Practicing reading

For beginners, I recommend a new book called First Portuguese Reader for beginners which is a gentle introduction to reading using bilingual texts, each chapter introducing a few new words and building on the previous chapters.

At the intermediate level, reading regularly is one of the best ways of developing your vocabulary. Newspapers are a great place to start, because they tend to be written in a neutral register that’s more formal than speech but less formal than literature. The two largest dailies in Brazil are:

Both have large sites with special interest blogs and videos so you can probably find something that interests you. You can also read world news in Portuguese at BBC Brasil.

I like to use while I’m reading long articles. You give it the url of a webpage and it returns the same webpage in an interactive format where every word is clickable – just click on a word and a translation will pop up.

It’s helpful to learn a few specialized nouns and verbs that occur frequently in newspaper articles:

  • uma entrevista – an interview
  • confirmou ela/ele – she/he confirmed
  • disse ela/ele – she/he said
  • destacou ela/ele – she/he emphasized
  • respondeu ela/ele – she/he responded
  • segunda ela/ele – according to her/him
  • apontar – to point out
  • vencer – to win, triumph, succeed (in a game or a dispute)
  • elogir – to praise
  • apoiar – to support
  • criticar – to criticize
  • reclamar – to complain
  • comprometer-se a fazer alguma coisa – to pledge to do something
  • cumprir – to comply, fulfill a promise, follow through
  • avaliar – evaluate, measure
  • fiscalizar / fiscalização – to oversee, supervise or manage / supervision or monitoring
  • gerenciar – to manage (a company, a program)
  • aprovar – approve (a measure)
  • uma medida – a measure
  • uma lei – a law
  • o governo – the government
  • partido – political party
  • o Planalto – the Brazilian Congress
  • a Câmara – one-half of the federal congress, the house of deputies
  • o Senado – the other half, the senate
  • recursos – resources
  • o meio-ambiente – the environment
  • uma pesquisa / pesquisadores / pesquisar – a research study / researchers / to research
  • porém, no entanto, … – However, …
  • portanto – Therefore, thus, hence

Keep an online dictionary open in another tab so that you can quickly translate words you don’t know – I recommend Linguee, Google Translate, or But also, don’t worry about translating every unknown word. Sometimes you guess what a word means from the context, or because it’s a cognate with English or another romance language. Usually you can get the gist of a sentence without understanding every single word. But if there are unknown words that you start to notice over and over again, that’s your cue to write them down in your notebook, translate them, and memorize them.

Reading blogs in Portuguese is a good way to expose yourself to more informal, colloquial usage while reading about stuff that you’re interested in. Searching Google for terms in Portuguese will usually turn up plenty of blogs.

Learning with Texts

There’s a free reading tool called Learning With Texts that is still rough around the edges but seems quite promising. Inspired by the website LingQ, it lets you lookup words with one click, while keeping track of the new words that you’re learning with an integrated flashcard system.

You create new “texts” by copy-pasting written content from the web, and the app then presents the text as a clickable series of words. Clicking an unknown word brings up a dictionary definition in a side pane, and also allows you to quickly create a new flashcard for that word, which you can then review via an integrated spaced-repetition system. The idea is that over time Learning With Texts will keep track of what words you already know and which you are in the process of learning, so that when you load up a new text, the unfamiliar words and those that you are learning will be highlighted for you.

This system has some great advantages. I believe that you learn vocabulary best when you encounter unknown and semi-known words in context, through the act of reading or writing. Moreover, the process of 1) encountering an unknown word while reading, 2) recording it in some way, 3) looking up and writing down the definition, 4) reviewing it regularly using a spaced-repetition flashcard system in recall mode, and 5) recognizing it when you encounter it again, is, I believe, the gold standard for acquiring a large vocabulary at the intermediate-advanced level.

Also, I think LWT’s system could be very motivational if used regularly, since you will see fewer and fewer “unknown” words over time, building a sense of accomplishment.

Unfortunately, after using Learning With Texts I’ve noticed some practical issues:

  • The interface is not friendly at all, and there’s a steep learning curve.
  • It requires considerable time and effort spent on “administrative” tasks such as copying and pasting new texts, marking words that are already well-known, and creating the flashcards.
  • Intermediate and advanced speakers will have to go through dozens of texts marking the majority of words as “well-known” before they can really use the app as intended, where only unknown words are highlighted. The app mitigates this somewhat by allowing you to mark only the words you don’t know and then mark every other word in the text as “well-known” with the click of a button.
  • Most seriously, there is no way to group words according to lemma. The app treats every form of a verb or noun as if it were a separate word. Thus, when I encountered aprimorando in a newspaper article, I wanted to create a flashcard for the infinitive, aprimorar (to refine, improve, perfect), but the app wouldn’t let me change the name of the word. Now if I ever do encounter another form of aprimorar, it will show up as an unknown word rather than one I am learning.
  • Finally, I’m already using Anki as my flashcard system, and it seems the process of importing the vocabulary lists into Anki is not straightforward.

I don’t think I’ll be using Learning With Texts much since I already have my own system for reading, but for intermediate speakers who are reaching the level where they can start to enjoy reading web content, I think it could be a good system.

8 Responses to Practicing reading

  1. Jeff says:

    I have just moved to Rio to start a business English school. I find myself very frustrated, as it is taking longer than I anticipated to learn to speak Portuguese. I already completed the Rosetta Stone program in its entirety; However, I still feel lost when trying to speak. I am able to follow most conversations, but I have significant trouble responding.
    I find your blog to be particularly useful for me, and I would like to learn more helpful tactics.
    Would you have any additional language education resources?
    Thank You

    • Patrick says:

      I’m glad I’m not the only one! I’ve been to Santos Brasil 7 times and feel like a mute. I’m understanding more written words and learning vocabulary but understanding the quickly spoken words is tough and the skills needed for conversation is not there yet. My girlfriend only speaks English with me which has to slow the learning. I’m hoping to come up with something that finally works to where I can say more than Hello, Good morning, Good afternoon, Goodnight, Going well? Goodbye “I can speak a little Portuguese” and “I can’t speak Portuguese”

      • Patrick says:

        Now I’ve been studying for 4.5 years and been to Brasil 14 times and still can’t understand enough spoken Portuguese to converse. Very frustrating. I translate everything I read so it’s like a secret code. I’m going to try to learn without translating everything and figure out how to understand spoken words.

    • Trevor says:

      as someone who struggled learning Spanish in Spain (very fast, in general, the way people tend to speak), I came to success through disciplined practice of the following:

      (i) read a newspaper everyday
      (ii) read outloud slowly, emphasizing every word (correct pronunciation: this trains the muscles of the jaw AND primes your brain to recognize words when spoken)
      (iii) added to my reading journal every day in tandem with reading the news paper: (a) copying down 5 new phrases of interest (4-6 words, never isolated words but rather short phrases: this allows deeper understanding of prepositions, verbs, and idiomatic ways of saying things (syntax, in general))

      in one year’s time you’re going to notice huge changes; heck, in one month’s time you’re going to see changes. But, like all profound learning processes involving muscle memory (yes, I do feel that a language is something that must become embodied), it takes time. Best of luck. you’re doing something great.

  2. Asbjørn Hansen says:

    There’s a new reader on it’s way for intermediate speakers of Portuguese. The author is John Whitlam, writer of the splendid grammar mentioned elsewhere on Hacking Portuguese.
    For intermediate students I’ll recommend comics, quadrinhos. I read a lot of them in the CBR file format on my tablet. Comics have plenty of spoken language and it’s not far from colloquial Portuguese spoken in everyday Brazil.

  3. John says:

    This book is European Portuguese correct? Not Brazilian?

  4. Cleber Moura says:

    I’m Cleber and I’m from Brazil, I’m a native speaker, and I speak English too, so if you need some help I can help you guys. Please add me in WhatsApp. +554396499102

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