How to Improve Your English Reading Skills: 22 Tips and Strategies
Reading comprehension, or your ability to understand what you read, is a key skill that should be trained to make sure that you understand the words on the pages whenever you read an English book.
While reading more is one way to work on your comprehension, there are tips and methods you can implement to make your reading more effective.
This article will help you improve your English reading skills with proven strategies for smarter, more efficient reading practice.
- How to Improve Your English Reading Skills
- 1. Make Special Time to Read
- 2. Use a Good Dictionary
- 3. Use Context Clues
- 4. Learn to Read English with the Right Books
- 5. Check the Difficulty Level
- 6. Do Both Intensive and Extensive Reading
- 7. Read More Smoothly with Sight Words
- 8. Get Familiar with English Spelling Conventions
- 9. Focus on Repeated Words
- 10. Remember Vocabulary with Flashcards
- 11. Make a Language Journal
- 12. Ask Yourself Questions
- 13. Look for Clues to “Get the Gist”
- 14. Break Up Readings into Chunks
- 15. Write a Summary
- 16. Discuss the Text
- 17. Reread Short Articles
- 18. Do Reading Comprehension Exercises
- 19. Read Many Kinds of Texts
- 20. Read and Listen with Subtitles
- 21. Check Popular Forums and Blogs
- 22. Be Consistent with Reading
- Reading Recommendations by Level
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How to Improve Your English Reading Skills
1. Make Special Time to Read
If you’re reading to improve your comprehension, you need to focus and study.
This means making a special time for reading without risk of being interrupted. You should try to spend at least 30 minutes every day on focused reading.
To turn your reading process into a ritual:
- Find a quiet, comfortable spot with bright lighting to sit.
- Get everything you might need ready before you sit down, such as a pen, notebook and something to drink.
- Decide how long you will read.
- Put all your electronics on silent mode (or turn them off) and put them away.
If you have a specific process for reading practice, then your brain will know when you’re about to work on your comprehension. As a result, you’ll be more focused before you even start.
2. Use a Good Dictionary
If you’re a beginner learner, choose an English dictionary that translates words into your native language. There are also learner’s dictionaries, which explain words using simple terms.
For more advanced learners, I recommend using a monolingual dictionary—one that has definitions only in English with no translations. Monolingual dictionaries force you to think in English rather than relying on your native language.
For a dictionary that translates English into multiple languages, check out WordReference. It covers dozens of languages, such as French, German, Russian, Japanese and Dutch. WordReference also has a monolingual English dictionary.
For online content, you can use LingQ‘s built-in translation features. LingQ allows you to choose unknown words in any text, get an automatic translation and then convert those words to flashcards.
3. Use Context Clues
Just because you find a good dictionary doesn’t mean you should look up every single new word!
Using context clues means trying to understand a new word by looking at what’s around it. If you’re stuck on a word you don’t know, try looking at the whole sentence for a hint about what it means.
Don’t stop to look up every new word. It’s harder to focus on your reading if you keep interrupting it. You can write down the word and look it up later. Only look up a word if without it, you can’t understand what you’re reading.
4. Learn to Read English with the Right Books
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 enough to learn new things, but not so much that you frustrated with your reading.
You can use this test from the British Council’s Learn English website to get a general idea of your reading level:
- Beginners should aim for texts specifically made for beginner learners. These include dialogues, short readings about common topics or children’s books.
- Intermediate learners can read longer texts, news articles and popular novels with simpler language.
- Advanced learners can read almost anything, but should approach some classic literature such as Shakespeare’s plays with caution.
Not sure where to start? There are lots of places online where you can find recommendations for books to learn English reading:
- Listopia on Goodreads is full of lists created by people just like you.
- What Should I Read Next? gives you book recommendations based on a book that you like or even a list of your favorites.
- 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.
I’ve also added a detailed list of reading recommendations per level at the end of this post.
5. Check the Difficulty Level
Once you’ve picked a book, double-check its difficulty level by making sure that it has no more than 10% unknown words.
Count the number of words on a page or paragraph, and then count the number of words you don’t recognize. Divide the number of unknown words by the number of total words, multiply by 100, and you’ll see what percentage of words you don’t know.
Here’s a rough guide:
- 0-2% new words: The text is too easy for you.
- 4%-6% new words: The text is just right.
- 8% new words: This text might be too hard for you. (You might try it anyway if it’s something you really want to read.)
- 10% (or more) new words: This text is too hard right now. Set it aside for later, when you’ve learned more English words.
6. Do Both Intensive and Extensive Reading
There are two kinds of English reading that you have to practice: Intensive reading and extensive reading.
Intensive reading is when you try to understand every word on the page.
This is the kind of reading you do when you have some time to focus. Most of the tips below are about how to make the most out of intensive reading.
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.
Aside from intensive reading, you also need to do extensive reading, which 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.
The more extensive reading you do, the more comfortable you’ll be with reading in English.
7. Read More Smoothly with Sight Words
Fluency is how smoothly you can read. When you read in your head, you should have a certain rhythm to the words, understanding full sentences rather than going one word at a time. The words should flow together naturally, like when somebody is talking.
To improve your fluency, look out for “sight words.” These are words that you should know by sight and should not have to think about how to read them.
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.
8. Get Familiar with English Spelling Conventions
English spelling often doesn’t reflect the actual sounds of a word. When you read in English, the voice in your head can get stuck on new words that you don’t know how to pronounce.
Don’t be discouraged!
By learning common spelling conventions, that reading voice will maintain the flow of English and you’ll improve your overall reading ability:
- kn: The kn- at the beginning of a word is pronounced as simply n, as in the words “know” and “knife.”
- wh: The -h- in wh- words such as “what” or “when” is silent and isn’t pronounced.
- c: This letter typically sounds like s before the vowels e, i or y, like in the word “city.” Otherwise, it typically sounds like k, like in the word “cat.”
9. Focus on Repeated Words
It’s important to be smart about which words you look up as you read. I recommend looking up words that are repeated more than three times in a passage, or words that appear crucial to the meaning of a sentence.
In other words, don’t look up every single unknown word while you’re reading. Think about it—it’ll get boring and break up the flow of reading.
When you read a text for the first time, underline or highlight unknown words.
Once you’re done reading, go back and identify the repeated words and words that are crucial to understanding. Now you can look those up and write down translations or definitions.
Finally, read the text again with your word list and watch as you understand the text more fully.
10. Remember Vocabulary with Flashcards
A great way to build up your vocabulary and reading fluency is to create flashcards of important words. But don’t just stop there: Review these flashcards often.
While reading, keep your word lists or flashcards handy. You can refer to these if that word comes up again while reading for fast translation.
As you come across these words while reading new content, move them to the back of your flashcard pile. This counts as review, and you don’t need to review words if you feel you’ve already learned them!
Anki is a great app for creating your own digital flashcards and accessing them on the go.
11. Make a Language Journal
Aside from making flashcards, you can use a language journal (notebook) for practice.
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!
12. Ask Yourself Questions
Taking notes and asking yourself questions can help you really understand an English text.
Before you read, here are a few questions you can ask yourself to prepare:
- 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?
While you’re reading, try asking these questions:
- What’s happening now?
- Who’s speaking here?
- Why did he do that?
- What is she thinking?
After reading, the questions below can also get 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?
13. Look for Clues to “Get the Gist”
The gist is the overall meaning. Practice using clues to get the gist of a text quickly and effectively. Use these tips to improve your overall understand of what you’re reading.
- Use a highlighter to identify important information or main ideas in the text.
- Pay attention to verb tenses so that you understand the timeline of the story. (Are past, present or future events being described?)
- Examine any images that accompany the text. These images often give vital information and can help your understanding.
14. Break Up Readings into Chunks
Reading can be tiring, so break it up into manageable chunks (pieces). Aim for between one and three paragraphs to start. As you build your skills, you can start reading with longer and longer chunks of text.
You can also simply break up your reading by time. In particular, I recommend trying the Pomodoro method. For every 25 minutes of reading, take a five-minute break to give your brain a rest.
15. Write a Summary
After reading a text, you can write a short summary of what you’ve read. This can just be a couple of sentences that present the main ideas.
Writing a summary is a great way to reinforce what the text was about as well as use new vocabulary in context. I like to write summaries down in my notebook and then underline the new vocabulary that I learned from reading the text.
Writing summaries will also help you notice any parts of the text that you didn’t fully understand, so you can go back and re-read.
16. Discuss the Text
Call upon an English-speaking friend or conversation partner to help you understand what you read.
You can explain the text to them. Your friend could then 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.
17. Reread Short Articles
Sometimes reading a text just once isn’t enough to understand it. Rereading is great for finding things you might have missed the first time and reviewing new words.
Try these out:
- Choose something that takes less than five minutes to read. This can be a story or a news article.
- Read the text at your own pace, then write down everything you can remember–every little detail, even parts of sentences if you remember them.
- Read the text again and write down what you can remember. 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?”
18. Do Reading Comprehension Exercises
For more structured practice, you can do reading comprehension exercises, which are designed to test how much you understand and improve your reading ability.
Generally, these exercises start with a short text. Then you have to answer multiple choice or fill-in-the-blanks questions, or even longer written responses about the text.
Whatever your level, here are some useful places to find online reading comprehension exercises:
- AgendaWeb offers texts for all levels of English as well as short stories and fairy tales that include audio.
- My English Pages has hundreds of exercises for various topics including science, history and biographies.
- The ESL Lounge also has exercises broken into four levels.
To find even more online, look up “ESL reading comprehension quiz.”
19. Read Many Kinds of Texts
Today we don’t just read books and newspapers. We read blogs, emails, Tweets and chats. 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.
You can also check out aggregators—websites that take news and interesting articles and put them together for you to look through. A couple of useful aggregators are Mix, which helps you find new websites based on your interests, and Digg, which collects interesting stories from around the Internet onto one page.
20. Read and Listen with Subtitles
It might seem strange, but another great way to practice reading is to watch English videos with subtitles or transcripts.
That way, you will read the words while hearing how a native speaker says them. Because English is not a phonetic language, the subtitles remind you how to spell a certain word, regardless of the sound.
Watching movies and videos is probably the most fun and interactive way of learning English. I don’t know about you, but I spent a lot of my younger years watching “Friends” and learned a lot of English from the TV show.
You can do similar things with TED Talks or Netflix.
FluentU videos also have full, accurate subtitles as well as transcripts. You can pick a video that you’re interested in to make this a more engaging experience, like a movie trailer or a clip from a popular show. You can also pause the video and check the definition of any word by hovering your mouse over it in the subtitles.
Read the transcript before you watch the video, then read along with the subtitles as the video plays. Since you have to keep up with the speed of the video, you’ll be training your fluency this way.
21. Check Popular Forums and Blogs
Do you know that ChatGPT, the chatbot that is making waves all over the internet because of how well it can communicate, read Reddit threads to teach itself language?
Forums like Reddit, Quora and Yahoo Answers contain English in its most natural forms, as it is all written casually by native speakers. Even if there are spelling and grammar mistakes, conversations are mostly enlightening, natural and full of everyday words.
Aside from forums, you can 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!
22. Be Consistent with Reading
Perhaps the most important tip to learn English reading is to make sure you read consistently. Remember, a little bit of reading every day is better than reading a lot once a month. Aim to create a reading habit!
If you become frustrated or bored, I suggest changing your reading material. Reading things you’re interested in will improve your reading skills tremendously, and the best way to become better at reading English is to read what you enjoy.
Reading Recommendations by Level
Now that you know how to maximize your English reading, I’ll show you what kind of English texts would work well for you based on your level:
- Children’s picture books — These books 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 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 short stories — Aside from fairy tales, many short stories are easy enough for beginning English learners because they use simple language to make you think about big, important ideas.
Beginner to Intermediate
- Graded readers – These are specially made for learners, with lots of different themes. There aren’t too many hard words, but you’ll still find new ones to learn. Some of the readers come with audio, so you can listen to the stories as you read them.
- Bilingual readers – In these special books, the text is in both English and your native language. You can focus on the English text and only look at the translation when you need a little help.
- Superhero comics – Superhero comic books are exciting, filled with colorful characters and illustrations (drawings). 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 thrillers, suspense, romance and more. Popular books are some of the best books to learn English!
- Translated books from your own culture — You first read a book in your own language, from your own culture. Then you find an English translated version of it, read that through, and carefully compare the two versions. Some examples of books in a language pair are: “Le Comte de Monte-Cristo” (French) — “The Count of Monte Cristo, ” “Ngược dòng nước lũ” (Vietnamese) — “Against the Flood” and “Cien años de soledad” (Spanish) — “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
- Short stories — Challenge yourself in just a few minutes a day with intermediate-level short stories in English that you can read quickly. You can even 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. There are also text-based video games such as Zork that you can read like a book.
Intermediate to Advanced
- Long reads — These are usually long articles that offers a wider and more complex perspective on contemporary issues. The quality of writing is high, so you can benefit from the best writing and best information. You can find long reads on websites such as Longreads and Reddit’s Longreads subreddit. My favorite source for long reads is The Guardian because the articles are also recorded and published as podcasts.
- Funny stories — 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, so reading these will help you better understand English-speaking cultures.
- Fantasy and science fiction — These books often use imaginative ideas that take you beyond simple English words. Some fantastic reads for intermediate English learners are “Harry Potter”, “A Wrinkle in Time,” “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and “The Martian Chronicles.”
- 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 related to popular shows, such as “A Game of Thrones,” “Star Trek,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and “Charmed.”
- Simple poems — Poems can say volumes in just a few short words. They often use words you won’t find in everyday English conversation, and they help you learn the rhythm of English. Try reading and studying a few poems perfect for learning English. You can also watch slam poetry performances with transcripts, like “A love poem for lonely prime numbers” and “If I should have a daughter…”
- Classic books — A book becomes “classic” because it stands the test of time. Reading the “classics”—important pieces of English literature—can help you better understand the culture of the English-speaking world. Most classic books are available for free to read online, on cool websites like Project Gutenberg. Some of my favorites include “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” “Emma” and “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”
- Iconic plays — A lot of English-language plays have influenced (made their mark on) how people think about certain subjects. Try reading some of these well-known plays aloud, since they’re meant to be performed: “Our Town,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “A Raisin in the Sun.”
- Literary poems — Literary poems can be tricky to read even for native speakers! If you’re up for a challenge and want to read classic poems, study the works of Edgar Allan Poe, T.S. Eliot or Emily Dickinson. Another great source of literary poems is Poetry Foundation, which features a mix of classic and modern poems.
Learning to read English might take time, but it pays off a lot because you’ll have so much fun, widen your cultural knowledge and improve other skills at the same time.
Pick the reading tips and resources that suit you best or try all of them out to bring your English to the highest level of fluency!
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)