Some of the best-selling and most-loved books of all time were written in English.
Maybe you’ve already learned about Shakespeare’s plays or Jane Austen’s novels.
Maybe you’ve read modern books from authors such as JK Rowling, Stephen King and Margaret Atwood.
So if you’re learning English, a whole new world of reading material and endless imagination can open up for you.
But even if you’re not a bookworm (someone who loves books and reads a lot), it’s still really important to learn English reading. You’ll need reading comprehension skills to understand the news, road signs, menus and much more in English-speaking regions.
Additionally, reading helps grow your vocabulary and solidify grammar points that you’ve learned through studying.
So, how do you become an English bookworm? Check out these 10 practical tips to learn English reading!
Become an English Bookworm: 10 Tips to Learn English Reading
1. Choose Reading Material at Your Comprehension Level
If you read material that’s too hard, you’ll be discouraged and overwhelmed. If you read material that’s too easy, you won’t grow your reading skills or vocabulary and you might even find it boring.
So it’s important to understand your English level and choose reading resources that match. You can use this test from the British Council’s Learn English website to get a general idea of your reading level.
The perfect text for reading should contain no more than 10% unknown words. To calculate this, 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.
Anything with more than 10% unknown words is probably too hard for you to read.
Furthermore, beginners should aim for texts specifically made for beginner English learners. These include dialogues, short readings about common topics or children’s books. Intermediate learners can read longer texts, news articles and even novels aimed for children and teenagers. Advanced learners can read almost anything, but should approach some classic literature such as Shakespeare’s plays with caution.
Remember that even native English speakers have trouble with Shakespeare!
2. Read with a Dictionary Handy
When reading any English text, the most important tip is to read with a dictionary or dictionary app nearby. Reading with a dictionary allows you to look up unknown words as you read.
For beginner learners, this probably means using a dictionary that translates words into your native language. 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.
WordReference Bilingual and Monolingual Dictionaries
For an online dictionary or a dictionary app that translates English into multiple languages, check out WordReference. WordReference translates to and from English into dozens of languages such as French, German, Russian, Japanese and Dutch. Further, WordReference also has a monolingual English dictionary.
In addition to its dictionaries, WordReference has a forum to pose all of your English usage questions.
Lexico Monolingual Dictionary
Lexico is a reliable monolingual dictionary that offers definitions on its website and an app. It comes from the team behind Oxford, one of the leading English dictionaries in the world. Lexico also has a thesaurus for users to find synonyms (words with similar meanings) for English words.
LingQ for Online Reading
If you read online content, upload it to LingQ and use its built-in translation features. LingQ allows you to choose unknown words in any text, get an in-program translation and then convert those words to flashcards.
3. …But Focus Primarily on Repeated Words
While it’s important to look up words as you read, it’s just as important to be smart about which words you look up. 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. I know that sounds counterintuitive, but think about it—it’ll get boring, break up the flow of reading and can cause you to lose the overall meaning of the text.
As you read a text for the first time, underline or highlight unknown words. When you’re done, 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.
This reading technique will also help you identify common English words. For example, if a word is used only once, it may not be a very common English word and therefore less useful for you to memorize.
4. Make Flashcards of Unknown Words
A great way to build up your vocabulary and thus your reading fluency is to keep a word list or create flashcards. 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 so as to not break the flow of reading. Further, 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!
While physical flashcards or word lists are great for writing out new vocabulary, Anki is a great app to create your own digital flashcards and access them on the go!
5. Learn English Spelling Conventions
English spelling is one of the biggest obstacles to learning English reading. The problem is that English spelling very often doesn’t reflect the actual sounds of a word, so the “reading voice” in your head can get stuck on new words that you don’t know how to pronounce.
Don’t be discouraged, however!
By learning common spelling conventions, that reading voice will maintain the flow of English and you’ll improve your overall reading ability. You’ll also have an easier time using words that you learned while reading in real life.
Some common English spelling conventions include:
- 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.”
There are loads of other spelling rules, so don’t be afraid to improve your English spelling. A little effort will go a long way for your English reading comprehension!
6. Break Up Readings into Chunks
When starting out, it’s easy to want to read a lot in one sitting. However, you’ll probably soon discover that reading can be tiring. Trying to understand the text can take a lot of time and determination, and reading long texts can seem impossible.
In fact, reading too much at once can lead to fatigue and a lack of motivation.
To combat this, break reading up into manageable chunks (pieces). Aim for between one and three paragraphs to start. You can take a news article, a novel, etc. and just focus on a few paragraphs at a time.
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 (rather than by paragraph). 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.
This will allow you to concentrate better and avoid getting tired or overwhelmed while reading.
7. Look for Clues to “Get the Gist”
The gist is the overall meaning. If you don’t understand the gist of your text, then you really don’t understand it at all. So, practice using clues to get the gist of a text quickly and effectively.
- Use a highlighter to identify important information or 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?)
- Don’t be afraid to examine any images that accompany the text. These images often give vital information and they can supplement your understanding if you’re having trouble figuring out the main ideas.
8. Write a Summary of What You Read
Once you’ve gotten the gist of a text, write or recite a short summary of what you’ve read. These summaries don’t have to be long. They can be a couple of sentences that present the main ideas of what you’ve read.
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. This is important to make sure that you’re actively improving your reading skills every time you practice.
9. Use Reading Comprehensions
Reading comprehensions are exercises designed to improve your reading ability. You might remember them from school, but don’t worry—you can do these ones at your own pace and from the comfort of your own home.
Generally, reading comprehensions start with a short text and then comprehension questions follow. These can be in the form of multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank or short answer questions. Some advanced reading comprehensions even include longer written responses.
Next you’ll get the answers to the questions and you can assess how well you were able to read at a certain level. In fact, reading comprehensions are often designed for specific English levels so you can progress naturally through them as you improve.
Here are some useful places to find online reading comprehensions:
- 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 reading comprehensions for various topics including science, history and biographies.
- The ESL Lounge also has reading comprehensions broken into four levels, and the readings include common vocabulary related to that level.
10. Be Consistent
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.
To do this, you should aim to create a reading habit. I suggest picking a time every day and then reading something for a set amount of time. For me, I prefer reading in the morning, and I read for an hour with a 10 minute break at the half-hour mark to refill my coffee.
But even with consistency, you may find your reading skills progressing slower than you’d like. 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.
Is your library card ready? You’re going to need it, English bookworm! Go forth and read the best of the world’s literature with your rapidly improving English reading skills.