English reading can be a challenge.
Word order can be odd.
Spelling is strange.
And there are idioms (figures of speech) that seem to make no sense!
Still, reading can help you to speak, understand and even write English better.
And, with many fun and exciting ways to practice English reading, you can enjoy improving this important skill.
In this guide, you’ll learn the different aspects of English reading and find out the best ways to get better at it!
Why Learn to Read in English?
There are many practical reasons to practice English reading. If you live, work or travel in an English-speaking country, your English reading skills will allow you to be more independent. You can quickly find the information that you need, without relying on anyone else.
But there’s more to it than that. Practicing English reading is like getting private language lessons, made just for you.
Why Learning English Reading Is Important
Reading in English can be used for more than just practical things like buying a train ticket or getting a meal. Becoming a good reader in English unlocks news articles, stories and books.
Reading more in English gives you more to talk about because you’ll learn interesting facts and information.
Reading connects you to the English-speaking culture.
When you become better at reading in English, you can really open your mind to the language and the people who speak it.
How Reading Can Improve Your English
As you practice English reading, your other English language skills will also improve. You’ll learn new vocabulary words, see different sentence structures in use and get English language practice in general.
Here are two skills that’ll really improve when you practice your English reading:
Reading improves English conversation skills.
When you read in English—especially stories or novels—you’ll get a better idea of how English speakers talk. You can also read non-fiction books that teach you about English conversation, like English conversation e-books.
From both fiction and non-fiction books, you’ll learn common expressions, see formal and casual speech and learn speaking patterns that you can copy in your own English speaking. That’ll give you more confidence when you’re talking in English.
Best of all, you can learn all of this at your own pace. Plus, all that reading will also give you lots of interesting topics to discuss (talk about).
Reading improves English writing.
Reading English texts can make your written English more fluent. It’ll show you written grammar rules in action. You’ll learn how to properly use punctuation, like commas, periods and quotation marks.
Reading will show you how to write sentences that people can easily understand.
English reading will also remind you how words are spelled correctly, which will make writing much easier.
What Are the Most Important English Reading Skills?
There are different types of reading and different ways to understand what you read.
When you’re reading in your native language, you don’t have to think about what you’re going to read, how you’re going to read it or how you’re going to make sure you’ll understand it. Reading in your native language is automatic—it just happens.
Over time, with effort and practice, reading in English will become just as automatic for you.
Four Types of Reading
Not all types of reading are the same. Let’s look at four different ways you can read in English.
Reading intensively means trying to understand every word on the page. You want to get as much information as you can from the text.
This is the kind of reading you do when you have some time to really focus. You don’t want to be distracted (unable to pay attention).
You’ll also want to keep a dictionary handy because you’ll want to look up any words you don’t know. Grab a notebook, too—it’s always a good idea to take notes as you read!
When you practice intensive reading, pick a fairly short text that interests you. If you have a really long text—or you just don’t care about the topic—you might give up before you finish.
Try to make this process as interesting and enjoyable as you can. That way, you’ll want to do more intensive reading. And the more you can use this powerful tool for improving English, the better.
This is a more relaxed kind of reading.
Extensive reading simply means casually reading anything you see in English. Don’t stress. Don’t worry about what every word means.
Read a new recipe. Read an email. Read a blog post.
Read billboards along the highway. Read newspaper headlines.
It doesn’t matter what you read—just read in English. Anything. Everything.
Extensive reading is important because it opens you up to all kinds of English words and lets you practice reading in many different contexts.
The more extensive reading you do, the more comfortable you’ll be with reading in English. And the more comfortable you are, the more confident you’ll become!
When you need to read something quickly to get the main idea of the text, you can skim the text.
Skimming means to simply read on the surface. In other words, you don’t go too deep into the details. You don’t need to know what every word means. You can just read deeply enough to get the basic idea.
You can skim with a finger on the page, tracing swiftly underneath the words as you read. Use the pace of your finger to make yourself read faster. Your brain will naturally keep pace with (go as fast as) your finger.
If you’re looking for specific information when you read a text, try scanning for it.
When you scan, it’s almost like using your brain as a search engine.
You’re looking out for certain key words or phrases. You don’t need to pay attention to everything. Just stay focused, ignoring almost everything except for the information you need.
Reading Comprehension: How to Understand What You’re Reading
There are a few tricks you can use to help you understand what you read in English, even if you don’t know some of the words on the page. If you practice these methods regularly, you’ll understand more and more of what you read.
Use context clues.
Every time you read a new English word, look around at the words that come before and after it in the text.
If you know some of the words near an unfamiliar word, you can usually figure out what the unfamiliar word means.
That’s using context clues, and it’s a smart way to understand what you read.
When you decode an English word, you break it down into parts. This can be useful in a few different ways.
By decoding the word, you might realize that it’s a word you already know—or, at least, part of it might be familiar to you.
Decoding can also mean looking inside of a bigger word for smaller words you already know. You can use the parts of the word that you do know to figure out the rest of the word that you don’t know.
Find familiar words.
Words are kind of like people: Not all words that look or sound alike are related.
Even so, English has words from languages all over the world—plus lots of words that come from ancient Greek or Latin. There’s a good chance that an English word could mean something similar to a non-English word that it resembles (looks like).
Look-alike or sound-alike words from other languages often help you understand new English words.
Check the dictionary.
What if you’ve tried to figure out the meaning of a word, but you’re still stumped (puzzled)? That means it’s time to check the dictionary.
If you’re a beginner, you’ll probably want to use a bilingual dictionary.
As you progress, try using a learner’s dictionary. This is a special type of English dictionary that explains words using simple terms. A learner’s dictionary lets you use the English you already know to understand new words.
Understanding each word is one thing. How can you be sure you’re really understanding what you read when you put all the words together?
One way to test how much you understand is to quiz yourself.
Look for books and other learner’s texts that come with questions and reading exercises. You can find some online by searching for “ESL reading comprehension quiz.”
Many of these are multiple-choice quizzes, so you can look at a few different answers and pick the right one. After you finish each quiz or exercise, find the “answer key.” It will show you the right answers, so you can check how well you’ve understood the text.
Discuss the text.
Call upon an English-speaking friend or conversation partner to help you understand what you read.
You might summarize the text (retell it in a shorter way). Your friend could ask you questions about what you’ve read.
By talking about what you’ve read with a fluent English speaker, you can make sure that you understood the text. Another bonus is that you’ll practice listening and speaking in English.
How to Improve English Reading
We’ve looked at a few different ways to read. We’ve talked about how you can understand what you read in English. Now, let’s put all this advice together.
Tips for Improving English Reading
You can follow these steps to read often in English—and to get a little more fluent in English every day.
Set aside time to read.
Set aside time to read in English. Make it a quiet time. You want to be able to focus on what you’re reading.
When you plan regular times to read in English, you’re taking the first important step to improving your English reading skills.
Find topics you like.
You don’t want to get bored when you’re reading in English. If you find that the texts you’re reading are dull, you’ll lose interest in reading.
Find English texts on your favorite topics. Even when the reading gets a little harder, your high interest in the topics will make you want to keep reading.
Figure out your reading level.
Before you find a book about your favorite subject, you can use a tool to figure out your reading level.
This will give you a general idea about the kinds of English reading you’re ready to try. Once you know your reading level, you’ll be able to improve your English reading skills from there!
Use the “five finger rule” to rate the text.
Many English texts won’t be labeled with a reading level. When you see a book, article or story about a topic you enjoy, you can use your own hand to figure out if the reading level is right for you.
This is called the “five finger rule.” Look at any page in the text and count each word you don’t know on a finger of your hand:
- 0-1 new words: The text is too easy for you.
- 2-3 new words: The text is just right.
- 4 new words: This text might be too hard for you. (You might try it anyway if it’s something you really want to read.)
- 5 (or more) new words: This text is too hard right now. Set it aside for later, when you’ve learned more English words.
The five-finger rule will keep your English reading at just the right level. And wherever you go, you’ll always have the right tool on hand to rate the difficulty of new English texts.
Keep a dictionary handy.
Before you sit down to read, you’ll want to have a dictionary with you. This can be a printed book, a dictionary app for your phone or an online dictionary.
A dictionary is one of the most powerful resources you can use for learning new English words. Use it with other tools, such as flashcards and context clues, to learn English reading.
Start with what you know.
There are several steps you can take to prepare for learning to read English. These steps will make reading easier.
They include everything from getting comfortable before you read to scanning new texts for words you already know.
Make a language journal.
As you read and learn new English words, you can use a language journal (notebook) to keep your thoughts on your learning together for practice and review.
In the pages of your journal, try writing sentences with your new English vocabulary. Make your own definition for each English word you’ve learned. Use colored pencils to draw pictures of what the words mean.
Every once in a while, look back at older pages in your language journal. Review words to keep your memories of them strong. And feel proud of how much you’ve learned!
Practice Makes Fluent: English Reading Practice with Books, Stories and More
One great thing about learning English is that you’ll never run out of reading material. And there’s English reading practice for every topic you can imagine—even for beginners.
We’ll look at all kinds of books and other texts for English learners who read at all levels, from beginner to intermediate (middle) to advanced (near fluent).
Readers and Other Books
When you think of reading, you probably think of books. There are many, many kinds to choose from. Some of them are designed (made) to help you learn English. Others are made for entertainment (fun), but can still help you learn English.
- Comic books. If you liked reading comic books as a kid, why not use them now to learn English through comics? Comic books have lots of action, plus pictures to give you more clues about what the words mean.
- Funny books. Have a good laugh as you learn! When you read funny books to learn English, you can relax and enjoy yourself. And the more relaxed you are, the better you’ll learn.
- English Children’s books. These books are great for beginners. They have simple words and pictures and they teach you basic English words so you can talk about the world around you. Some of them are funny and some of them are touching (sweet or emotional).
- Easy English fairy tales. These magical stories have been told for many, many years. They’re a part of cultures all over the world. Chance are, you probably know a few of them already—which will make it even easier for you to understand them.
- Simple books. If you’re still a beginner but you want something different to read besides children’s books and fairy tales, try some simple books for English beginners. They’re written in easy-to-understand English, with memorable characters and interesting themes.
Beginner to intermediate.
- Graded readers. When your English reading is a little beyond beginner level and getting to an intermediate level, you might still need to work on a few skills. Graded readers are specially made for learners. They have interesting texts with lots of different subjects. There aren’t too many hard words, but you’ll still find new words to learn. Also, some of them come with audio, so you can listen to the stories as you read them.
- Bilingual readers. These are special books with the text in both English and your native language. The translations are usually not word-for-word, but you can use them to see how certain phrases you know in your native language are said in English. You can focus on the English text and only look at the translation when you need a little help with understanding the English.
- Superhero comic books. Up, up and away with English reading adventure! Superhero comic books are exciting, filled with colorful characters and illustrations (drawings). They can teach you lots of new words. You’ll recognize the characters, like Superman and Batman, from television and films.
- Popular books. Keep up with the crowd with these best-selling books. Find thrills, suspense, romance and more. Popular books are some of the best books to learn English!
- Scary books. Who doesn’t love a good ghost story? Scare up (find) some new English words to learn with these spooky (scary) ghost stories in English.
- Interactive books. Get extra adventure with these books that let you decide what happens! They’re simple enough to enjoy, yet still challenging, so they’re the perfect stories to improve your English. You can become part of the story with printed or digital books. Try text-based video games such as “Zork” that you can read like a book.
Intermediate to advanced.
- Funny stories in English. These books take humor to a more grown-up level, with parody that pokes fun at (makes fun of) serious subjects and puns that play with English words. Humor can be hard to translate; reading these books will help you better understand English-speaking cultures.
- Fantasy and science fiction. Books and book series like “A Wrinkle in Time,” “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” “The Martian Chronicles” and “Harry Potter” are fantastic for intermediate English learners. They often use imaginative ideas that take you beyond the simple English words you learned as a beginner.
- TV tie-in books and movie novelizations. Read novelizations (movies written as books) of your favorite films or choose stories with familiar characters from the television shows you love. There are series of novels based on popular shows like “Game of Thrones,” “Star Trek,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Charmed” and “Smallville,” to name a few.
- Classic English books with movie pairings. Reading the “classics”—important pieces of English literature—can help you better understand the culture of the English-speaking world. Since many of them were written a long time ago and use out-of-date language, they can sometimes be a little hard to understand. To make them come alive, try pairing a classic English book with a movie based on it.
- Classic literature with free English e-books. Many older works of English literature have now gone into the public domain. This is great news for advanced English learners, who can enjoy many English-language classics as free e-books.
English Short Stories
Short stories are a wonderful time-saver! When you don’t have time to read a whole book, you can still enjoy some entertaining English reading.
- Many short stories are easy enough for beginning English learners because they use simple language to make you think about big, important ideas.
- Challenge yourself in just a few minutes a day with intermediate-level very short stories in English that you can read quickly.
Poetry and Plays in English
There’s more to English literature than just books and short stories. Plays and poetry introduce metaphorical (symbolic) English to intermediate and advanced learners.
Intermediate to advanced.
- Poems. Poems can say volumes in just a few short words. They use the sounds of words in special ways, which can make learners even more aware of English pronunciation. They often use words you won’t find in everyday English conversation. They help you learn the rhythm of English. Try reading and studying a few poems perfect for learning English to add color to your English learning.
- Iconic plays. English-language plays like “Our Town,” “Romeo and Juliet,” and “A Raisin in the Sun,” have influenced (made their mark on) how people think about certain subjects. Their themes are often imitated (copied). Try reading some of these well-known plays aloud, since they’re meant to be performed.
Online Resources for Learning to Read in English
With text, sight and sound, online resources give English learners dynamic (lively) reading practice. You can find reading material for all levels of learning.
- Reading practice sites. When you’re a beginner, it’s hard to know if you’re doing things right. That’s why getting some feedback (response or reaction) can tell you whether you’re on the right track with English reading. Get English reading practice with answer keys from special websites that are made to help beginning English learners practice reading. Some of them will even guide you through activities, such as making greeting cards with watercolors or making your wardrobe more stylish.
Intermediate to advanced.
- English blogs. Add some personality and fun to your English reading practice with blogs in English. They discuss all kinds of topics in a lively and friendly way. You can even be part of the conversation—and practice your English writing skills—by leaving a comment now and then!
- English reading passages. Articles and texts, covering many different subjects, help you get in-depth English reading practice in a short amount of time. Some of them even have matching audio, so you can hear the words pronounced as you read.
There’s a huge world of English reading out there. You’ll always find something new and interesting to read—and the more you read, the more fluent your English will become.
Michelle Baumgartner is a language nerd who has formally studied seven languages and informally dabbled in a few others. In addition to geeking out over slender vowels, interrogative particles, and phonemes, Michelle is a content writer and education blogger. Find out more at StellaWriting.com.