Switching Gears when Switching Levels

Switching Gears when Switching Levels post image

I’ve heard back from several people over the last few weeks about their results from the JLPT. It’s been great to hear from everyone about how well you all did and how you are setting your sights on something bigger. I’m impressed by the amount of hard work everyone puts in to pass this test. It can be quite a struggle, but it is also really rewarded to get that certificate back that let’s the world know that you did it.

I’ve gotten a lot of emails and comments with questions and requests for advice. First of all, thank you everyone who wrote in and commented. It is always a good feeling to hear from everyone and hear about how well you did. I thought I would take some time to consolidate all the piecemeal advice I gave into one useful blog post since I tend to get some of the same questions from time to time.

Up to N3ish

Up to the N3 level, you can get away with sticking to the books and “prepared” material, that is material that is specifically prepared for learners of Japanese. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t try with native materials. The sooner you can start using native materials the better. It will help you get a good idea of how Japanese is actually used in the real world.

However, the most efficient way to study at the N5 to around the N3 level will probably be with material that has been prepared for learners and has clear levels to it. This can be through a membership site like JapanesePod101, or with the excellent Genki I and II books if you are studying with a teacher or tutor. Another favorite is the Minna no Nihongo series, which is packed with a lot of sentence patterns and drills that you can use if you are studying alone.

After the N4 level, you will have most of the grammar structures you need to communicate with others. N4 vocabulary definitely doesn’t cover that much though, so you will need to pick up some more vocabulary from ideally talking to natives, or listening, or reading. Keep in mind that drilling vocabulary with something like Anki and Memrise is useful, but it shouldn’t be the only place you are being exposed to that vocabulary. You need context and you need to actually use it to own the words.

Past N3ish

Starting around N3, you should start to try to ease yourself on to more and more native materials. This can start with simple things like doing web searches in Japanese. I got started with some graded readers and then moved on to simple novels. NHK also has a web easy site with news stories in simple Japanese that can help you ease into reading.

Books are still quite important for understanding the nuances of grammar that you may not get exposed to that often even with regular reading. It also helps point out the small differences between similar grammar points. I always recommend So-Matome (easier, but quick to get through) and Kanzen Master (more difficult, and harder to get through, all in Japanese).

The bottom line is that it is fairly difficult to pass N2 with just N2 textbooks. You will need some real world exposure preferable through conversation, but that can also be with good listening material. And you will need to increase your reading speed. That means doing reading on a regular basis. In order to pass, you need to read at slow native reading speed. And be able to not only comprehend a sentence, but a whole paragraph and understand the flow of the writing.

It’s virtually impossible to pass the N1 with just study books. You will need a good amount of native exposure to everything – reading, listening, and conversing. If you can’t get a regular conversation partner, you might be able to find someone who can check your writing.

Make Sure your Goals Match Up

One last piece of advice I can give you is that you should make sure to ask yourself if the test is still worth it for you. This may sound strange, but some people get into JLPT fever and go for N1 because it is the highest achievement. But do you need it? Or would you actually benefit from more conversation practice? You should take some time to honestly evaluate what will be the most useful for you.

N1 can open the door to a lot of jobs and get you an interview with a Japanese company. However, I have often times been able to get gigs and work simply by networking and showing that I’m capable of the level that is required for the job.

That’s not to say that you should abandon the test. It helps you focus and drill skills, like skimming and scanning, that you wouldn’t normally do if you had simply learned in a more open kind of way. And these are valuable skills that will make your life easier with Japanese. But you might need to take some time to focus on other skills that can’t be tested.

Good luck everyone with your studies! I always love to hear from everyone. Contact me about your questions or leave me an awesome comment. Let’s talk soon.

{ 8 comments… add one }
  • Dec May 14, 2018, 11:55 pm

    I know this post is a little bit old. Nevertheless, I’d like to chime in.

    I’ve taken the N2 twice and failed it both times. The first time, I really had no idea at all about how much effort it would be or even what my current level was. It had been many years since I had done any Japanese at all, but the fact that the JLPT existed gave me something to aim for. I went into the first exam with practically no idea of the format or what to expect. I learned the Jouyou kanji in short order, but after that, I didn’t really have a very well-organised study regime. Predictably, I failed.
    The next time around, I had discovered Anki, so a few months after the first test, I got into using that for learning/revising vocabulary. I also bought a bunch of books (Tobira and Kanzen Grammar/Reading/Listening). I got some way into Tobira, but I just couldn’t force myself to work on the more difficult Kanzen books at that time, so apart from Anki and a bit of Tobira, I basically didn’t do much Japanese study for another 6 months or so. Then, with around three months to go, I did manage to get into Kanzen and went through each of the books twice before the exam. This time, I was a lot better prepared, but my reading speed (and my strategy of going for a bare pass in that section with the hope of making up marks in the others) failed me. My reading score this time around was 17/60, which was worse than the first time I tried the test.
    On the third time around, I was determined not to make the same mistakes as the other two times. I wasn’t going to leave a big gap between the last test and taking up studies again. I also wasn’t going to rely on trying to game the system to compensate for my poor reading speed. That obviously didn’t work.
    It obviously takes some time between the test and the results being made available. I thought about whether to try N2 another time or take the N1 next year. I decided that the N1 wasn’t really useful, but that I could no doubt pass N2 in 6 months. However, since I’d already gone through the Kanzen N2 books and it would have been a bit boring to dive back into them again, I decided to “switch gears”, as you said.
    The easiest “level up” you can do is to use Anki to look at the next-level vocabulary. Using it every day had become a fairly ingrained habit, so pretty much as soon as the N2 test was over, I started learning N1 vocab. A little at first, but gradually increasing, with the aim of getting through the first read-through at around the time that the N2 results came out.
    I also decided to graduate from the NHK “Easy” news stories to the real thing. While I didn’t do this every day, I did enough to add around 1,000 new words to my Rikai Anki deck, and I gradually got to the stage where could mostly understand articles without needing to look up too many words (proper nouns were obviously a problem, but apart from that, you start to see the same vocabulary and expressions coming up again and again).
    I also ordered the N1 versions of the Kanzen reading and grammar books. I only got a few pages into the reading book, but I finished the main section of the grammar book. My reasoning here was that if I wanted to be able to approach more native-level material the best use of my time would be to bump up my vocabulary to the next level with Anki and at least have a passing familiarity with the more complex grammar forms (thanks to the N1 Kanzen grammar book, but also in part thanks to The Dictionary of Advanced Japanese Grammar, which I bought at the same time and used to fill in some gaps in my N2 grammar knowledge).
    After the N2, I also decided that I wanted to attempt to read native-level Japanese fiction and essays. I figured that my level wasn’t quite good enough just after the N2 exam, so I would put it off until I’d seen all the new N1 vocabulary and grammar points at least once. However, I did have some reading material ready, such as the Penguin parallel text book, a collection of Murakami short stories and another translated collection of JD Salinger short stories.
    Eventually, I did manage to get around to reading those books, plus a few others that I ordered and were shipped from Asia via surface mail.
    To date, I’ve read the first story/essay of most of the books that I had. I’m half way through the Penguin Parallel Text book, and I’m nearing completion of my first Murakami short story collection in the original Japanese. If I hadn’t spent the time up-front on learning all that extra vocabulary (and, I suppose, the full Juouyou set of kanji that I learned two years ago, plus the odd non-Jouyou kanji that I learned via Anki), reading these stories would have been very rough going. As it turned out, though, most of the reading turned out to be pretty enjoyable.
    Today, as it happens, I decided to take a mock reading test (from Kanzen) to see how I would fare. I figured I’m still not fast enough to answer all the questions in the allotted time, so I gave myself 60 minutes to answer all the long questions at the end and 3/5 of the first short questions and 2/3 of the medium questions that come after. I was pretty delighted to find that I managed to get through all of those and got 12 questions right, incorrectly answering only 4 (leaving 5/21 questions unanswered). Happy because that’s a pass in that section and it gives me plenty of time to answer the vocab/grammar sections and maybe even some extra reading questions the next time I take the test.
    In summary:
    * levelling up straight after your current-level exam opens up new and more interesting material (even if you don’t plan to take the higher level any time soon)
    * next-level vocab (especially) and grammar can be easy enough to work through in plenty of time before you have to prepare for your re-sit
    * they will also make it much easier for you to approach next-level reading material (especially if you take a 多読 approach and try to avoid looking up new words when you first come across them)
    * as you approach N2/N1 levels, reading speed becomes crucial and the only way to do that is to do loads of reading, so this is the main pay-off for learning all that next-level vocab and grammar: it opens up a range of reading material that you like as opposed to just what’s in the textbooks

    So, right now, after spending the last 5~6 months with this “switching gears” strategy, I can definitely say that it works. It’s a hard slog, but also motivating. After doing the mock test today, I’m pretty confident that I should pass the N2 this July. Even more than that, though, the extra effort I put in at the start (just after the last N2 exam) has really proved its worth since I can now read one of my favourite authors in the original Japanese without needing to rush off to look up new words in a dictionary every few sentences. That’s probably the best thing about the “level-up” strategy: once you get to a certain point, you get to realise how arbitrary and unimportant the “levels” actually are. Straight lines transform into spaces… your spaces.

    One final thing. I’d highly recommend the 多読 method of reading, no matter what level you’re at. Basically read for enjoyment and being able to understand the overall gist of a text. If it’s too hard, go find something else. Later, once you’ve got through enough text, you can go back over the same material and either use 多読 again (aiming to read through quicker this time, and perhaps pick up more of the details), or switch to a 精読 style of reading, where your aim is to understand the text 100%, adding new vocabulary and grammar points to Anki or whatever so that the next time you see it, you’ll recognise it and understand it much more fully.


    • Clayton MacKnight May 15, 2018, 12:23 am

      Thanks for the very detailed comment. I’m glad you are doing well with reading. I think it is important to find something that you are interested in to read about. Once you find that, it is pretty easy to have a good reading habit.

    • Victoria August 1, 2020, 11:37 pm


      Thanks Dec for the extensive process explanation (it provides a lot of insight), and thanks Mac for explaining about the jump from N4 to N2, and pointing out that N3 to N2 as well needs a shift in attack method. Knowing this will help me prepare moving forward.

      I have a question though. When Dec writes “多読” vs “精読”, does the former refer to reading a whole section and understanding the gist of a text (though maybe not 100% of the text), while the latter refers to understanding 100% of the text? I am not certain because I also saw the same 多読 on the graded readers, so I want to clarify that the comment is referring to the methodology and not the readers specifically.

      I’ve been learning Japanese for some time now and never took the JLPT, but I want to study in Japan and having at least N2 is highly recommended for university studies (when courses are given in Japanese). As such, I am on the lookout to see about how to prepare for the various levels. I want to take N2 in Dec 2020, but I have a feeling N3 would be more realistic. Reading about this switch in gears though (from both the post and the comment) is also helpful because it identifies some key aspects that are different from N3 and N2.

      Thanks for the clarification on the question above, and this site is really good! (Just found it today).

      • Clayton MacKnight August 3, 2020, 3:23 am

        多読 is translated as “extensive reading”, and basically means you read a lot of material that is just a little difficult. Essentially you are looking for material where you don’t know about 2 or 3 words per page. This helps you build new vocabulary but also build up a ‘feel’ for the vocabulary that you already ‘know’ because you see it in many different contexts over time. This is better than just memorizing the English definition of a word since it will help you use the word more naturally and quickly.

        精読 is translated as “intensive reading” and basically means that you choose material that is quite difficult and where you need to look up about 2 or 3 words per paragraph or more. This is what was traditionally used to learn new vocabulary since it seemed much more efficient because you are learning so many new words per page. However, recent studies seem to suggest that although you might learn more words, you might not be able to use them all that well since you have such a limited number of contexts (maybe just 1).

        These days 多読, extensive reading, is more popular among language teachers for general language learning, but there is still a use for intensive reading. Anyway, you should Google extensive reading or intensive reading for more information since there are a variety of opinions on the matter.

  • Jeremy July 14, 2019, 7:45 pm

    Just wanted to say I’ve started reading the Japanese translations for Harry Potter, and I must recommend them for the N3/N2 levels. It’s written at about a 5th-grade reading level: Beyond childish or learner-oriented language, but very conversational and not “thick” or “difficult” to get through. Lots of examples of every day sentences and how to use common words, and there is furigana on the middle school kanji, but NOT the elementary school kanji, to help in quick-recognition of all the N2 kanji, without slowing you down on the more advanced stuff–qnd also helping build up reading speed. A very good learning tool, and you can even supplement it with the audiobooks–I highly recommend the “Harry Potter” method!

    • Clayton MacKnight July 24, 2019, 1:01 pm

      Yeah, I found them quite useful. They have a lot of descriptive vocabulary, so they are great for conversational Japanese, especially if say, you want to tell a story to someone (duh!). Maybe not the best for JLPT prep, but fun none the less.

  • Aung Myat Ko February 28, 2022, 12:56 pm


    Thanks for the explanation. Currently, I’m starting to self study N2. I’d like to know if So-Matome textbooks and ShinKanzen textbooks are enough for study material. In my country, I also see Speed Master textbooks. Do I also need to buy Speed Master textbooks or are So-Matome and ShinKanzen enough for study material?
    Thanks in advence

    • Clayton MacKnight March 8, 2022, 11:08 am

      I think it all depends on you. So-Matome and ShinKanzen are probably enough for most people as long as you also study native Japanese as well.

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