How to pass the JLPT 1 – Part II

Long, long delayed, here then is part II in my “Studying for the JLPT 1” series of posts. You can find the full table of contents over in the first post, which I recommend reading if you’re just starting out, as I talk about textbooks and other things there.

jlpt 1 splash image - completely unrelated to this post haha
This is completely unrelated to the JLPT, but it seemed sad to not have any pictures at all so here you go

STUDY TIPS

Starting Out

The first thing you need to do when studying for the JLPT I is figure out how much study time you’ll need before to the test, including a little bit of leeway at the end for last-minute brush-ups, sitting extra practise exams, and so forth. In order to do this, you need to figure out your current level.

To figure out your current level, I recommend taking the actual (past) exam from two years ago as an “assessment test” of your current level. It’s important that this be the actual (authentic) exam and not a “mock” exam created by a third-party publisher. Take the exam under “real” test conditions – that means no dictionary, no textbooks, no distractions and a strict time limit like you would have on the actual JLPT.

In most cases, this is going to be a slaughter (and if not, well then, this guide really isn’t for you since you are clearly a badass at the nihongoz). Try not to get discouraged. The important thing is, you need to finish the test (or come as close as you can under the time limit) and then score it. Score yourself strictly – don’t “fudge” things like “Oh I would have gotten that, I just got flustered, so I’ll give myself this point anyway” etc. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong. If it’s right, but you guessed that one and just got lucky, you should probably mark it down as wrong anyway. So on and so forth.

After you finish scoring the test, you’re going to be left with a pretty disappointing mark sheet – and an excellent idea of where your strengths and weaknesses are. This is the starting point for your studies.

In my case, my assessment test showed that I was quite good at listening (passed it handily), pretty good at reading (I passed the section but not with flying colours), so-so at grammar, and really needed to work on kanji/vocabulary. Remember, (for the new JLPT) you need to pass each section with a “minimum score” in addition to scoring a certain percentage on the final exam. If any of your scores are below the section cut-off, then you know these are the places you need to focus on the most, because failing any of them will make you fail the exam. Conversely, if you score highly on any one section (listening, in my case) you know you can save the energy and skip studying (or study only lightly) that section and shift that time to your weaker areas.

Now that you know what you need to study, it’s time to break out the books. Based on the results of your test and strengths/weaknesses, you need to decide which textbooks you want to use, and how much you want to complete from each one. So for example, if your grammar was really terrible, you should plan on completing the entire grammar textbook. As of the 2005 printing, it contains 139 grammar points which need to be learned (not just memorised, learned). If you look at the reading book, it contains about 111 pages of reading problems which need to be completed. And as for the kanji… well, we’ll get to that in the next post.

You need to add up everything that you need to study for the test and then figure out a weekly schedule that will allow you to complete all the studies and still have a couple of weeks left over before the actual test date. Remember, the things you are weaker on will take more time to study (for me, kanji/vocab), and those that you’re stronger you can devote less time to (for example, I didn’t study reading as much as I focused on grammar) or even skip (I didn’t study for listening).

Once you have your weekly (or ideally, daily) schedule and goals, it’s time to get started! If you’re particularly organised you can make a little checklist for each day/week to track your progress, but as you’ll see, we’ll soon be making tons of spreadsheets anyway, so you may want to skip this.

So without further ado, onto the individual section breakdowns.


Grammar

Of all the sections in the JLPT 1, the grammar (and to a lesser extent) and reading sections are the ones that respond the most to studying. And this is a good thing since they’re collectively worth a lot of points.

First, let’s look at grammar. The grammar book presents a list of the JLPT 1 grammars roughly grouped together by “functions” (so for example, all grammars that express the notion of two things happening simultaneously, or all grammars that function as contradictory conjunctions, etc.). The grammar point (along with its variants) is introduced, its definition is given in Japanese, technical details of its usage are listed (does it attach to verbs? nouns? both? should the phrase that follows it be positive? negative? etc.), and then finally, a couple of example sentences.

When first learning the grammars, I found it useful to make a very brief notation of the general meaning in english right above the grammar. Of course there’s a Japanese definition as well, but I find that the English tended to get the general gist of it “into my head” more quickly in the initial stages.

For the English definition, I found that most of the grammars could be described (at least to my thinking) as taking two “arguments” – the thing that precedes the grammar in the sentence (which I referred to as “T.P.” – “The Preceding”) and the thing that comes after the grammar in the sentence (which I indicated with a tilde “~”). Using this brief notation, I found it easy to make very compact and easy summaries of the general meaning in English.

For example:

〜にひきかえ

Japanese Definition: 〜に比べると反対に
English Definition: as opposed to T.P., ~
Example Sentence: 去年の夏が猛暑であったのにひきかえ, 今年は冷夏が心配されている。
English Meaning: As opposed to last year’s summer which was ridiculously hot, this year we are worried that it will be a cool summer.

I also put optional notations in parends “()” and add brief additional usage notes if needed.

〜はおろか

Japanese Definition: 〜はもちろん
English Definition: (of course) not only (not) T.P., but also (not) ~
*usually a negative sentence. T.P. is usually a greater degree than ~.
Example Sentence: 弟は内気で、人前でスピーチはおろか簡単な挨拶さえできない
English Meaning: My brother is shy, and not only can he not give speeches in front of people, he also can’t even say simple greetings to them.

Try not to get too bogged down in making notes and English definitions – they’re just there to get the initial grammar point into your head. The actual learning will take place in the next step. Speaking of which…

The main difficulty with learning grammar for the JLPT is that they are quite tricky when they ask you problems on the test. If you were given a sentence and there are four completely different types of grammar listed as options, then it would be fairly easy to pick out the correct one to go in the blank. But usually four very similar grammarsare presented as options which makes things much harder as their are subtle differences between them, but they all generally mean the same thing. Another type of problem that often crops up presents the various forms of a grammar point, and require you distinguish which one can slot into the the blank, which is preceded by say, an i-adjective. All the grammars mean the same thing, but one form can only connect to an i-adjective, another to a na-adjective/noun, another to a verb, etc.

Thus, in order to have a reasonable chance of passing the grammar section, you need to have a pretty nuanced sense of the differences between the various grammars that all express the idea of “two things happen simultaneously,” for example, and you also need to know which forms of a given grammar can connect to what. This is trivial for a native speaker since they learned the language and its usage “naturally” but difficult for people who try to learn the grammar by rote memorisation or from a strictly technical/academic standpoint.

For example, if you asked your average American English speaker to about the “subjunctive mood” or “the second conditional” the chances are pretty high they couldn’t explain to you the grammar behind it, but they would have no problems filling in the appropriate word in a sentence like:

“If I _____ the president, I would lower the taxation rate.”

The answer of course, is “were.” Why? The technical explanation is that in the second conditional, the “to be” verb is always conjugated as “were,” not “was,” regardless of the subject. Did you know that? Probably not, but you still could fill in the blank without hesitation because you have an intuitive understanding of the grammar. It’s this “innate” knowledge of grammar that will save your butt when you’re working under time pressure, and it’s the ultimate goal of your grammar studies.

So how do you develop an “innate” knowledge of grammar? The same way native speakers of a language do – by producing “output” and receiving feedback on that output from speakers around you. If all you do is study and memorise grammar (“input”) then you will struggle when you need to produce “output” (essentially, make a correct sentence) on the test.

Thus, after learning the general meaning of each grammar and looking over the example sentences, I would sit down and write 5 original sentences utilising each form of that grammar. If there are different meanings or sub-forms for the grammar, make sure you write example sentences for them too. The key point is, you want to practise using that grammar in as many different ways as you can.

After you finish writing the sentences, you have to get them checked by a native speaker. Now in Japan this is fairly easy, just run them by your friends, co-workers or anyone whom you can bribe with candy/chocolate/Coach handbags :P . If you’re overseas, admittedly this will be harder, but there are Japanese people all over the world and all you need to do is start looking and I’m sure you will find them. Set up a conversation exchange partnership, use a Skype language exchange program, make a penpal, whatever. The point is, find a native Japanese speaker and have them check your sentences.

If you’re doing it right (that is to say, trying to write challenging, unique sentences that aren’t just straight copies of the ones already in the book), you’re going to get back papers with loads of red marks on them. This is good – it means that you tried to use the grammar but didn’t do it right. Now, figure out why what you wrote was wrong. The best way of course is just to ask them and they’ll quickly explain the nuances to you – soon you’ll start to develop an innate sense of why, for example, even if “technically” a grammar looks like it could fit in a sentence, in reality it is only used in negative sentences to express disdain and so it doesn’t fit in what you tried to write, etc. Once you get the feedback, go back and re-write the sentences you got wrong. Then show it to them again. Rinse and repeat until you manage to bang out spot-on sentences for each grammar point. Congratulations. This grammar is (almost) yours now. Time to move on to the next one. Repeat the cycle until you’re done with the book.

Now make no mistake, learning the grammar this way takes a ton of time. You’re going to be producing 5, 10 maybe even 15 sentences (or as close as you can come) for each grammar, and you’re probably going to have to re-write at least half of those. There’s going to be checking, re-writing, re-checking, re-re-rewriting, etc. Producing output takes time and learning from it takes even more time, but you need to sit back and consider that you are attempting to do in a few short months what takes native Japanese speakers years of schooling and living in an all-Japanese environment to achieve. It’s not going to be a walk in the park. But if you consistently make an effort to write sentences for each grammar point and get them checked, and then re-write and learn from your mistakes, I guarantee you by the end of the book, you are going to own the grammar section of the JLPT.

In addition to the studying method above, there are a couple other things which I did in the grammar section. The first is, I kept a spreadsheet which listed all the grammars in one column, and their brief English meanings in another, using the “T.P./~” notation from above. I updated the spreadsheet after I finished studying each day, and once every couple of weeks I would print it out and put it into my “study materials folder.” This is a folder which contained my current spreadsheets (grammar, kanji and vocabulary, the latter two of which we’ll get to in a minute) and some flash cards, etc. that I carried with me everywhere. I would use any downtime I had to get a bit of studying in (so whilst waiting for a train, at a coffee shop etc.). The main purpose of this spreadsheet is not to learn the grammar in depth, but rather just to keep their general meaning “fresh” on your brain, until you have time to really ingest them and learn them intuitively using the method above. Thus its usefulness is high in the beginning when you’re still encountering the grammar patterns for the first time, but by the end, when you should have written and had checked all your sentences for each grammar, it’s pretty much superfluous.

A few things the spreadsheet remains useful for is providing a quick method to look up a general english meaning of any random given grammar (the way it’s laid out in the book it takes a fair while of flipping back and forth), and also for saving you from having to carry the book around with you all the time – most of your time will be spent writing sentences and for this you only really need a reference sheet with the actual grammar and its general meaning on it – no sense in lugging around the entire textbook with you 24/7.

Another super important thing you absolutely must do when studying grammar is to keep a highlighter handy with you at all times and highlight any and all phrases, vocabulary and kanji you don’t know – whether in an example sentence in the book, or a phrase your native japanese speaker writes when correcting your sentences, etc.. Anything you don’t know, no matter where it is, highlight it.

At the end of each day’s study session (or if you have no time, once a week), flip through what you’ve just studied in the grammar book, and find all the things you have highlighted. We are going to make two more spreadsheets. One is a “kanji” spreadsheet and the other is a “vocabulary/phrase” spreadsheet. (you can combine the two if you want since they sorta overlap, but I prefer to keep them separate).

In these spreadsheets, you write down the kanji/phrase you highlighted in one column, and then you have to look up the reading (if required) and the meaning (in english/japanese, up to you) and write them down in the next column. These spreadsheets are going to be your life and your key to passing the kanji/vocabulary section, so update them religiously when you finish studying and print them out once a week, and carry them with you in the study materials folder everywhere. I’ll explain more about how to use them below, but for now, just make sure anything and everything you don’t know gets highlighted and entered into this spreadsheet.

And that’s about it for grammar.

Reading

A lot of people I’ve talked to seem to struggle with the reading section. It’s long, filled with mountains of unknown vocabulary, covers a myriad of topics, and worth a ton of points. The biggest complaint a lot of people have seems to be that they run out of time and can’t finish all the passages. Since each passage has a bunch of questions associated with it, and since each question is worth quite a few points, this can end up being deadly to your chances of passing.

Thus, when studying for the reading section, you have two main goals:

  1. Improve your reading speed
  2. Improve your reading comprehension

The goals themselves are pretty straightforward, but it may not be immediately obvious how to achieve them.

When it comes to improving your reading speed, there are two main components to it. One is improving your technical knowledge of the language – if you’re sitting the JLPT 1, chances are you’re pretty familiar with how Japanese works, so with no spaces you know that sometimes you’ll look at a whole mess of hiragana (or kanji) in a row and you’ll need to sit for a few seconds to try and figure out how to “parse” it. Or how, given the predilection for omitting the subject in sentences, you can sometimes waste precious time having to read and re-read the same passage over and over again trying to figure out who is saying what, or what object is being (implicitly) referred to, etc. Over the course of the various passages, this wasted time can really add up and shave off precious minutes from your reading/problem solving time. Your goal is to eliminate this wasted time.

The second major component of improving reading speed is becoming familiar with the various structures of written Japanese. There are different kinds of passages, just like in English exams – long soft-science essays, short “anecdotes”, biographies, technical passages, sometimes even random things like faux “company memos,” etc. Each one has its own unique “structure” and style and if you can become familiar with them, you will be able to get through them much more quickly and know exactly what to look for and where to look for it.

Both of these components of improving your reading speed respond equally well to a very basic method of study: read as much as you can, as often as you can. As you read more, you’ll begin to become better at just glancing at a passage (or long string of hiragana, for example) and intuitively understand how it falls into words. Or you’ll be able to read a long conversation and not get lost with who is saying what, or what is being referred to. Similarly, the more exposure you have to different kinds of source material, the more familiar you will become with the various characteristics of each.

Not much to it, is there? :)

Of course, how to read requires a little explanation, which we’ll get to in a second.

The second goal – improving your reading comprehension – partially overlaps the process of improving reading speed, but adds the requirement of needing to know vast amounts of vocabulary (and thus by definition, kanji). After all, if you literally can’t read the words, you can expect to comprehend the passage, can you?

(Incidentally, I think this is where Asian test takers (particularly Chinese test takers) have a huge advantage over westerners. The glossary provided at the end of each passage (ostensibly to clarify words you might not know) is spartan and useless at best, and a cruel joke at worst (they’ll give you the japanese definition of a super-easy katakana words like ドクター that you can easily sound out, and make nary a mention of the half-dozen or so technical words like 嗜眠性脳炎 (encephalitis lethargica). So often westerners are left to struggle through the passage and hope they can try to figure out enough of the unknown vocabulary to pass, whilst Chinese students can often look at a compound and hazard a basic guess as to its meaning, even if they don’t know the exact reading. *sigh* But this is neither here nor there, so back to our study guide…)

Thus, to improve your reading comprehension, you can’t rely solely on “innate” knowledge that you will “naturally” build up as you read more and more – you’re going to need to make a concerted effort to identify vocabulary you don’t know, write them down, look them up, and study them, so that the next time you encounter them, you will know what they mean. If you don’t make sure to write down and look up unknown vocabulary, zero learning will take place. Your mind will just blank out and skip over that word each and every time you see it, which means when you encounter it on the test, you will basically be as S.O.L. as a newbie seeing that word for the very first time.

So then. How can we address the two goals of improving our reading speed and improving our reading comprehension at the same time, in as efficient a way as possible? Just reading through the textbook directly isn’t the best way. The textbook is pretty straightforward, and relatively short compared to the grammar book, yet if you don’t use it correctly, it’s possible to complete the entire thing and derive very little benefit from it.

The book is divided into two main “halves” and each half contains a number of sections. Each section has three passages in it, each with their own questions, and each passage has a time limit. How much you choose to cover each time you sit down to study is up to you (I read Japanese on a daily basis at work so I would aim to complete one set of three passages each time; if you live overseas without daily exposure to Japanese texts, you may find a single passage takes the entire period) – just work at your own pace.

Regardless of how many you choose to read per session, the main unit of study in my opinion is a single passage and its associated questions. The book just gives you the passage, its time limit and the questions with no real instructions other than “read this and answer these.” This is not a good way of studying, in my opinion.

Rather, what I believe is that we need to derive two sets of “figures” for each passage/question set. The first figure is the score we would get under timed, real test-like conditions. This means you have to read and finish everything under the time limit and without using a dictionary. This is the rawest measure of how you can expect to perform on the test, and also a frank assessment of your “actual” reading speed/comprehension.

The second figure is the score you would get under “ideal” conditions. This means with no time-limit pressure, and with access to a dictionary/grammar book. The reason for the two different figures is that we want to try to derive some meaningful information about our strengths and weaknesses. In theory, under “ideal” conditions, with a dictionary, etc. and no time limit, ought to be much higher than our “test” score. Our goal is to get our “test” score to equal our “ideal” score, and both of them to be as close to perfect as possible.

To get these two figures, open up to your selected passage and start the timer for the indicated length of time. Don’t use a dictionary – just read and answer as many questions as you can before time runs out. When time runs out, score only what you managed to answer – any questions you didn’t have a chance to get to get marked as wrong. Write this score in the lower right hand corner of the page. This is your “test” score.

Now, bust out your dictionary and a highlighter and re-read the passage. This time around, your goal is to take as much time as needed to fully read and comprehend the passage and answer all the questions correctly. Look up what you don’t know. Don’t be afraid to change your answers to previous questions if needed. (in the initial scoring, you should only mark down whether an answer is right or wrong on the score sheet – don’t make any marks on the book/the questions themselves since you may change your mind the second read through, so don’t give yourself a hint. ) With the highlighter, make sure – just like in the grammar section, make sure to highlight any and everything you encounter that you don’t know – vocabulary, kanji, grammar etc. These things are all going to be entered into our spreadsheets later, and will form the basis for improving our reading comprehension.

When you are satisfied that you have comprehended the passage and answered the questions to the best of your ability, score yourself again. Write down this score in the lower right hand corner of the page, underneath the initial score. What you just wrote down is your “ideal” score.

So now that you have these two scores, it’s time to dissect them. I’m going to assume that in all cases your bottom score is higher than your top score (or else they’re equal).

Start with the bottom (“ideal”) score first. If this score is close to perfect, then you’re good to go. Assuming that your top score is lower than the bottom score, you know that your primary problem is not having enough time to finish up everything (reading speed/familiarity with the questions). This is a pretty good position to be in, since you can quickly improve this.

On the other hand, if your bottom score is far, far away from perfect, then you’re going to have some work to do. You know that your problem is probably not only reading speed, but also some fundamental issues with reading comprehension or a failure to understand what is being asked. (remember, if you can’t comprehend and answer the questions even with all the time in the world and a dictionary, you clearly have some work to do on basic comprehension.) So you’re going to need to bring up your bottom score (your comprehension ability) before you can worry about the top figure (reading speed) – no sense in rushing through a passage if you’re not understanding anything at all.

So how to bring up your reading comprehension? Just as in the grammar section, you’re going to need to start looking up every word, kanji or phrase you highlighted and then put them into the kanji and vocabulary spreadsheets you’re keeping. Then, just as before, print these spreadsheets out at least once a week, carry them with you everywhere, and spend your downtime looking them over. You need to learn them well – the idea is, as you make your way through the book (and the list of entries in your spreadsheets grow) you should begin to encounter words which you previously didn’t know – only this time you should know their meaning. The benefit of this approach is that it sort of “selects” for the most useful words – phrases or vocabulary that only appear once or twice probably will remain unfamiliar to you (as well they should as they’re rare) but those that keep cropping up (and are consequently probably quite useful to know) across the different reading passages – you’re going to keep highlighting and putting into your spreadsheets and studying until you discover that you know them. Good thing too, since they’ll likely show up on the test somewhere.

Of course, for some things which you can’t “look up” – such as vague sentences, unclear expressions, or perhaps even entire passages where you’ve re-read them multiple times but still don’t know what’s going on – you’re going to need to enlist the aid of a native speaker. Ask someone (perhaps the same person who is looking over your grammar sentences?) to explain what is happening, and make sure you understand their explanation. If you got the answer to a question wrong and you still don’t know why, ask them to explain why your answer is wrong and why the right answer is right. Don’t stop until you understand!! This is important, or else you’ll be right back at square one the next time you encounter a similar situation.

Anyway, over time you will naturally see that both your bottom and top scores (“ideal” and “test” scores) will come up – but hopefully the top one will rise more (as you get faster at reading) and soon the two will be in parity – and near perfect. And when you reach this point (towards the end of the book) you can rest assured that your reading speed and comprehension have improved to the point where you will probably have no problems completing this section of the test.

Epilogue

Okay, that’s enough for now. Stay tuned for the next sections (listening, kanji/vocabulary and much more) soon. Happy studying, and if you have any questions, feel free to post them in the comments below (or e-mail me) and I’ll answer them to the best of my ability!

Now listening to: Agulo – Fire Sign (feat. David Berkeley) (Steve Brian Remix)

7 Reactions

  1. Ben

    I’ve asked so many people who have passed JLPT1 what their study methods were but none were as comprehensive and helpful as your post.
    This is just amazing. I especially like the reading comprehension/speed advice.
    Thank you!

  2. Allyson

    Thanks. I started doing this and it is already helping. I really like the two score idea.

  3. kori

    ah man, after failing JLPT2 twice, and then goofying off for a year plus, I’ve decided to see if I can manage not to fail N3…
    yeah, a schedule… one that actually includes studying rather than just carrying to book around in my bag? oh… that would help, huh.
    super best of luck on N1. I’m a bit in awe of people who pull it off.

  4. Michaelpanda

    @Kori: good luck with the JLPT! If you need any studying advice, don’t hesitate to e-mail me :P
    @Allyson: good luck! I’m glad to hear that you found some of the info useful. I’m going to write the next part in the series sometime later this month.
    @Ben: You’re welcome! I found that my reading improved a lot using the method above, so I hope it works for you too. Ganbatte!

  5. axel

    I just found your blog by chance. I must say I really like your tips but the question is: when will you post the rest?

  6. michaelpanda

    @Axel: I’m sorry! I’ve been so busy recently, but I know that the next JLPT is coming up in like, 2 weeks haha. So I’ll try my best to get it up in time for that (but might be a little bit late for study tips at that point!) What level will you be sitting?

  7. axel

    I am sitting for Level2 (for now) for July next year so I have plenty of time.
    I just found your tips very relevant so far really and I will surely use them.