Even if you don’t yet speak the language fluently, Spanish can be extremely accessible in the written form. If you understand most of the words in a text, then it is often possible to deduce the meaning of an unknown word. When you do need to look a word up in the dictionary, one obstacle can be that the dictionary may not list the exact form that you find in the text. But a few basic rules of thumb can help you locate the word and work out its meaning without a detailed knowledge of Spanish grammar.
Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to reading Spanish is its verb system. Spanish, like other related languages (but unlike English) has a somewhat synthetic verb system: in other words, Spanish verbs can have a whole host of different forms. However, as a practical way of starting to read Spanish more proficiently, a strategy to consider is to (a) learn the most common irregular verb forms outright, along with the typical idiomatic meanings they may carry; (b) learn a few rules of thumb to allow you to deduce the person/tense, and if necessary look up, most other verb forms.
So turning first to common verb forms, which should you actually learn? Out of a sample of 2,000 Spanish newspaper and magazine articles, the following are among the most common verb forms:
(1) ha combines with another verb, and means “he/she/it has…”; the following word will usually end in -ado or -ido, and will be the equivalent of an English form ending in -ed (technically called the ‘past participle’). To look this past participle up in the dictionary, you generally replace the final -do with -r. For example, if you see ha preguntado, the form to look up in the dictionary is preguntar. You’ll see that this means “to ask”, and thus ha preguntado means “he/she asked”. Almost 50% of the sample articles contained this construction!
(2) han, occurring in nearly 30% of the Spanish Magazine sample articles, is the plural equivalent of ha and means “they have…”.
(3) fue and dijo generally mean was and said respectively, and are the simple past tenses of the verbs ser (“to be”) and decir (“to say”). The plural forms are fueron and dijeron, meaning “they were” and “they said” respectively.
(4) había is an imperfect tense form often used to mean “there was/were…”.
(5) hizo is a simple past form of the verb hacer, and generally means “he/she/it did”, “he/she/it made”.
(6) podría is a conditional form of the verb poder, meaning “to be able”; the form podría is often equivalent to English “could”, “may be able to”;
(7) sido is the past participle of the verb ser: in other words, it literally means been, and is often combined with ha or han mentioned above (e.g. ha sido… = he/she/it has been…);
(8) fuera is a form commonly referred to as the past subjunctive: it means was/were when expressing a hypothetical condition, as in si fuera… (“if he/she/it were…”); traditionally, this form might not be learnt until late on in a Spanish course, but it actually occurs in 6% of the articles surveyed.
A large proportion of the lookups submitted to my own on-line Spanish-Engish dictionary are from this list of extremely common verb forms. In other words, there is evidence that many readers could improve their reading fluency simply by being more judicious about which word forms they choose to learn in advance. As you can see, we’re actually cutting across a whole host of grammar topics that, as part of learning to speak Spanish fluently, you would need to address more fully. But treating these very common verb forms on a case-by-case basis is simply suggested as a pragmatic reading strategy.