University of Wisconsin Independent LearningGerman 391: German for Reading Knowledge
Supplemental Course Materials

If you are not enrolled in this course, learn more and register online at the Independent Learning catalog. This course is offered worldwide by University of Wisconsin-Extension Independent Learning for transferable college credit, and is taught by UW-Madison Continuing Studies staff.

Or you might be looking for other UW-Madison services relating to German for reading knowledge.

Getting Started

  1. Make sure you can log in to D2L, and get help from UW Independent Learning Student Services if you have any trouble.
  2. Read the instructions in the Course Syllabus (in D2L) and on this website.

Getting Help

  • Questions about how to submit your assignments online, your registration, deadlines, exams, proctors, credits, transcripts, etc.? Contact UW Independent Learning Student Services by phone, live chat, e-mail, or in person. Many of your questions may be answered already in the "Policies" Web site.
  • Questions about learning German? Contact your instructor, either Dr. Alan Ng at or Dr. Sarah Korpi at .

Course Textbook

The required textbook for this course is the free, "open," online textbook A Foundation Course in Reading German (link opens in new window).

Be sure to review the “Tips for Using this Textbook” section. You will find review sections offering further sentences for translation practice, including sample translations, after Units 4, 8, 12, and 16. Be sure to review the Reference sections, too, for material that may be useful to you throughout the course.


Each unit concludes with a writing assignment consisting of carefully selected sentences for you to translate into English. Complete each written assignment only after you have studied its corresponding unit carefully. These assignments treat the concepts of grammar, syntax, and word-building that have been introduced in the unit at hand, and they also incorporate material from previous units. In this way, the assignments not only allow you to work with new concepts, they also give you a chance to practice concepts already covered.

It is therefore important that you have mastered a particular unit before moving on to the next unit. The best way to do ensure that is to avoid submitting an assignment until you have reviewed and applied your instructor’s feedback on the preceding assignment.

You are encouraged to spend time on relevant supplementary practice opportunities before submitting your assignment for grading. Consider your written assignments as equivalent to weekly graded quizzes in a traditional classroom course.

Since Independent Learning courses are self-paced, you have the freedom to pursue actual competency at your own pace, and likewise, we can ensure that competency is required in order to complete the course. If you submit an assignment that would earn an “F,” you will be instead offered opportunities to revise and resubmit the assignment (the number of such opportunities may be limited within reason). In that situation, your instructor may provide general feedback and support about skills you need to focus on, but will not give you a grade and specific feedback on your submitted translations until you submit a passing assignment. You will not be permitted to proceed to any subsequent assignments until you earn at least a “D” on the preceding assignment.

The final assignment offers you an extensive choice of reading passages that also provides you with additional reading and translation practice material for your use at any point during this course.

Remember to submit your assignment files with the original assignment included, not just your responses. You can avoid some errors by keeping the original German sentence right visible right next to your translation as you check your work. See below for more instructions about how to do your assignments.


You can expect that your complete assignment submissions will be graded within two business days normally, and definitely within five business days, unless the instructor has shared notice of a short-term absence. To get notified as soon as your assignment has been graded, you must follow these instructions:

Each sentence you translate in Assignments 1-4 is worth 4 points each (60 points total). Each sentence in Assignments 5-16 is worth 5 points each (75 points total), except for the three longer sentences in Assignments 15 and 16, so that those two assignments are worth a total of 80 points. In Assignment 5, Part 2 of the assignment is worth an additional 5 points (for 80 points total). The texts for Assignment 17 vary in point value: the longer texts are worth more points, so that the percentage-based grading scale remains consistent.

I subtract points from translations according to accuracy: one point for errors which both contradict the meaning of the original German text and would mislead a reader who wanted to know what the German text meant. I subtract a half-point for errors which indicate you probably didn't understand the German perfectly but your error would only mildly or subtly mislead your reader.

Parenthetical explanations are fine with me, as long as they are explanations of your translation, not alternative meanings. Sometimes English is more ambiguous than German, so letting me know that you understood the specific meaning in the German original is very helpful to me. A classic example is translating German pronouns ihr/euer/du/dein/Sie/Ihr which have no English equivalent other than the ambiguous "you/yours," so adding a "(plural, familiar)" or "(polite)" remark might be necessary. Whereas if you offer alternative translations, then I have to be fair to other students and only consider your main (or leftmost, when ambiguous) translation for grading purposes.

The bottom line is whether a reader of your translation, who has no idea what the German text was, would end up with an understanding which does not explicitly contradict some aspect of the German text in its real-world meaning. That doesn't mean you need to be knowledgeable in every scientific field covered in this course – although sometimes a little research into the sentence's subject matter and vocabulary may help you understand the German sentence better. I only assign grade-point value to information one can directly derive from the standalone sentence using just the rules of German language and a good dictionary.

How to Type in German

German teacher and ex-Kommilitonin of mine, Nancy Thuleen, explains "Typing Umlauts [and ß] on a PC and Mac" here:

General Study Tips


Proficiency in reading a foreign language, especially for purposes of scholarship, demands intensive study and practice as well as patience. Whereas standard grammar curricula are designed to introduce students to many aspects of a foreign language over a period of several semesters, and thus maintain a relatively slow pace of introducing "technical" challenges, reading knowledge courses arrive quite quickly at a sophisticated level of language usage. For this reason, students must be prepared to devote time to the assignments and readings, many of which may appear rather intimidating at first glance. Because reading knowledge courses deal with the target language at the level of grammatical structure, students unfamiliar with basic principles of grammar, such as direct and indirect objects, verb tense, and the like, must pay careful attention to their treatment in the textbook and consult other grammatical texts if necessary.

This University of Wisconsin Independent Learning course is designed and taught to meet the same academic standards as a traditional on-campus course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Expectations for your performance as an Independent Learning student are at the same high level.

Study vs. Assignments: Reading Long Prose vs. Translating Disconnected Sentences

As with learning any kind of language skill, your success in this course is all a matter of skill and practice – simply understanding and knowing language “rules” isn’t of much practical value in the real world. Only after you’ve internalized those rules through repetition, so that they’re easy and automatic, do they become useful.

So think of the course assignments as your weekly quizzes. Whereas the bulk of your practice should be on your own, before doing the assignment, by using any sort of German text. (See German Texts to Read for suggestions, or “do repetitions” on the assigned sentences.) The assignments you show me are your chance to test and confirm those new skills (and then tweak them after getting my assignment feedback) before you move on.

The exercise of translating standalone sentences makes you more aware of the mechanics and semantics of the German language. When you read longer prose, you are actually often engaging “metalinguistic” skills of interpreting stories, cultures, and situations, which are skills we assume all 391 students already have, and which we are not teaching or assessing in this course, and which in many cases let a reader figure out meaning without actually understanding some of the linguistic details. So the disconnected sentences of the assignments are necessary to assess your control of the details of what’s being stated in German in black and white.

Again, these assignments are your “weekly quizzes,” whereas reading longer prose is a valuable way to spend your own study time before tackling the assignments. Reading prose is where you can comfortably learn - by absorbing in context - many of the “gray areas” of reading skills that cannot be efficiently explained by a textbook, lecture, or dictionary. The more you read on your own, the easier time you will have with the “gray area” challenges in the assignments.

Recommended Textbooks

If you find that our course textbook uses grammatic terminology and concepts with which you're not totally comfortable, I recommend this book: Cecile Zorach and Charlotte Melin. English Grammar for Students of German. Olvia and Hill Press (latest edition).

You may also find the online "German for Reading Knowledge Tutorial" at University of Texas useful, including a glossary explaining many English grammatical terms used in this course, and tips on using a German-English dictionary.

If you would like more detailed and/or alternative explanations of (and exercises in) German grammar at an advanced level, I recommend this book: Handbuch zur deutschen Grammatik. Ed. J. Rankin, L. Wells. Houghton Mifflin (latest edition). Like the Zorach/Melin book, it is intended primarily for students who are learning how to write (not just read) German, but nevertheless you may find it very handy.

We can recommend the online German practice exercises (involving not just reading, but also writing, speaking, and listening) available at no charge at

Some good-quality free, online vocabulary reference works include:

How to Write a Translation

Follow this process for every course assignment:

  1. Begin by skimming the entire sentence (or passage) to estimate the general topic. If there is a title or heading above the passage, read that first. For each sentence, first read for the gist of the sentence without stopping at words you don’t understand. Before you work on a better comprehension of a difficult sentence or phrase, read the surrounding text to make sure you understand the context.
  2. Follow the sentence-diagramming instructions when a particular sentence or phrase is not transparent to you, or when it seems both important and tricky.
  3. Try to guess the meanings of unknown words from their context. Read the sentence through a couple of times before consulting the textbook glossary or your dictionary.
  4. As you translate a particular sentence, first write a phrase-by-phrase draft translation (per steps #5 and #6 in the sentence-diagramming instructions). Keep in mind our advice on how to use a bilingual dictionary.
  5. Then rewrite that phrase-by-phrase translation into a sensible, well-formed English sentence that carries the closest possible meaning of the original German sentence. For some long German sentences, dividing the translation into two or more English sentences is a better way to write a clear, readable translation.
  6. Be sure to compare your final translation against the original German sentence and its diagram, since it's easy to lose track of that in the above sequence of restructurings and revisions. For assignments, write your translation directly below each German original, so that you can easily and constantly compare them as you work.
  7. Keep in mind that all languages operate on different principles. Translations which call attention to the language from which they come are inferior to ones that sound natural. The goal and bottom line of using and reading any language is communication. In this course, your priority is clear and accurate communication of the German text's meaning.
  8. Ask a friend who knows nothing about German to read your translation. If the English doesn't make sense on its own, then there's highly likely a problem with your understanding and translation of the German. Wherever your friend stumbles on your English, that's exactly where to go back to the German text to review your comprehension. Side note: if your English doesn't make sense on its own, then for grading purposes your comprehension must be assumed to be incomplete or incorrect.

How to Analyze and Translate Complex Sentences (Sentence Diagramming)

Below are links to two resources which guide you step-by-step to gain skill in diagramming the structure of complex English sentences. Many of the concepts there will be things you can apply exactly the same way to reading German. This will really help you to visualize the meaningful relationships between the phrases of a sentence, and how to retain those meaningful relationships while writing your translations, such as when you need to change the word order of a sentence without losing or corrupting its meaning:

You can think of sentence diagramming as a safer, easier way to approach comprehension in stages, with "semi-translations," before reaching a final translation. It's very risky to translate any foreign language word-by-word, because the particular meaning of any word is determined by its context. So first you need to recognize the context before pinning down the meaning of a word. The best way to do that is to analyze the syntax first, based merely on grammatical clues (of which there are plenty in German) and word order rules – exactly the things that are the focus of this entire course.

Here's how to start very easily, even in Unit 1 of this course. When approaching a new sentence:

  1. Find the main verb. Is it conjugated for a singular or plural subject?
  2. Find the subject phrase. Use case markers (article forms, adjective endings, etc.) to help you locate things in nominative case, and also verify that what you think is the subject matches the conjugated verb in terms of singular/plural status.
    • Side note: by "phrase" I mean the entire grammatical unit, for example in the English sentence "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog," the subject phrase is "the quick brown fox."
  3. Find any object phrases. Use case markers to help you find things in accusative and dative cases.
  4. (... identify other kinds of phrases, covered later in this course ...)
  5. Arrange the above "chunks" of German into standard English word order: 1) subject phrase - 2) verb phrase - 3) object phrases - 4) other phrases. Note that you may decide once you're done with step 6 that you can safely order the phrases more like the original German phrase order.
  6. Start using your dictionary to draft translations one phrase at a time, starting from the core of the sentence (S-V-O) and working towards the dependent parts -- not simply from left to right in the original German sentence.

This relatively straightforward procedure will make a huge difference in the accuracy and quality of your understanding.

Eventually you can streamline the above task to simply marking up the German text with underlines or circles or brackets (so you can "see" the phrase units) and the abbreviations S, V, DO, IDO, PP etc. Then you can read the German sentence in a more English-like order: S - V - IDO - DO - PP - etc.

The various Syntax Untangler games assigned to you in this course, or offered in the "Unit-Specific Grammar" section below, help you practice some sentence-diagramming skills with immediate feedback.

If you want to share your diagram with me, here's a way of formatting a diagram that's easy to work with when typing on a computer. For example, to diagram the German sentence, "An der Leine fängt der Hund keinen Hasen" you could present a diagram as:

S (singular): der Hund
V: fängt
O (accusative, singular): keinen Hasen
Prepositional phrase: an der Leine

You can show more complex structures of meaning by using indenting, for example for "Man wird alt wie ein Haus und lernt nie aus":

S: Man
V1: wird
Adj: alt
Adverbial phrase: wie ein Haus
V2: lernt ... aus
Adverb: nie

This shows that wie ein Haus modifies alt and nie modifies lernt ... aus.

Dictionary Advice

One of the learning objectives of this course is that you will become comfortable with using a German-English dictionary. The age of the dictionary edition you use is less important than its comprehensiveness, which you can roughly measure by its number of pages. The recommended dictionaries for this course are around 2,000 full-size pages each. If you plan on applying your knowledge of German in a specific field or industry, you may also wish to acquire a specialized German-English dictionaries such as a business dictionary, a technical dictionary, theological dictionary, etc.

Remember that bilingual dictionaries do not offer definitions, only suggested translations, often without specifying a context. Therefore, it is unwise to simply “lift” a translation out of the dictionary and insert it into your English sentence. Instead, survey the range of translations your dictionary offers to get an idea of the "meaning," and then keep that range in mind while reading the sentence, so that you can imagine appropriate English expressions for that particular context.

Also keep in mind that the order in which a dictionary lists translations is not usually in the order of "best" or "most common." Often the order is more about which meanings are historically older. And sometimes there is no significance at all to order - the dictionary editors can't avoid putting something first or last, even if they don't want to!

The Reverse Look-Up Trick

When you are considering a range of English translations that might work, try looking up those English translation options over in the English-German section of your dictionary. Can you get the original German back again? That will sometimes help you clarify your decision about which English word fits.

Look Forward to Using a Real Dictionary

A “real” dictionary actually defines the meaning of words, whereas bilingual dictionaries offer sample translations. Of course just like with English dictionaries, you need to be a somewhat advanced reader to use one, but at some point later in this course you'll reach that point. You'll find it gives you much more confidence in your learning and understanding of German vocabulary. I recommend the Duden Deutsches Universalwörterbuch, for example. You may have to shop at to find such a "real" German dictionary.

How Do I Make Sure My Translation Is Complete?

There are many occasions when a German term or phrase doesn't have a word-for-word correspondence in English, so you "leave it out." Take, for example, most German reflexive verbs (covered in Unit 5), for which you "ignore" the reflexive pronoun in your translation. When you're in doubt about whether you need to clearly include a translation of a particular German word or grammatical feature, consider how your translation would differ if the German sentence had also omitted it. A helpful rule to keep in mind might be: If you were to make a change in the German sentence, it should result in a different English translation. If your translation would not reflect that difference in the German, then there’s a problem in your translation.

Example: Wir waren enttäuscht mit dem Film und nachher verlangte unser Geld zurück.

You could translate this as "We were disappointed with the film and demanded our money back," or as "We were disappointed with the film and afterwards demanded our money back." You could argue that the first translation implies the meaning of nachher. Consider, then, that the German sentence could also have omitted nachher, and left it as an implied meaning. But it didn't; there was a clear choice to include nachher, perhaps to emphasize the sequence of events in time. So your translation needs to reflect this. Here's the rule again: "If you were to make a change in the German sentence, it should result in a different English translation. If your translation would not reflect that difference in the German, then there’s a problem in your translation."

Another factor to consider is whether your translation is actually comprehensible English. The bottom line again is: Would a reader who does not know German get the same real-world meaning from your translation as I do when I read the German sentence?

Learning Vocabulary

This course only advises and guides you on how to learn vocabulary; see the tips below as well as the textbook's "Introduction" and its many "Word Formation" sections. The task of memorizing vocabulary is entirely optional and open for you to approach in your preferred learning style. Some of you may have a personal motivation to memorize German vocabulary for reasons beyond the requirements of this course. All of you will find that the more core vocabulary you have memorized, the faster and more effortlessly you will understand written German.

  • Make categorized lists of important words.
    • Start with “basic” lists such as household items and actions; bodily parts, actions, and sensations; food; family; and other everyday life experiences and items. These basic vocabulary often contribute root words to more advanced or abstract vocabulary.
    • The most important words to learn are simply the ones that you encounter most frequently. You should make your own vocabulary lists based on your unique needs and interests in reading German. You could start with the words you encounter in the textbook and your assignments.
    • Another idea is to pick a German text you want to read, skim it, make a list of the vocabulary words which you want to learn, and then after you’ve learned that list, you can comfortably review and reinforce your vocabulary by reading that text at any time.
  • It is helpful to learn a little about German pronunciation before you begin learning German vocabulary. Begin by using your dictionary’s reference sections to familiarize yourself with the letter combinations that form sounds in German. To name a few examples, it is helpful to know that “sch” and “ch” are unique and common sounds; which vowel combinations form dipthongs, such as “eu” or “äu”; and that “sh” is not a phonetic unit - so therefore you should recognize that one part of the word ends in "s" and the next part starts with "h" (imagine how useful that is when reading compound words and when differentiating roots from suffixes and prefixes).
  • How to learn these lists really depends on your personal learning style. There are many methods and tools for learning vocabulary, ranging from oral quizzes with a friend to memory-training software. Each student responds better to different methods, so you should experiment to find out which works best for you.
    • If you do well with flashcard exercises, you can simply make your own low-tech ones.
    • Or you may prefer to use any of the large number of free and non-free computer programs that let you enter your own wordlists and add intelligent drilling strategies. Many can observe which words you have trouble with and automatically focus you on those. A free online example recommended by a student in this course is:
    • Some people do better when working with a (human) partner.
    • Some people learn best by reading as many real texts as possible, thus learning vocabulary “the natural way” by encountering words in their real-world contexts and usages. See Additional Resources: German Texts to Read.

It's amazing how quickly your vocabulary can grow when you simply work on it every day for 20 minutes in any manner you like.

Why Do You Need this Course?

In this day and age of increasingly powerful and available automatic translation software, you may feel cynical about being required to learn how to read and correctly understand written German on your own. If the ability to read and understand a foreign language rested simply on a set of concrete rules and dictionaries, then this course would be superfluous and translation software would solve the world’s communication needs. Perhaps fortunately, there is still need for human intelligence when reading a foreign language. Here are three news articles that may reassure you:

And I am not afraid of pointing out free, online translation tools to students in this course:

I've tried these out many times, and they are not able to accurately translate many sentences from even your earliest assignments in this course. Warning: in case you are tempted to "cheat" with occasional help on your assignments from such tools, remember that you will not have access to the Web during your proctored final exam.

However, I do recommend that you consider using the "Listen" button on Google Translate or Bing Translator to listen to how German sentences you are working on actually sound when spoken by a native German. They are very good at pronunciation!

Unit-Specific Grammar

Try these online exercises on specific topics. By practicing a little bit of writing in German, you can quickly gain a lot of confidence for reading German. If you have any troubles using a site, let me know so that I can remove that link or post a warning. Naturally we carry no responsibility for third-party sites.

German Texts to Read

"Practice, practice, practice" is the secret to learning both musical instruments and foreign languages. Practice doesn't have to be a chore – practice can be fun, if you combine it with your own interests. The best way to practice for this course is simply – jetzt aufgepasst! – to read German texts!

For best results, be disciplined and methodical in how you read:

  • Spend part of your free-reading time to just get the "big picture," skimming and guessing, with occasional dictionary use.
  • Also (perhaps next, with the same text) spend part of your free-reading time to get precise meanings, applying all the grammatical and syntactical knowledge you've gained in the course so far. Verify and correct your big-picture understanding with the meanings that your closer analysis reveals.
  • Let your instructor feedback and own experience guide you to find your weak points. Then focus on drilling just those skills while you read new texts.
  • You'll learn more effectively and efficiently if you read frequently for short bursts of time, rather than dedicating large chunks of time far apart. And move through as many different texts as possible, even if just in fragments, rather than focusing on just one text.

Here are some sources I recommend to pursue your own interests while simultaneously practicing reading German:

Online (free)

Print publications

  • The University of Michigan lists a number of standard "easy" books that you can probably find on Amazon or at a local bookstore.
  • A UK German lecturer named Ernest Schonfield maintains a bibliography of parallel texts (German texts with English translations alongside)
  • Your local bookstore may also carry various German magazines or newspapers. Just ask and browse!
  • Also check your local library - some may have a foreign-language section, including in the children's section.

Final Exam

Here is more information about the exam beyond what is described in the course syllabus. You will be allowed to bring in two dictionaries, such as a German-English dictionary and an English dictionary or another foreign-language dictionary if English is not your first language. You may not have any other materials with you, nor access to any online resources. You will be asked to write sensible and accurate English translations of German texts, some that you will have seen before and some that you have not. Your work will be graded the same way your assignments are graded, except for long texts which will be measured in terms of the quantity of German text that you accurately translate.

It will be equally important to translate accurately as to translate as much as possible. Inaccurate portions of your translation are not counted. You are expected to be able to write a complete and accurate translation of around a hundred words of a "hard" text per hour. You can also cover more text with less accuracy to get the same grade. Skipping phrases is acceptable; those phrases simply won't get counted as successfully translated. A "hard text" is a piece of formal German prose from an academic publication on a fairly general topic, written at a level of style and linguistic complexity typical for such publications. For example, at a university library you can find such texts in any scholarly publication (books, journals) published in German.

Here are some preparation ideas. The more variety in the ways you practice reading German, the better!

  • Work through all of the textbook assignments and the four Review sections from scratch. Then use my graded responses to your assignments to check your work. Hopefully you do even better on all those sentences than you did the first time!
  • Take unfamiliar texts and work through them as fast as you can, identifying singular/plural status for all nouns, following these steps. Remember that you often will not need to know anything about what individual words mean or sometimes not even what gender the nouns are, and of course using a dictionary is only a last resort, since that slows you down considerably. This exercise is simultaneously an excellent drill for sentence diagramming – just mark S/V/O (subject / verb / object) in each sentence and just enough extra structural detail to determine case for the nouns, since you often need to recognize case in order to tell whether a noun is plural or not.
  • Take unfamiliar texts and write accurate translations of them as fast as you can, using only a dictionary, and measure how many words of German text you were able to translate into handwritten English in 30 minutes (or whatever time length you like). Write down the number and keep track of your improving speed from day to day. Of course some texts are harder than others, so the typical average will be more significant than each individual day. You can start with allowing yourself both the textbook and the dictionary, but eventually you need to be measuring your speed without help from the textbook or from other grammar reference works.
  • Take a particular long German text that is interesting to you personally, and work on reading it for 30 minutes a day without making any written notes on the text. (You could make notes about it somewhere else). Start over from the beginning of the text each time, and gradually gain familiarity with this text. Eventually you should be able to really read (instead of translate) more and more of the beginning of the text, and faster and faster, too, gradually getting the feel for what it's like to read German on your own.

About Your Instructor

This course is team-taught by Dr. Alan Ng (visit his academic home page) and Dr. Sarah Korpi.

This page is written and maintained by Alan Ng. It was originally started in October, 2005.