one thing I know is that having different styles of input is the best way of learning new information. Multiple connections about the same word or phrase to make it memorable. So, seeing the word written down is a visual piece of information you can link to the sounds and pictures you have in your mind. Creating a strong network to use later.

You also have time. When you are having a conversation time is not on your side. You have to absorb the information instantly and process it before responding. But, when you read it’s the opposite. You have time to mull it over. To look at it and think about the structure and why it works in that way. To put all the building blocks of the language together in your head at your own pace.

That’s why most people find reading the easiest skill. This also means it’s often neglected. That’s a huge mistake. The more you read, the more language you can absorb and organise ready for conversation later. Often, the words and phrases are repeated over and over which gives you the practice you need to memorise it. That way, you can identify the important vocabulary you are missing and fill in those gaps. So, you recognise all those common expressions next time.

Why a traffic light?

Traffic Light Reading Header

This technique is about highlighting a text to pull out the important information. By doing this, you have to focus on what you are reading and decide what you think is new or useful. To take control of your learning and find what is practical for you.

There are lots of different versions of this technique, but today I am going to focus on my version. I use this technique all the time to learn new expressions, to see my progress and to activate my passive vocabulary. Vital parts of powering through to those higher levels of fluency.

Reading a book for fun is great. But, taking time and doing focused reading study can help you learn more. Making your study time more effective and progress faster. And with limited free time, we all want to use it the most effective way, right?

Red is for “Stop”

Red is for stop

The first colour is red and just like a traffic light this is means “stop”. A word of phrase that stops you understanding. Even with the rest of the context and other words you know. You can’t figure it out and don’t understand the meaning of the phrase or section.

These are new words or phrases you will need to look up eventually. But, not right now. The aim of the game is to highlight and move on. You stop to try and understand, highlight and then continue reading. Don’t reach for the dictionary just yet. If you stop every time you see a difficult word you will never get into the swing of it. Like speaking, you need to build up some momentum when you are reading. So, just keep reading.

The reason you continue is because this section might be repeated later. And from the repetition and different expressions you can guess the meaning. Therefore, it might not be red anymore and so you don’t need to search for it. This will now be an orange word.

Orange is for “Wait”

Orange is your second colour and still applies to new vocabulary. However, this time it is a little different. You find a new word. Something you haven’t seen before. You wait. You think and suddenly…. Eureka! From the context, you understand the meaning. You have used all your other language knowledge to solve the problem. No dictionary required. Success!

This stage is really important for your motivation. For every section you see highlighted in orange, that is another language success. When you reach the dreaded “Intermediate Plateau”, it can feel like you are stuck. Working hard all the time and seeing no progress. This technique literally highlights your progress. You can actually see those little language wins.

It’s also important to remember that you don’t always need a dictionary. When you are reading, it can feel natural to grab for the dictionary, or hit translate on all unknown words. That can help you understand a text, but it doesn’t prepare you for conversation. You can’t just pull out a dictionary when you are having a chat and don’t know a word. “Excuse me, I need to look up the word you just said… one second”. (Well, maybe you can!) But, it won’t help the conversation flow like you want it to.

Avoiding the dictionary until absolutely necessary is a good skill to develop. So, at this point you still shouldn’t have touched a dictionary or thought about translating. Just keep highlighting and move on.

Green is for “Interesting”

The final colour is green. And this section is the most useful. So, prepare yourself.

Green is for language you already know but you never use. You have seen it loads of times and understand the meaning. Someone says it on TV and you don’t even bat an eyelid. But, when it comes to conversation, you can never use it. It always hides from you as soon as you open your mouth.

For me, it’s the phrases I think sound cool. When I read in Italian, I see an expression and think to myself “That sounds so Italian, I want to sound like that”. That’s some useful language you want to activate!

These phrases are usually sitting in your passive vocabulary. Waiting for you to encounter them somewhere in the wild. But, when you want to use it, it’s nowhere to be found. The phrase needs activating. Practicing it and using it to be ready when you open your mouth.

Every language learner has been in this situation. You are trying your hardest to express an idea. But the words all disappear. You search your mind but come back with nothing. Then a helpful person, usually a teacher or language partner, will give you the phrase you wanted. You have heard it hundreds of times, but always forget it.

New vocabulary will increase your passive vocabulary so you understand more. Practicing the green phrases will activate it and make it ready to use. Increasing your ability to communicate. Which is the goal, right?

What to do next

You finish the text and have lots of coloured sections all over it. But, what do you do now? Well, it’s time to go back and take action. To show that language who is boss (which is you btw!).

Red words

For the red parts, it’s finally time to look for the meaning. To understand the new and unknown parts. The first stage should always be a monolingual dictionary. Reading the definitions and example sentences in your target language is more practice. You will often find new words and phrases or different examples to learn. If you still don’t completely understand, it’s time to translate.

A good bilingual dictionary will help you understand the correct translation. With context and different usages for you to see. I use the Collins dictionary for Italian; which is also available in other languages. Word Reference is also great for most languages. Then I also refer to a context site like Linguee or Reverso Context. Seeing full sentences helps you to learn how to use it properly.

The final resort should be an automatic translator like Google Translate. It can be helpful even if it isn’t always the most accurate information. But, most of the time if you have worked through the other options you will already have your answer.

Finally, you can reread the section and try to understand the full meaning. Using the new information you have learned. Turning the red into orange.

Orange words

For the orange words you don’t have to do anything. They have already served their purpose. You can see the progress you are making and can learn new words without the dictionary. Pat yourself on the back and remember this feeling the next time you feel stuck! You are making progress! Slow and steady wins the race, after all.

Green words

Finally, for the interesting stuff. These are the ones that you really want to practice. You can add them to your flashcards to memorise. But remember to always add the full sentence. Memorising the phrase is always more useful than a single word.

However, the best step is to actually use it. I write these phrases on a small list on my desk ready for my next Italian lesson. Then, during the lesson, I use the list as a prompt for phrases I want to practice. I try to use them naturally without the teacher knowing what I am doing. If they don’t notice, then I win the game. If they notice and correct me I still win because I have started activating the language!

Alternatively, if I have a lot of phrases to use, I will tell my teacher I want to try and use some new phrases. We then work together to build some phrases and practice using them in the correct context. This isn’t like having a natural conversation but it still has the same effect. You are actually saying the words and actively using them. With every tick on my list I feel my language activating and improving. Even with only a handful of phrases every week, it soon adds up to make a huge difference!

Let’s do that again

Remember earlier that I said repetition is vital? So, why not repeat the same text? Seeing all that vocabulary again is a great way to see what you have remembered. (Or what needs more practice.)

I normally copy the text, from an article or website, into a Google document to save for later. I highlight all the words while I am reading and then do all my review at the end. Adding comments to the document and writing practice sentences below. Sitting there ready for me to try in conversation.

Then I make a second copy of the text. Remove all the colours and put it at the top of the document. So, I can’t even see the edited version. Now it’s time to wait… A couple of days or a week usually does the trick. Enough time for the article, and all my work, to leave my short term memory.

After the little break I look at it with fresh eyes and read it again. Highlighting words and phrases in the same way. Then I compare the two to see what has changed. Maybe the red has become orange, or the orange has turned green. Every change showing me that I am making progress. And if the colours move the other way, that shows me I need to do some more work to understand it. All useful pieces of information to help me develop.

My Handy Reading Guide

Free download for Traffic Light Reading Method

Now it’s time for you to get colouring! Go crazy and paint the town red (orange and green). To help you along the way, I have created a reference guide for you. Explaining the process and including helpful links to find all that juicy language you want to learn. Click the link to download your copy.

So, what do you think? Will this technique help you make your reading more effective? Let me know in the comments below.

Until next time!

P.s. Want some extra tips on how to active your new vocabulary? Why not check out my post about preparing for conversation. The perfect way to active your new language!

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