What 80% Comprehension Feels Like

Extensive Reading - How Easy Is Easy? (Marco Benevides)

If you’re learning a foreign language and you don’t know what extensive reading is, it’s time to learn. This presentation deck by Marco Benevides is a great place to start: Extensive Reading – How easy is easy? (Excerpts below from: Extensive Reading: Benefits and Implementation. Benevides, Marcos. J. F. Oberlin University, Tokyo. Presented at IATEFL 2015 in Manchester.)

One of the major principles of extensive reading is that if a learner can comprehend material at 98% comprehension, she will acquire new words in context, in a painless, enjoyable way. But what is 98% comprehension? Humans are actually really bad at gauging this, partly because schools rarely teach this way. 98% comprehension means that only 1 in 50 words is unknown. But still, it’s hard to have a feeling for exactly what that’s like.

This is where Marco Benevides’s presentation is so genius. Here is 98%:

You live and work in Tokyo. Tokyo is a big city. More than 13 million people live around you. You are never borgle, but you are always lonely. Every morning, you get up and take the train to work. Every night, you take the train again to go home. The train is always crowded. When people ask about your work, you tell them, “I move papers around.” It’s a joke, but it’s also true. You don’t like your work. Tonight you are returning home. It’s late at night. No one is shnooling. Sometimes you don’t see a shnool all day. You are tired. You are so tired…

(And in case you’re not a native speaker of English or don’t quite get it, yes, there are nonsense words in there. Those represent the uncomprehended 2%.)

Here’s 95%, which represents a departure from extensive reading, because it requires more effort, and tends to be slower and less enjoyable:

In the morning, you start again. You shower, get dressed, and walk pocklent. You move slowly, half- awake. Then, suddenly, you stop. Something is different. The streets are fossit. Really fossit. There are no people. No cars. Nothing. “Where is dowargle?” you ask yourself. Suddenly, there is a loud quapen—a police car. It speeds by and almost hits you. It crashes into a store across the street! Then, another police car farfoofles. The police officer sees you. “Off the street!” he shouts. “Go home, lock your door!” “What? Why?” you shout back. But it’s too late. He is gone.

Finally, let’s skip to the oh-so-frustrating 80% comprehension level:

“Bingle for help!” you shout. “This loopity is dying!” You put your fingers on her neck. Nothing. Her flid is not weafling. You take out your joople and bingle 119, the emergency number in Japan. There’s no answer! Then you muchy that you have a new befourn assengle. It’s from your gutring, Evie. She hunwres at Tokyo University. You play the assengle. “…if you get this…” Evie says. “…I can’t vickarn now… the important passit is…” Suddenly, she looks around, dingle. “Oh no, they’re here! Cripett… the frib! Wasple them ON THE FRIB!…” BEEP! the assengle parantles. Then you gratoon something behind you…


I run into this number “80%” quite a lot in my work. Maybe it’s because of the 80/20 rule; I don’t know. But what I do know is that many learners think 80% comprehension in a conversation or in a business meeting is enough to follow. In reality, 80% is extremely frustrating because you can get so much of the conversation, but you’re still fairly clueless about a lot of the meat of the discussion. Generally speaking, you’ll know the topic, but fully understand virtually none of the details discussed. Pretty maddening.

This isn’t actually bad news… It doesn’t change the numbers of hours of focused practice needed to become fluent in a language. In fact, it goes a long way toward explaining that intermediate plateau, as you slog from an average of 60% comprehension or so to closer to 90%. That’s why you’re learning so much but don’t feel the breakthrough. It’s also why it’s so important to have a good teacher, and materials at your level.’

Ready for this same experiment in Chinese? See: Simulating 80% Comprehension in Chinese.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Also, I’m working on a sample similar to Benevides’s, but for Chinese. It’s tricky for Chinese, because there are both words and characters to deal with. And then there’s the fact for the vast majority of English speakers in any audience, comprehension will be 0% no matter how carefully designed the sample text is. But I’ll do it anyway, using passages from Mandarin Companion books. any suggestions are welcome, of course!

  2. There’s an excellent video lecture from 2011 by Professor Alexander Arguelles that discusses the same principle. You can see it here and it’s well worth the watch.

  3. Great article! Love the examples, they really show that knowing 80% and 95% or more of a text makes a huge difference in our ability to read it. Like this 98% rule, interesting to think about how we could implement that in Ninchanese.

  4. What a clever way to demonstrate comprehension levels! I had been aspiring to an 80% comprehension level but now realise that would be a really frustrating place to stop after all my hard work! I find it really hard to estimate what percentage I understand at this stage – maybe 30% at best. However, I do think it’s also important to realise the difference between understanding basic, daily conversation and understanding more specialised (say in a particular field of work conversation). Someone told me it took them about a year of full time study to get to master daily conversation in Japanese but another year to master the Japanese he needed for work.

  5. I greatly flooped your beng example. Vilf Pareto meets Lewis Carroll on a brootle.

  6. […] while back I wrote about What 80% Comprehension Feels Like, and I quoted the English examples used in Marcos Benevides’ excellent presentation which […]

  7. […] missing and how difficult it is to keep up even at a level of let’s say 80% comprehension.  This article does an excellent job of explaining what this feels like in reality. Ensitreffit alttarilla is […]

  8. Wow this was a really interesting read!

    I was wondering about one thing: The words used to demonstrate lack of understanding were actually “fake” words. But in reality, even if I encounter a word I don’t know, I might be able to guess its meaning because of some part of the word I know etc. Does that count as comprehension or not?

    About adapting it to Chinese: I would say it gets even more complicated here because sometimes you will be able to guess the meaning of a word if you know one of the composing characters. Sometimes you might have an idea about the meaning of the character because of the radicals used etc.

    Anyway, that was really interesting! Would be very interested to see what you spin out of this project!

  9. […] What 80% Comprehension Feels Like – “One of the major principles of extensive reading is that if a learner can comprehend material at 98% comprehension, she will acquire new words in context, in a painless, enjoyable way. But what is 98% comprehension?” […]

  10. […] number of light novels and get the gist of 80% of the page. Which, by the way, means it’s a frustrating experience. So if you ever wanted to know what happens when you get through a ton of Wanikani without a huge […]

  11. […] can see what 80% comprehension feels like in an article from Sinosplice. I think you’ll agree that this is a little… […]

  12. Hi, John. Great examples! Quick question: What about texts with repeating unknown words? Let’s say the total number of unknown words is 5%, but the number of *unique* unknown words is just 2% of total words, because many unknown words repeat again and again.

    Would that count as 98% comprehension, even though, when looking at “total words” the learner only understands 95%?

  13. 80% comprehension isn’t as bad as you make it sound. In real life, there’s always a ton of context. You don’t go to a business meeting not knowing what kind of business you’re in. You don’t listen to a conversation by reading emotionless words on a page.

    I can watch a movie or TV show where I speak 0% of the language and pick up most of the plot just from context. Filmmakers are experts at telling stories with pictures. We’ve had movies longer than they’ve had sound, after all.

    No, I don’t know what “This loopity is dying!” means, but if I were being shown one right at that moment, I bet I’d be able to figure it out.

  14. @Jamie 80% is ONLY tolerable when it’s a film/TV show. For everything else [podcasts, radio, books, articles, a lot, actually], including real life, it absolutely can be frustrating: when it’s just audio, you can’t use context clues, and when it’s real life, you usually want to understand the details like a grown-up. It is no fun when all you can get is that Thilo went hiking while everyone else is laughing because s/he understood how the bear stole his underwear.

    The more subtle point from a language learning perspective is that we don’t just want to understand overall–we want to learn the language used. And our powers of concentration are limited. You assume that you’d be able to focus on “This loopity is dying” and put together what the loopity is, but if three other sentences follow in quick succession with similar holes, you won’t have time to deduce unless you keep. stopping. the. show. to. think. Been there, done that.

    It turns out that the ideal for deducing “loopity” is when it is one unknown in a sea of known terms that you don’t have to think about, i.e., exactly the point of this brilliant article.

    And that’s what I wanted to say. Several years late, but this is a brilliant, brilliant article. I reference it all the time. It’s one of a few resources that substantially affected my language learning approach. The credit goes to you; thank you!

  15. […] of easy, enjoyable books, to learn to love a language.  John Pasden from Sinosplice actually summarises this research on his blog, and affirms it works for Chinese when he repeats the same experiment using Chinese […]

  16. The 80% comprehension one is horrifying in its clarity. but please put a trigger warning.

  17. […] για να μην είναι τρελά απογοητευτικό. Ο John Pasden έχει ένα ενδιαφέρουσα επίδειξη για το πώς αισθάνονται διαφορετικά επίπεδα […]

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