With about 4.5 months left before the JLPT N2, I have been focusing on two main areas: reading and listening. Listening I can do at home watching TV with my family, or talking with my wife and daughter. Practice tests showed I score a little better in listening than I thought.
Reading comprehension, or dokkai (読解) is difficult for me though. Each time I take the practice tests, I struggle a lot on reading the long, difficult essays, especially because time is so limited. I tend to be calm during tests in general, but for the JLPT N3 reading section, I remember having a big panic attack during the exam because I felt that I didn’t undersatnd anything and time was running out. That was my fault. I did pass, but my reading score was the worst of the three.
Plus I’ve talked with people who already passed the N2 and they confirmed that time is pretty short and the essays are difficult. Reading manga isn’t too helpful either I’ve found, because the format and topics in the essays are quite different.
Reading comprehension, even in one’s own language can be hard, so it’s much harder in foreign language. With reading comprehension in general you have develop broad background, build vocab, recognize the structure of paragraphs, etc. But what about reading in a foreign language?
I’ve spent a lot of time using the N2 Gokaku Dekiru workbook. This workbook is pretty comprehensive in covering all topics for the JLPT N2, and the vocab and grammar sections have made me want to cry because they are difficult. The good news is that they helped me prepare a lot for practice tests, so the workbook is certainly effective. I still get maybe half the essays wrong, but I’ve been workign hard to review my mistakes and work through the essay again until I understand the correct answer, and why.
What I often find in my case is that I can physically read the words fine, but I can’t put them together in a way that has any real meaning. I believe I haven’t spent enough time overall reading Japanese at a sufficient level to get familiar with how words are put together to make good sentences (in other words, how people express things). I can read, but not understand, in other words. So, I’ve been working on this lately by reviewing essays and trying to really get familiar with how people write in Japanese.
In the same way, I’ve learned a lot of helpful pointers for the reading sections too, that I wanted to pass along. Some are things I figured out, others are suggestions from the book:
- No matter how short time is, slow down! Read both the question and the answers very carefully. If don’t understand either the question or the 4 answers carefully, you’re likely to pick the wrong answer even if you understood the gist of the essay. This happens to me a lot. I’ve had wrong answers because I skimmed too much and two answers looked very similar, or I misunderstood the question because I didn’t read carefully.
- While you’re at it, take the time to understand each sentence. By the N2 level, the essays have subtle nuances that can drive you crazy (they drive me crazy). It’s tempting to rush because of time, but then you’ll just miss details and get it wrong anyway. Also, taking time to understand the essay helps me at least, avoid the panic feeling I get when I don’t understand something and I feel like I am losing control of the situation. When I took the N3 exam, I remember having a panic attack during the reading section because I felt I didn’t have enough time and didn’t understand what I was reading. Pace yourself, balance time against comprehension.
- The book also recommends that you read the questions first before you read the essay. Based on my experience, they are right. This helps a lot because you can filter out the important details more easily, and it saves you the hassle of re-reading the essay a second time after you read the question.
- Don’t get hung up on the extra vocab words they put in there. I found they usually don’t affect the comprehension of the essay much. They help, but if you’re reading skills are strong, you can still comprehend the meaning just fine.
In any case, you should still practice, practice, practice. I found with the Gokaku Dekiru workbook, there are still critical vocabulary words that I missed, and also that sometimes I was hasty or careless, so I have been training myself to “think” more carefully as I read the essays. Probably good practice for real life anyway. But if you have the benefit of time, find good reading sources other then manga. You need to laern how to read more complex reading sources or the JLPT N2 essays will seem long and painful. This site suggests reading children’s newspaper articles instead, which have roughly the same length as the JLPT essays.
Either way, reading comprehension is a tough skill to learn, like conversation, so it requires time and investment. Shortcuts will only help a little.