Wouldn’t it be great if you could read the famous Russian classical literature in Russian? If you would be able to open up Crime and Punishment, or Anna Karenina in Russian, and actually understand what’s going on?
Well, you need to crawl before you can walk. And in this article we’ll discuss exactly how you can learn to read in Russian.
Here are the 7 steps you need to follow in short:
- Learn the Russian alphabet
- Learn the 100 most common words
- Practice your Russian pronunciation
- Start reading dual language books
- Learn more Russian vocabulary
- Practice with simple books
- Read Harry Potter in Russian
How can you learn to read Russian quickly?
You may think that reading Russian is going to be difficult. But in reality, it’s not as difficult as it seems. All you need to do is follow the next 7 steps, and you’ll soon be reading Russian as if it’s nothing.
Learn the Russian alphabet
The first thing you must do is learn to read the Russian alphabet (or the Cyrillic alphabet). Now, at first sight this may seem difficult. But in reality it’s not too difficult.
It will take you about an hour to learn all the Russian letters. Here’s a short overview of the Russian alphabet.
Need more structure in your daily Russian practice? Let me help you make daily progress in my 4-week Russian program
There are many Russian letters that look and sound like the letters in our own Latin alphabet. These letters include: а к м о т. So now you already know 5 out of 33 letters of the Cyrillic alphabet.
Then there are letters in the Russian alphabet that look like our letters, but each sounds like another letter. These include в (sounds like our V), с (sounds like our S), р (sounds like our R), х (sounds like kh) and н (sounds like our N). These ‘false friends’ can be a bit difficult to get used to, but that will come with time.
Next there are a couple of letters that look new, but actually sound similar to letters that we have. These are г (sounds like our G), б (sounds like our B) and д (sounds like our D).
And finally, the rest of the letters from the Russian alphabet are completely new. These sometimes have a sound that is similar to ours, or are pronounced differently. Among these you’ll find the two letters that do not have a sound on their own: ь (soft sign that softens the previous letter) and the ъ (hard sign that hardens the previous letter).
Here’s a recap:
- Letters that are the same in both Latin and Russian alphabet: а к м о т
- Letter that look similar but you pronounce them in different way: й е н з х ю и с ф в п р л э у
- Letters that look different but you pronounce them like English letters: г д б
- Letters that look and sound differently: ц ч ш щ ъ ж ь я ы ё
Learn the 100 most common Russian words
After you’ve learned the Russian alphabet, you should focus on learning the most common Russian words.
This is important, because if you want to read Russian, you have to know at least the basics of words. When you start learning Russian, and you know the 100 most common words, you can start to read simple Russian language stories and conversations.
And during each story or conversation, you will learn more Russian words. And this creates a snowball effect where you learn more and more Russian vocabulary. Which in turn allows you to read more difficult stories.
An easy way to learn Russian vocabulary is by installing one of the popular apps to learn the Russian language. Such as Duolingo, Memrise or Drops. These apps usually also help with learning the alphabet, so you can do step 1 and 2 in one go.
Practice your Russian pronunciation
Next, you want to work a bit on your Russian pronunciation. Now, before we get started, you need to know that you shouldn’t pay too much attention to this.
After all, you probably later also want to speak Russian. And the worst thing you can have is the paralysis of not being able to perfectly pronounce words.
Everyone makes mistakes, and Russian is pronounced difficult. So it’s no shame if you make mistakes here.
But it is good to constantly practice speaking words out loud. As that does help you improve your Russian pronunciation.
An easy way to do this is by speaking out loud whatever you are reading. Or if you are using an app like we discussed in point 2, to repeat each word out loud. Pay special attention to how the Russian language uses combinations of vowels and consonants.
Start reading dual language books
So the first real written Russian practice that you should try is to read dual language books. Another name for this is bilingual books.
These are books where you have the Russian side on the left. And the English translation on the right.
This makes for great practice as you can still easily follow the plot. It’s like a puzzle, where you first try to decipher what is written in Russian. And after you’ve spent about 30 to 60 seconds on a sentence, you can then check the translation to see what you got right, and what you got wrong.
When checking the translation, be sure to compare that to the original Russian sentence. As that will help you learn more Russian words.
I recommend you start with either children’s stories, or specially adapted dual language books. As otherwise they can be a bit difficult. You don’t want to start reading Crime and Punishment after 2 weeks of learning Russian.
A good way to find them is by searching for them online, or checking on Amazon.
Learn more Russian vocabulary
The next course of action is that you need to learn more Russian vocabulary. It’s important to know that Russian does not share many words in common with the English language. So in order to understand written Russian, you must learn a lot of words.
I recommend you shoot for around 1000 to 2000 words as a good beginning. That will be enough to read newspapers and simple articles. It also won’t take that long to learn them. If you learn 5 new words per day, it will take you approximately half a year to learn 1000 words, and a year before you know 2000 words.
Important here is that you focus on learning the most common words. If you know the 1000 most common words, you can read and understand 70% of most texts. And if you know the top 2000, you’ll be able to understand more than 80% of general texts. This of course depends on the difficulty of the text, but it’s no secret that in most languages the 1000 most common words are used more often than all the other tens of thousands of words together.
I recommend using the app Ankidroid for this. It’s free, and it’s a simple app that works with flash cards. You can either create your own deck from a list of common words, or install a premade deck that someone else made. I did the first one 5 years ago, as I didn’t know you could install flash card decks made by others. But I recommend you download a premade deck, as that saves a lot of effort.
Practice with simple books and sites
After you’ve learned more Russian vocabulary, and have practice with bilingual Russian books, you can start practicing with real Russian books.
Books that do not have a translation, so you’ll be learning everything completely with your own knowledge.
This is a great test, because if you can read this, you will be able to immerse yourself in the Russian language and culture.
I recommend you start trying to read the following:
- Children’s book
- News articles
- Simplified books
The main thing here is to pick what you prefer to read. If you already read the news every day, you could try reading the international news on a Russian news site.
If you like simple stories, then try reading fairy tales in Russian.
And if you want something more serious, then try reading simplified versions of Russian literature. Or try reading a site in Russian.
Read Harry Potter in Russian
This is the final test on how to read Russian. You’ve probably read Harry Potter in English, or in your own native language, right?
Then you know that the book isn’t that difficult to read.
After all, it’s aimed at children. But also many adults read it, so it’s not as if it’s super simple.
That’s why I recommend you have Harry Potter as your main goal to read in Russian.
The reason for that is because if you can read this book, you will feel a great sense of accomplishment. And because it’s exactly at the intersection between a kids book, and a book for adults, it will also mark a ‘graduation’. If you can read this book, you can then slowly start trying out real Russian books.
Also, because you’ve already read Harry Potter, you will still understand the plot even if you don’t fully understand a couple of pages. This is great, as it removes the pressure from reading. You do not need to look up every second word in order to understand what’s going on. This creates a relaxed atmosphere where you actually enjoy reading. And this relaxation allows for much better learning, than if you were to tensely try to understand everything.
Also, if you enjoy what you’re reading, it’s much easier to spend a lot of time on it. And in the end, the main thing that will get you fluent in Russian, will be how much time you spent on learning Russian.
P.S. Do you struggle making daily progress on your Russian skills? I've got a 4-week Russian program that gives you a step-by-step system to follow to speak Russian well. Get more information about the program here.