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Enhancing Your Japanese Through Strategic Reading: Insights from the 2nd Edition of Fluent Forever

Introduction: The Science of Stress and Language Learning

I’ve been working on an update to the Fluent Forever book for much of 2023 and 2024. It’ll come out in December, and one of the new sections revolves around Listening and Reading comprehension. Specifically, around how to leverage the science of stress to help you learn faster. I’ll explain: there’s an old concept in behavioral psychology known as the Yerkes-Dodson Curve. It maps performance to stress, and basically reveals that there’s actually a good level of stress to have when learning, a level that will boost your retention and keep you engaged. If you get more stressed than that, you’ll start to feel anxious, frustrated, or even totally burnt out. And if you get less stressed, then you’ll get bored and disengage. Here’s what it looks like:

The Y-D Curve has a lot of relevance to listening and reading comprehension, because it’s so common for those tasks to fall on the right side of the curve, either causing you to feel exhausted or even totally burnt out after a few pages. In the updated version of my book, I walk through a bunch of techniques for helping learners adjust their stress levels to the optimal parts of the curve: techniques like reducing the duration of your reading practice, or shifting your goals away from comprehending literally every word. In this blog post, I want to focus on one of the best techniques of all: adjusting the vocabulary level of your reading materials.

To stay at an optimal stress level, you want to find books where you understand around 85-95% of the words you encounter. That’s around the spot where you can figure out most new words from their context alone, and you’ll still be able to follow the plot despite the words you don’t understand. The tricky thing about these books is that they’re hard to find; after all, how are you supposed to browse through all of Amazon to find the books that are at your level and are actually interesting to you? So to that end, I wanted to write out a resource guide to steer you in the right direction.

Let’s get started! My goal is to give you a handful of recommendations for both beginners and intermediates, spanning a few different genres, so that you can find something that you’d actually enjoy reading, rather than something that you’re muscling your way through. Maximizing enjoyment is actually a technique in and of itself; if you’re interested in the topic of a book, it’s going to reduce the stress associated with reading it, and make you less likely to hit the crappier parts of the Y-D curve.

So let’s jump in to some recommendations:

Japanese Book Recommendations for Beginners and Pre-Intermediates (CEFR A1/A2)

Japanese is definitely the hardest language I’ve encountered when it comes to reading. Due to the Kanji writing system, there is an extremely high likelihood that written material is going to be full of characters that you neither know how to pronounce or understand. As such, it’s very easy to bounce into stress overload and have a crappy and inefficient time.

There are three tools I’d like to recommend to combat this:

Tool 1: Tadoku

There’s a website called that has built a series of graded readers that are free, creative commons licensed, and absolutely fantastic. Their name, Tadoku[多読], is the Japanese word for the style of reading I think best serves language learners: reading a lot of content, as rapidly as you can, without stopping to look up every other word with a dictionary.

Tadoku’s stories are generally both charming and enjoyable, and they’re written for adults learners instead of native speaker children, so the themes tend to be simultaneously more interesting and more understandable than typical children’s stories. I read through the first 300 pages of them in an hour, laughing all the way, and I have always struggled with Japanese reading. This was refreshingly enjoyable, and I’m not going to run out of content to read any time soon.

You can find a compilation of Tadoku’s free graded readers here. You can also have a decent quantity of them read to you through their YouTube channel’s playlist.

Tool 2: ChatGPT Voice Mode

While reading Tadoku, you’ll run into words you don’t know. One option is to just keep going, and that option is perfectly fine. As I mentioned above, your goal is to consume as much content as possible, as rapidly as possible. You don’t gain much by slowing down to look up every word, and it’s not all that likely that you’ll actually remember the definitions for the unknown words, because you’ll generally be looking up translations at this stage in your learning, and translations are super hard to remember.

That means that Tool 1 is sufficient for your reading needs; just read Tadoku and skip to the next page when you don’t understand something. But…there’s another option that I’ve been having a lot of fun with: turning unknown words into a voice conversation with ChatGPT. If you haven’t tried voice conversations with GPT, you’re in for a treat. Make an account, download their mobile app, and hit the headphone icon on the bottom right. The free version (currently GPT 3.5) is fine for this. You will hop into a voice chat and there you’ll find an infinitely patient Japanese + English speaker. It won’t be great at swapping between the languages, and it will make a lot of mistakes in understanding you if YOU are swapping between the languages, but the patience side of things is pretty sweet.

When reading Tadoku, I like to have GPT Voice open on my phone, which is sitting on my chest, paused. I’ll read Tadoku out loud to myself, and if I run into a word I don’t know or a cultural reference I don’t get, I’ll unpause it and ask ChatGPT about it. Here are the prompts I use:

Handy ChatGPT Voice Prompts for Reading Practice

Initial Setup:

I prefer to have ChatGPT explain words in Japanese first, so I start by telling it my expectations:

I’m going through a Japanese graded reader and I want you to be a helper in terms of helping me understand some of the words. By default, speak to me in extremely easy Japanese, where you are using the most simple Japanese words you possibly can, and using many examples and lots of explanations to get your point across.

I’ll tell you about things in a mixture of Japanese and English, but first try to tell me in Japanese the answer to my question or at least enough information to help me. Don’t give me definitions in English unless I say “Help me in English.” OK?

I will occasionally need to guide it back to Japanese with “Hey, I told you not to use English unless I say help.” But it mostly sticks to the instructions. If you’re a beginner and the output you get is too difficult to handle at first, that’s fine – skip this setup step and ChatGPT will stay mostly in English.

Useful Prompts:

  • I’m reading [sentence] and I don’t understand [word in sentence]. Can you help me understand what that word means?
  • I’m reading [sentence] and I don’t understand [word in sentence]. Can you help me understand what that word means? Don’t give me a translation, just give me a couple of other example sentences using the word and a simple explanation in Japanese of what the word means.
  • What’s the etymology of [word]?
  • How else can you use [word]?
  • Why are they using [word] there? Isn’t that the same as [synonym]? What’s the difference?
  • Can I say [sentence I made up using new word]? Is that proper usage?
  • In the story, [xyz happens]. Is there a cultural reference I’m missing? Why is [xyz happening]?

Tool 3: Google Lens

Occasionally, you will run into Kanji that doesn’t have furigana provided, and you will have to choose between simply skipping it or stopping to investigate it. Again, skipping it is a fine choice and for tool 3, I actually recommend skipping it unless NOT skipping it is causing you a ton of stress. If it is, pop open Google translate on your phone, select the camera option, set it to Japanese – Japanese, then point your camera at the book, select the text and hit the speaker button. It’ll read it out loud to you.

The Process

Read through the first graded reader using the above toolkit, and see how it feels. If it’s too hard to get through, stop. Focus on learning more Japanese through other routes, building flash cards, and finding the paths that keep you challenged but not overwhelmed. Remember, you learn at your best when you’re just a little stressed, over on the left side of the Y-D curve, not when you’re muscling through brutal content.

If you find that the first graded reader is challenging but manageable, use the resources in the next section to find more content at that same level. If, instead, you find that that reader is pretty easy, try the next level up. Keep going until you find the graded reader that’s a bit challenging but still quite manageable and stick to that level. Then find more content at that level, and keep reading.

Tadoku Resources at Each Level: has a brilliant search engine, that you can access here for >450 books across their 6 levels. Hit the ‘Sample’ button to try them out, and you’ll even get Amazon links to buy each one. The books can be a bit expensive, so I’ll list some of the cheaper books in each level over here:

Level 0

You can find Ask Publishing’s Level 0, Volumes 1, 2, and 3 and their “Level Start” book (i.e., even easier) on with CDs. It’s the same publisher as the free Tadoku volumes, but as far as I can see, they’re non-overlapping stories. You can doublecheck by looking at the photos of the stories in the reviews.

The Taishukan publisher is also associated with’s parent company, and they have 10 volumes of graded readers. Levels 7, 8, and 9 are their easiest ones, at levels 0-1. They’re currently only available through, but Amazon Japan seems to now have US shipping options. If you struggle to get them directly through Amazon, make an account at Japan Rabbit and paste the Amazon URLs into their interface. They’ll buy the books locally for you, put them in a single box, and then ship them anywhere in the world. (Important note: this works for anything else you’d like from Japan, including the best snack I have ever encountered, Rich Cheese Flavor Crunchy Corn from 7-11).

Last, you can start jumping into the Anno’s Journey set of books, which are super popular and decently affordable (at least for the first book) on

Level 1 (JLPT N5)

Taishukan Levels 7, 8, and 9 10 1 Ask Publishing’s Level 1, Volumes 1, 2, 3 See you anytime I want (cute, not crazy expensive for the length)

Level 2 (JLPT N4)

Taishukan 1, 2 Ask Publishing’s Level 2, Volumes 1, 2, 3 Monkey’s Daily Life and The Red Taro (decent prices per page if you get a used one)

Level 3 (JLPT N3)

Taishukan 3 Ask Publishing’s Level 3, Volumes 1, 2, 3 Level 3 books start getting really exciting to reach because you can start reading some of the easier multi-volume, long-form manga and they’re actually affordable. Check these out: Spirited Away, Chi’s Sweet Home , My Neighbor Totoro, Yotsubato

Level 4 (JLPT N3/N2)

Taishukan 4, 5, 6 Ask Publishing’s Level 4, Volumes 1, 2, 3 More manga: One Piece, Naruto

Level 5 (JLPT N2/N1)

Taishukan 6 Early novels and short story compilations: Totto-chan at the window, Come on come on!, Why don’t you play detective for a bit?

After Level 5:

By this point, you should be able to delve into most manga, and I think that can take you quite far. That said, for those of you looking for a more measured and/or broad approach, the most detailed guide to the later stages of reading practice is one written by u/SuikaCider on Reddit.

Alternatively, at this stage, you may be able to handle Japanese translations of book series you’ve enjoyed in English, and that’s often a good way to jump in, as you’ll already be familiar with the plots and as such, you’ll have an easier time keeping track of things. To find the right title to search for on Amazon, first look up your target book series on Wikipedia, and then swap the page to your target language. The title(s) should be pretty easy to find somewhere on that page, assuming that you’re looking at a relatively popular series. And for Japanese, I’m going to highly recommend picking a series that you can read while listening to an audiobook, as that’ll fill in the readings for any unfamiliar Kanji.

Remember, you’re going to learn best by picking something that’s in a genre you actually enjoy reading. Don’t feel compelled to go to The Classics or The Greats; if trashy romance is your thing, go do your thing. Your Japanese will thank you afterwards.

Go forth and learn! If you’d like to be notified once the new edition of Fluent Forever is released, jump on our mailing list here.

Disclaimer: as an Amazon Associate, Fluent Forever earns from qualifying purchases.

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