If You Want to Beat the JLPT, Here’s How to Conquer the Reading Section

Stacked JLPT N2 Reading Comprehension books

Among all the sections of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), the reading section seems to be the most dreaded by many examinees.

On test day, they are often plagued by the following problems:

“There are some difficult words and kanji that I do not understand. What should I do?”

“I ran out of time to finish reading everything.”

“I don’t understand what this passage is all about.”

“I am too tired to read any more passages.”

If these thoughts have ever crossed your mind, don’t worry; there are ways to tackle these issues.

In this article, I will discuss effective reading strategies that will boost your performance in this section of the JLPT.

Summary

I have divided this article into three phases which represent your status or progress in your JLPT review. The skills you develop by applying the strategies in each phase will carry on to the next phase.

Preparation Phase

  1. Strengthen your knowledge in vocabulary, kanji, and grammar
  2. Work on improving your reading speed
  3. Apply an active reading style
    • Be immersed in the passage
    • Summarize information at proper intervals
    • Predict what comes next through keywords
    • Identify and quickly go through details
    • Infer the meaning of difficult words

Practice Phase

  1. Time yourself
  2. Build reading stamina
  3. Familiarize yourself with common question types

Test Phase

  1. Read and understand the passage first
  2. Take down notes
  3. Think before looking at the answer choices
  4. Reject other answer choices based on solid grounds
  5. Review your answers

Preparation Phase

Before you dive into practicing for the JLPT, you must develop essential skills in reading. Even test-taking strategies will prove meaningless if your very foundation in reading is weak. So, take the time to work on the basics as your first step.

1. Strengthen your knowledge in vocabulary, kanji, and grammar

The reading section is, in a way, a culminating test of your language knowledge. You need to be familiar with the vocabulary, grammatical structures, and kanji. After all, how can you understand a passage where you only know less than half of the words included in it?

Hence, keep in mind that you cannot skimp on these three elements and then jump straight to reading. Thus, I do not recommend that you start your JLPT preparation with reading.

Chinese character on a page of a Japanese book
Kanji knowledge is essential in reading.

Now, you may be asking, “Do I have to know EVERYTHING first?” Not necessarily. That would be both time-consuming and energy-draining. However, it is best that you build and strengthen your foundation that would be sufficient for you to understand at least half of a passage.

Then, you can slowly work on improving areas that you found tricky, difficult, or confusing during your reading practice. Here, you will be able to learn more words and grammar points as you encounter them.

The key point here is that you need to improve the elements that will build the foundation of your comprehension. This will become your most powerful weapon in reading comprehension.

2. Work on improving your reading speed

Let’s face it. You recite what you are reading inside your mind.

Since Japanese isn’t your native tongue, there will be words that aren’t easy to pronounce, so you stutter as you read too. Often, this leads to reading some words and phrases repeatedly until you get to pronounce them correctly… inside your head, that is.

Just to get this out of the way, try reading aloud whenever you pick up a book or article. Read it again until you feel that you can finish reading it smoothly.

This repetition helps because it does not just improve your pronunciation and rhythm but also helps you better remember unfamiliar words that have initially made your initial reading difficult. It will be added to your pool of vocabulary and kanji.

Finally, make it a habit to read frequently. Daily if possible. You can’t expect to do well in JLPT reading if you only read whenever you’re taking the exam. Every time you read, you become more accustomed to it. Perhaps, even that inner monologue will slowly disappear.

For N5 to N3 learners, practice with books focused on JLPT reading or read articles with easy-to-understand Japanese such as articles from NHK Easy. For N2 to N1 learners, practice with native-level Japanese articles on top of JLPT prep books.

Girl studying with books at home
Find time to read Japanese materials as much as possible.

3. Learn to apply an active reading style

When you read for leisure, say a novel or a magazine, you simply maintain a steady and continuous reading pace from start to finish. You might have even finished the whole material and still think, “What did I just read?” This is called passive reading.

Conversely, active reading is when you are more engaged with the text, raising questions and critiquing the information presented as if you are holding a discussion with the author. To ace the JLPT, you will need to read actively.

Below are some useful tips in active reading:

Be immersed in the passage

Some topics in the reading section may not be very interesting, such as history and culture. While the average learner may find these topics, well, boring, being invested in the passage is actually crucial… at least during the exam. Immersion aids in how much information you will be able to absorb AND comprehend.

If you read half-heartedly, you will certainly miss a lot of key points or details in the passage, so do not read too fast or simply skim the entire passage while thinking, “I just want this to be done and over with.”

Summarize information at proper intervals

Take the time to pause for a while and summarize what you have read so far. When to pause depends on the type or structure of a passage.

For passages with only one long paragraph, you may pause after every three or four sentences. For passages with multiple paragraphs, pause at the end of each paragraph.

Predict what comes next through keywords

Conjunctions indicate what kind of detail or information will follow. In Japanese, these are called setsuzokushi (接続詞). When encountering these words, try to briefly pause and predict what will be discussed next.

Will it be contrasting or opposite information? Will it build on or add to the previous sentence or paragraph? Will it show a comparison?

Being on the lookout for connective words will help you understand the flow and presentation of the passage. Learn more here.

Portion of a page written in Japanese with grammatical notes
しかし (shikashi) is a conjunction that is used to show contrast.
Identify and quickly go through details

This is quite tricky because determining which details are important requires good judgment. Just remember that the test will not ask you about minute details, such as specific dates or names.

Consider this example:

(いの)(うえ)さんは(えん)(そう)だげが(はい)っている「8ジューク」という()(かい)(つく)り、1971(ねん)にレストランや(きっ)()(てん)()()会社(かいしゃ)(はじ)めた。
Inoue-san wa ensou dake ga haitteiru [8 Juke] to iu kikai wo tsukuri, 1971-nen ni resutoran ya kissaten ni kashidasu kaisha wo hajimeta.

We can refer to the first half (()(かい)(つく)った)as event A and the latter half (会社(かいしゃ)(はじ)めた)as event B.

Here, what you simply need to understand is the sequence of events―that A happened before B, or that B happened after A. The words 8ジューク and 1971年 do not really matter. This will save you time and you will not overload yourself with unnecessary information.

Infer the meaning of difficult words

There will be times when you encounter unfamiliar words while reading. But don’t panic; you can still infer their meanings when you pay close attention to the context of the sentence or even the whole passage itself.

This is also true for words that use kanji. You may not know how they are read, but if you think about the meaning represented by each kanji, you will have an idea of what the entire word is supposed to mean.


Practice Phase

Now that you’ve built the basic foundation that you will need to succeed in the reading section, you should devote your time to practice drills. I highly recommend that you use JLPT prep books such as Goukaku Dekiru and Shin Kanzen Master.

4.  Time yourself

The reading passages, especially for N3 and above, can be quite lengthy, with around 3 to 4 questions per set. You will probably spend most of your time in this section than anywhere else within the Language Knowledge* portion of the JLPT. However, since the JLPT is a timed test, you cannot read at your own leisure because it is a race against the clock.

The skill you acquired in item number 2, “Improve your reading speed”, will definitely come in handy. It is time to put that skill to the test.

Open-faced book and a smartphone with stopwatch
You could use a mobile phone’s stopwatch to record your time.

But first things first, how much time should you devote to reading a passage? There’s no hard and fast rule because it depends on the length of what you are reading, but here are some ballpark estimates:

Short passages: 40 to 60 seconds
Medium passages: 2 to 3 minutes
Long passages: 4 to 5 minutes

Overall, you should be able to finish the reading section within the time limit specified for your JLPT Level. For example, 40 minutes for N5 and 70 minutes for N3.

*Language Knowledge – The section of the JLPT that covers vocabulary, kanji, and grammar. From N5 to N3, Reading is a separate section but for N2 and N1, Reading forms part of Language Knowledge.

5. Build reading stamina

By now, you can understand what you have read at a comfortable pace and timing, so you can read 1 or 2 passages in succession.

But remember, the JLPT includes quite a number of reading passages, so it can deplete your motivation and energy quite fast as you move forward in the exam.

As you fight your exhaustion in the latter part of the exam, understanding the passage becomes even more difficult, increasing the likelihood that you will select the incorrect choices. It’s a dangerous domino effect.

The best way to address this is to gradually increase the number of passages you read as you progress in your JLPT preparation. As you acclimate yourself to reading, it becomes much less tiring.

Furthermore, practice clearing your mind as you transition from one passage to the next. Do not dwell on the details of the previous passage while reading the current one as it may negatively affect your comprehension. In that case, you will not be able to effectively apply active reading.

Read, rinse, and repeat!

Girl distressed while reading books for study
If you don’t build stamina through practice, you might tire yourself out in the exam.

6. Familiarize yourself with common question types

It is useful to think about what the JLPT will most likely ask from you so that you can anticipate what types of questions will appear in the exam and devise a strategy to answer them.

The most common question types include the following:

Main point

This is the overall purpose of the passage, or what the author ultimately wishes to tell the reader. It is not explicitly stated in any part of the passage.

Such questions are always asked last. They can be worded as follows:

  • 筆者がこの文章で一番言いたいことはどんなことか。
    Hissha ga kono bunshou de iitai koto wa donna koto ka
  • この文章で、最も言いたいことは何か。
    Kono bunshou de, mottomo iitai koto wa nani ka.

This type of question doesn’t really appear until you get to JLPT N3, when medium-length to long passages are introduced.

Tip: The main idea is the “big picture.” It spans the ENTIRE passage. Eliminate answer choices that only cite a portion of it.

Inference

This question tests your ability to infer or deduce information based on details explicitly stated in the passage.

Usually, a phrase or sentence from the passage is underlined, and you must answer why the author wrote it.

  • …. のは、なぜか。
    …. no wa, naze ka
  • …. とあるが、どういうことか。
    …. to aru ga, dou iu koto ka

Tip: Understand the immediately preceding or succeeding context to correctly answer this type of question.

Detail

This type of question asks you to retrieve a specific detail in the passage. It can be a definition of a term, a description of an item or concept, or an antecedent of a pronoun.

  • …. とあるが、何のことか。
    …. to aru ga, nan no koto ka
  • …. について、この文章と合っているのはどれか。
    …. ni tsuite, kono bunshou to atteiru no wa dore ka
  • …. とは、何を指しているか。
    …. to wa, nani wo sashiteiru ka

Tip: A detail is always explicitly stated in the passage. While reading, develop a sense of where key ideas are placed in the passage so you can quickly find them.


Test Phase

In your final leg of the review, you should take full mock exams and apply the skills you developed in the first two phases. The strategies below will also aid you in the mock exams and, eventually, in the actual exam.

Girl reviewing with a book and handout
Mock exams are an essential component of JLPT review.

7. Read and understand the passage first

You may think that this step is common sense. Surprisingly, this step is so important that it will significantly determine how well you will fare in answering the questions related to the passage.

Some test-takers and authors of JLPT review books advocate that you read the questions first so that you can simply skim over the entire passage and zoom in on details that you only need on the premise that “it saves a lot of time.”

However, such a method allows for a higher probability of choosing the incorrect answer choice and, ironically, may even consume more time. These consequences defeat the very purpose and intent of skimming in the first place.

Example scenario:
John, a JLPT test-taker, is reading a long passage in the exam.

John went straight ahead to reading Question 1, which asks for a certain detail. He skims over the text to look for that information and finds it. So far, so good.

Now, Question 2 is an inference question. Going back to the passage, John finds that section and reads it, but without understanding the role of that section in the entirety of the passage, he now reads the surrounding sentences as well.

Without a definitive answer, John decides to skip to Question 3, which asks about the main point of the whole passage.

Since John did not read the passage in an orderly fashion, he is now confused about the presentation of ideas in the text. With time running out, he makes a guess for the last two questions.

Observe that by going back and forth between the questions and the passage, you are reading the text over and over again, wasting precious time. In each instance, your level of comprehension of the passage barely improves, because you were not able to absorb the material sufficiently.

Also, take note that you spend more time dealing with the questions as in the example above because it is harder to eliminate other answer choices. These factors become increasingly detrimental the more questions are involved in one reading set.

Therefore, it’s crucial to leverage meaning and comprehension. It’s necessary to find the right balance between the ability to choose the correct answer and the ability to finish the exam within the time limit. Do not cut corners and apply active reading.

You might also be thinking, “Is it possible to read the question first and still be able to use active reading?” Yes, you can – as long as you are 100% confident that you will NOT be biased in your approach to reading the passage.

Unless you can demonstrate that level of confidence, take the safer route by looking at the questions only after you have read the passage in its entirety.

Exception: You may read the question first for short reading problems that have ONLY ONE question because it is less risky.

Hand holding a pen to take down notes while studying
Taking notes improves your comprehension and helps you in retrieving vital details.

8. Take down notes

Though everything is printed on the questionnaire, you can write short notes such as summaries that you came up with from the step, “Summarize information at proper intervals.”

You can also highlight key areas by underlining or encircling them.

There are no specific rules as to how you should take notes, as long as it will make it a lot easier for you to find, review, and confirm information by emphasizing the most vital details.

Taking notes could even improve or deepen your understanding of the passage.

9. Think before looking at the answer choices

It is very tempting to jump straight to the answer choices immediately after reading the question. However, doing that can be a deadly mistake since answer choices are often crafted to confuse test-takers.

If you make a guess as to what the answer will be prior to looking at the answer choices, this will aid you in zooming in on the correct choice… and even identify trap answer choices.

10. Reject other answer choices based on solid grounds

This is another step that is usually overlooked by test-takers. It is not enough that you are able to select one answer choice; you must also understand why all the other choices are incorrect or why they are not the best option.

For each answer choice, try to ask yourself, “In what way does this contradict the passage?” If there is conflicting detail, then eliminate that answer choice.

Furthermore, you may use the process of elimination even after you decide on an answer, just for confirmation. By doing so, you can be more certain that your choice is indeed the best one.

Page of a book written in Japanese
Some JLPT prep books on reading explain why the other answer choices are incorrect.

11. Review your answers

If there is time remaining on the clock, check your answers and ensure that you have properly shaded your answer sheet.

Even petty mistakes could hurt your overall performance, such as shading the circle corresponding to 3 when you were actually thinking of 2 as the correct answer.

Ideally, you should be able to review each and every answer in the whole test section before you submit your answer sheet. If you finish answering the test, don’t rest just yet!


Conclusion

It will take a while to get used to applying all these strategies, so make sure that you have a sufficient preparation period for the actual JLPT. Mastering a skill does take time, after all.

The above tips and strategies that I laid out here come from personal experience. These have helped me significantly in all the JLPTs that I have taken so far.

By approaching the JLPT reading section strategically, I was able to consistently achieve perfect scores in the reading section from N5 all the way to N2.

Note, however, that learning styles and methods vary depending on the person. Some of the advice here may work for you; some may not.

Thus, apply the strategies which you feel will improve your skills in reading comprehension, and make some adjustments to them so they will best fit your learning preference and ability.


You’ve made it all the way to the end of this article! I hope the information here will aid you in your JLPT preparation, as it did to me.

Do you have other reading strategies that helped you succeed? Let me know yours by commenting below.

Author: Francesca Galve

Japanese language enthusiast (JLPT N1). Master's student in Tokyo, Japan. Accountant by profession.

3 thoughts on “If You Want to Beat the JLPT, Here’s How to Conquer the Reading Section”

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