Micro reading with Anki

I have to admit, I’m not much of a reader. I used to love reading when I was a kid, but I just can’t force myself to sit down and read anything these days. Part of it probably comes from being forced to read a ton of difficult books that I hated during high school, and part of it probably comes from my ADHD and the large number of distractions in my life these days.

So when it comes to learning a language like Japanese, simply not reading anything can obviously be quite detrimental. I’ve tried to force myself to read over the years, but it’s just so annoying, I can never stick with it. Reading would be no problem if I just just jump in and out whenever I want, read a few sentences here, a few sentences there, just whenever I feel like it. But reading to learn requires a bit more setup and time investment than say, just picking up a reader’s digest while on the toilet. For instance, I might want to look up words while I’m reading, keep track of sentences to review later, and things like that. Reading on a digital device has the problem of it being difficult to keep your place in the text saved whenever you are reading a web page or something like that. If I want to just invest five minutes towards reading right now, I literally wont make any progress.

Anki has been a great help to me over the years when it comes to learning Japanese. I can just pop in for five minutes here, five minutes there, and before I know it I’ve spent 30 minutes of my day studying, using nothing but down time that would have been wasted otherwise. I wanted to be able to read the same way. I can’t dedicate 30 minutes to reading something all at once. But if I can put in one minute here, ten minutes there… I would be able to make a lot of progress.

I don’t know if there is any existing term for reading in small chunks at a time, but I’m going to call it micro reading. I spent several days thinking about micro reading and how I could implement it into my life. I searched around for existing software and even considered writing my own dedicated application for it, but then it hit me–Anki is already the perfect platform to implement my idea of micro reading!

Here is the basic concept of how it works:

  1. The text you want to read has to be parsed into a format that can be imported into Anki, one sentence per card. (my Little Charo scripts are perfect for this!)
  2. Tweak some settings in Anki just for your reading deck (settings can be found below)
  3. Go through the reviews to read your text one sentence at a time.
  4. If you understand a sentence, you mark it good/easy. If you don’t understand something in a sentence, fail it.
  5. At a later time, come back and delete all of the cards that you marked good/easy. As for the cards you failed, you can study or research the material further, or move it into another deck for normal reviews.

So first of all, this method can not be used with everything. Physical books or manga obviously wont work. E-books that are locked down with DRM are out of the question too. But articles or stories that you find on websites can be used, as well as things like scripts of games or movies. As long as its plain text in a digital format, it can be modified to work.

Anki Settings

When importing your text, you want to create a special reading deck specifically for these cards. You definitely don’t want to dump them into one of your existing decks! In the import settings, you will also want to be sure to select “Import even if existing note has same first field”. This will keep Anki from discarding duplicates. Because our purpose is to read an entire story or article, we do not want any sentences to be missing!

micro reading import settings

Next, you want to go into the deck options, and set up a new options group specifically for this deck. Again, you definitely don’t want to go changing the options on any existing deck! Now, there is some flexibility here as to exactly how you set this up, but here is how I have done it. I set “steps” to 10080 which is a week. This means that even when I fail a card, it wont come back for a week. The reason for this is because this deck is NOT going to be used for reviewing anything. I don’t want any cards to come back to me a second time! The key thing to remember with this method, is that you are going to have to go back into your deck and do something with your failed cards. How often do you plan to do that? Daily? Weekly? This is what you want to consider when setting up the steps value. You want it to be long enough so that cards don’t start coming back before you have had a chance to clear them out.

Next, make sure “order” is set to “show new cards in order added”, and then I set “new cards/day” to 9999 so I can read as much as I want.

Next there is the “Graduating interval” and “Easy interval.” Anki has three answer buttons for new cards: Again, Good, and Easy. My idea of micro reading has no concept of “good” or “easy”; it simply uses a pass/fail paradigm. Thus, I set both graduating interval and easy interval to the same value. You can feel free to make them different if you think it will help you in some way. The actual value you put for the intervals isn’t very important, I just like it to be clearly different than the interval specified in “steps”.

Finally, you want to make sure that “bury related new cards until the next day” is UNchecked.

micro reading deck options

And so, now you can start reading in Anki! Just go through, read the text on the card, mark it pass (good or easy) if you feel good about it, or mark it fail (again) if you want to look over something on the card later.

Then later on when you have some time, we go into Anki’s card browser, and select the failed cards. You can quickly find all of your failed cards by searching for: “is:learn deck:Reading” (or whatever your reading deck is named)

Now you can take your time with these failed cards, look up words you don’t know, or maybe move the card over into one of your normal review decks. Then, you want to go back and delete all of your passed cards.

Alternate Method

Rather than fussing with your deck settings, you could just simply delete cards that you can read, and suspend cards that you want to check again later. With this setup, you never even actually review any cards, you just simply delete or suspend. Depending on your Anki client(s) this might be a little tricky to do. The desktop Anki client has an annoying shortcut for suspending cards, but I’m sure that could probably be changed some way. The Android client lets you set up gestures to delete and suspend, which is pretty easy to use. I have no idea about the iPhone client. If you ever use the web client, I believe you are stuck using the deck settings method.


I have actually been using this method for about a week now. My objective was primarily to just help me make some amount of progress in reading, as opposed to not reading anything at all. In that regard, it has been a big success. I am actually reading far more than I thought I would! I believe that the biggest advantage of this method is that it completely separates reading from studying. While I am reading something, I don’t have to fuss over whether or not I want to look words up in a dictionary, or if I want to add something into Anki, or whatever. I just read and mark stuff to come back to later. Even if I never do anything with the cards I failed, I at least made some reading progress! This is definitely how I will be doing most of my Japanese reading for the foreseeable future.

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