Did you read anything in English this past week?
How much of it did you understand?
Even if you read 15 English books every week, this doesn’t help your learning much unless you actually understand all those books.
Understanding what is written is called “reading comprehension,” and even some native English speakers suffer from poor reading comprehension.
The reasons can be different for everyone: maybe you don’t know enough vocabulary words to understand the text, or maybe you got interrupted halfway through and forgot where you were. Maybe it’s just a difficult or boring text.
We’re always telling you to practice reading a lot, so it can be frustrating when you can’t understand a lot of what you read.
If you’re having trouble with your reading comprehension, take some time to improve it, and you’ll find that learning English becomes a little easier!
How to Get Better at Reading and Understanding English
It’s easier to read English than you think! Here, we will discuss how you can improve using staircases and scaffolding.
When a house is built, it doesn’t all get done at the same time. Workers have to build some temporary structures to help keep the house standing up and to help them work on the higher parts. These structures are called scaffolding.
Scaffolding is also a method of learning. The idea is that, to learn a skill well, you need to learn smaller parts that will help you “build” your knowledge and skills.
This is true for reading comprehension too! To really understand what you read, you might need to work on other skills first. You might need to practice reading quickly (or slowly). You might need to stop choosing very difficult books, and start choosing the right books for your skill level. Start easier, start smaller and slower, and then gradually increase the difficulty.
Remember this when you’re working to improve your reading comprehension—and any other English language skill!
The steps below will help you build up your English reading comprehension skills. Use these tips and you’ll be understanding a lot more of what you read.
8 Simple Steps to Improve Your English Reading Comprehension
1. Always make special time to read
Reading for fun can be done anywhere. You could take a fun book out on a bus, in bed or at the office, and you can enjoy it.
However, if you’re reading to improve your comprehension, you need to focus and study.
This means you need to make a special time for this reading. Making time for your reading will let you focus well without risk of being interrupted. This time should be quiet, and you should avoid being distracted.
You should try to spend at least 30 minutes every day on focused reading. The more you read, the more you’ll improve.
Turn your reading process into a ritual, something you repeat every time you sit down to focus on reading English.
Follow these steps, or any other steps that you’d like to make a part of your reading process:
- Find a quiet, comfortable spot with bright lighting to sit.
- Get everything you might need ready before you sit down. For example, you might want to have a pen, your notebook, a dictionary and something to drink.
- Decide how long you will read. (30 minutes is a good minimum amount of time.)
- Put all your electronics on silent mode (or turn them off) and put them away.
Turning off the sound on your electronics might not seem important, but it’s something you really must do!
If you have a specific process for preparing to read, then your brain will know when you’re about to read and you’ll be more focused before you even start.
2. Read the right books
If you dislike science fiction, you might not want to read a book about a man stuck on Mars. When you’re choosing books (and other texts) to read, keep two things in mind:
1. What you’re interested in
2. Your reading level
Whenever you can, you should read things that you enjoy. You should also choose books that are at an English level just above the one you’re most comfortable with. You want to challenge yourself just enough to learn new things, but not enough to get frustrated with your reading.
Not sure where to start? There are lots of places online where you can find recommendations for books:
- Listopia on Goodreads is full of lists created by people just like you.
- Your Next Read lets you search for books that are similar to the ones you’ve read and liked before, or you can browse some of their lists.
- Jellybooks helps you discover new books and sample 10%, which means you can try the book and see if it’s a good fit for you.
- Whichbook is a very different kind of website—you choose the kinds of things you’re looking for in a book (happy/sad, beautiful/disgusting) and the website gives you suggestions based on that.
Any of these can help you find the perfect book for improving your reading comprehension.
3. Ask yourself questions while reading and after Reading
There’s more to understanding a book than just reading the words!
There are a few things you can do before, during and after you read to help you better understand the text.
Before you read, browse the text. That means you should look over the text quickly without actually reading every word.
Take some time after you read too, to browse again and summarize what you remember. Try to quickly say or write a few sentences that describe what the text was about.
Thinking about what you read will show you how much of it you really understood, and help you figure out if you still have questions.
Before you read, here are a few questions you can ask yourself as you browse, to help you prepare for reading:
- Are there any words in bold or italics?
- Are there titles or subtitles?
- What are some of the names mentioned?
- Is there a lot of dialogue?
- Are the paragraphs short or long?
After you read, the questions below can be used to help you think about what you did and did not understand:
- What was the text about?
- What are the most important things that happened in the text?
- Did anything confuse you?
- Did anything surprise you?
- Are there any parts you didn’t understand?
You might have some more questions depending on what kind of text you were reading, but these are good basic ones to start with.
4. Improve fluency first
Reading. Is. Fun.
Do you notice how you stopped every time you saw the period?
Now imagine reading an entire article or even book like this, stopping after every word. It would be difficult to understand, wouldn’t it?
It’s hard to form an understanding of what you’re reading when you read word by word instead of in full sentences. That’s why, to improve your understanding, it’s important to improve your fluency first.
Fluency is how smoothly you can read. When you read in your head, you should have a certain rhythm to the words. The words should flow together naturally, like when somebody is talking.
Improving fluency can be as simple as choosing slightly easier texts to read, or it might take some time and practice. If you take some time to improve how fluently you read, though, it will help you in the future. You’ll improve your reading and even your speaking. It will also make reading feel more fun and natural.
Many of the words you find when you’re reading are actually “sight words.” These are words that you should know by sight and should not have to think about how to read them.
You can practice sight words very quickly. Just find a good list of sight words, like this one, and take about a minute or two every day to read the words as fast as you can.
If you don’t know any of the words it’s a good idea to look them up beforehand, but remember that this exercise is about reading faster, not understanding more. Once you can read at a comfortable speed, you can focus on understanding.
5. Once you’ve learned to speed up, slow down!
After you’ve learned to read more fluently, you can stop worrying about your speed and start thinking about the text and its meaning.
That’s right, now that you can read fast, it’s time to read slowly. Take time to really get into the text you’re reading, instead of speeding through it.
One great way to slow yourself down is to read out loud. Not only will you be practicing your reading and understanding, but also your pronunciation, listening and speaking. Focus on speaking every word carefully and pronouncing it well.
If you can’t (or don’t want to) read out loud, you can try pausing every few paragraphs to make sure you’re paying attention.
Another way to pace yourself well is by making notes and writing down questions as you read.
6. Ask lots of questions
Speaking of questions—ask them. Ask a lot of them! The more you question what you read, the deeper you get into the meaning.
Asking questions is also a good way to make sure you understand what you’re reading. Asking questions like “what’s happening now?” or “who’s speaking here?” can help keep you focused. Asking questions like “why did he do that?” or “what is she thinking?” can help you think deeper into the story.
Keep some Post-it notes and a pen nearby. Write down any questions that come to mind as you’re reading on the Post-it notes. Stick them in the text.
When you finish reading, go back and see how many of the questions you can answer now. If there are any questions you still don’t know the answer to, re-read that part of the text and try to find the answer.
7. Read it again
The poet Ezra Pound says that with books, “no reader ever read anything the first time he saw it.”
Sometimes reading a text just once isn’t enough to understand it. This is true if you’re reading something difficult, or even if you’re not—reading something more than once can help you understand it much better.
Re-reading is great for those times when you read the words but can’t get them to make sense. It’s also great for finding things you might have missed the first time. If there are any new words in the text, you’ll see them again every time your read again, helping you remember them.
In short, reading things again is great!
Choose something short to read, no more than a few paragraphs. This can be a story or a news article, anything you want—as long as it takes you only about five minutes to read.
Read the article at your own pace, then write down everything you can remember from the article. Write every little detail, even write down parts of sentences if you remember them.
Now do it again.
Read the article again. Write down everything you can remember again.
Do you see how much more you remember the second time around?
Every time you read something, you understand more of it. When you want to get the most out of your reading, try reading three or more times. The first time, focus on understanding the words.
The second time, focus on the meaning. The third time, you can start asking deeper questions like “what is the author really trying to say?” or “how does this news affect the rest of the world?”
8. Read many kinds of texts
Today we don’t just read books and newspapers. We read blogs, emails, Tweets and texts. The more you read anything in English, the better you’ll get at the language.Magazine Line is a good place to go to find digital or print magazines on just about any subject. They give you lower prices on magazine subscriptions, and you may be able to save even more if you’re a student (check the “Student and Educator Rates” section for details).
If you’re having trouble discovering new things to read, try any of these congregators—websites that take news and interesting articles and put them together for you to look through:
- StumbleUpon takes you to new websites based on your interests.
- Digg collects interesting stories from around the Internet onto one page.
- Reddit seems a bit less friendly, but it’s a collection of websites and images that Reddit users submit for others to enjoy.
Whatever you read, just remember: The more you practice, the better you’ll get.
The best part about these tips is that they can work for reading comprehension in any language!
If you follow these for your English learning, you might suddenly discover that you’re reading better and understanding more even in your own native language.
That’s something to be happy about!
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