How much time to spend on looking up new vocab when reading novels?

I’m trying to find a balance between stopping to look up every word, or using context clues and/or ignoring the word and moving on if it doesn’t seem integral to understanding the story.

I feel like I tend to do the former, but then reading seems to take forever. But I’m afraid if I start doing the latter, then I’ll accidentally miss important plot points or themes.

Interested to hear what works for everyone!


There’s this interesting article if you want to give it a read:

I used to try to do perfectionist reads, and ended up dropping books. That article goes over that too.

Now I just try to get what’s going on to my best of my ability. If I feel that a word is important for me getting what’s going on, and can’t figure out by context, I look it up.


Oh this is a great article (and website), thanks for sharing it! I really like the line “you don’t owe anything to [the book]”. I guess it’s true that the book’s not going to be disappointed it me if I don’t read it super thoroughly haha.


Can I ask roughly what your grammar/kanji/vocab level is before answering? My recommendation may change based on that.


JLPT is not a golden standard but easy to give as a gauge, I’d say high N3 or low N2, planning to take N2 in December.
(fwiw if it was unclear, I meant every word I don’t know, not every single word haha)


Yep I figured. Caught me off guard for a second, but then it clicked haha.

Good to know. If you were at N4 or low N3 level I’d pretty much only recommend intensive reading and looking up most words you don’t know. But at your level I think you have options.

What I would say is the right about of time to spend on lookups is the amount of time necessary for you to enjoy reading. This differs from person to person. Can you enjoy reading a book if you don’t understand every detail or even every major plot point? If so you can get by with fewer lookups. If you prefer higher comprehension can you still enjoy reading the book when you’re spending a lot of time looking up words? If so that’s a fine approach too.

The key is to find the balance that works for you for a given book. If you’re not able to find the right balance between “few lookups / lower comprehension” and “many lookups / higher comprehension” that brings enjoyment for that book then it’s probably time to shelve that book and find something else to read. That “something else” can be an easier book (fewer lookups but still with higher comprehension) or a book that interests you more (where you may not mind more lookups / time spent since the payoff is more “worth it” to you). You can also do both intensive and extensive reading with different books if you want to use both approaches for different purposes (e.g. learning versus enjoyment).


You can look up words that help you understand the plot or individual sentences.
You can also look up words that show up often.
You can look up words to double check the meaning and readings.

If you understand the sentence and it has a word you don’t really know and doesn’t seem like a word you have seen before… I don’t think there is a lot of value to look it up. In nearly all cases, these words are quickly forgotten. However, if you literally know every other word on that page or the surrounding pages then it can be useful because the word stands out and thus it will be much more likely you remember it.

After reading lots and lots I think I have a pretty good sense of if I will actually remember a word if I look it up .

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What helped me was thinking I can always read the book again later if I really want to try to get everything. Even though I never do :sweat_smile:. Treating your first books more as an exercise than just pure entertainment can also help (of course it still should be interesting).

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I feel like it’s very much a personal matter, and no approach is wrong.

Speaking strictly personally, and while I like and read the blog linked above, I very strongly disagree with the phrase “you don’t owe anything to [the book]”. I do feel like I owe it (and the writer, and myself as the reader), respect, and my full attention. I’m fine with not fully understanding blog posts, youtube videos or news articles, but a book is different. I’m not saying it’s wrong, just that I, personally, can’t treat a book lightly. I always look up everything. I don’t mind that. I choose to read ebooks, so looking things up is quick and easy.

But then I also don’t easily drop books, and make myself read them to the end even if I don’t like them, so don’t mind me. :sweat_smile:


If I’m in the mood to look up more words, I’ll do it. Otherwise I try to stick to only checking when I can’t pick it up from context, or I want to check my reading of a kanji compound. I try to get into the flow of the book, it also makes comprehension easier imo if you get into the flow of the sentences, so long as you’re not ignoring crucial words and then getting baffled :sweat_smile:


I probably look up roughly 90% of words I don’t know. I use the kindle on Iphone, so it’s as simple as highlighting the word and then the english word coming up. If i think the word is useful then I add it to my anki.


Unless the word is conjugated. Then tough luck.

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Yeah, then it requires a bit more effort, but still as simple as copying the word and chucking it in a dictionary app, which takes about 10 seconds more haha.

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Ah that’s convenient, I hadn’t really thought about that. Yeah I read physical books so not quite so easy. I wish I could read books on kindle but it’s way harder for me to focus.

I’m not fond of the “pressing and holding” method on the kindle app.

Also, when I tried to press and hold words that span over pages, it automatically becomes a highlight, unless I first hold and press a word on the first page, and then drag the “slider” to the next page.

I like the swipe to toggle between different sources, but it doesn’t seem I can configure it. You also need an extra tap to reveal the full dictionary glossary which is really tedious.

valid points, never really had issues with it automatically highlighting, cause I would highlight it anyway for later reference to add to my anki deck haha

I think it’s better to reserve highlights for actual highlights and not polluting it with a bunch of vocabulary.

There is a file in your kindle called vocab.db (probably for kindle app as well) that has all your lookups. That’s the recommended file for adding words to Anki. It also contains the sentence that corresponds to each vocabulary item.

What do you mean by “polluting”? I don’t want to study every word I look up, so to me the vocab.db file would be too noisy. For me, the highlight feature is perfect for indicating what words I want to review later.

I’m sure this will depend on how you use highlights.

Highlights are usually meant for full sentences, which is why when you see a popular highlight on an Amazon ebook it is a sentence or a phrase. They are often informative, insightful or interesting.

Considering that OP looks up 90% of the words in the book they read, I believe that most of the highlights do not reflect the parts of the book they found interesting or insightful.

Regarding the issue of adding all the words you look up, that just depends on your Anki filtering process.

There is also a notes feature in Kindle, which is meant for purposes like this, which you can use to separate from other highlights.

I don’t use the highlights for anything else other than vocab tbh haha