Learning to Read in English: 7 Hacks for Understanding Any Text

So you have plenty of English to read, but how can you learn to read it?

Don’t worry, by using the tips in this post, you can learn to read whatever you’d like.

And that’s because reading is a skill that can be learned and developed over time.

With these seven techniques, you can better understand what you read in English—no matter your level. Especially when you get to more challenging texts, this system will be a big help.


Learn to Read in English with Somewhat Challenging Texts

When you’re learning to read in English, it’s best to read just above your reading level.

This means you read articles or books which are a little bit difficult for you. Some words and sentences will be challenging or unfamiliar, but you can still understand what the text is saying.

Why would you read above your comfortable reading level? It can be fun to read something easy, but if you only ever read easy texts, you won’t improve. It’s still a good idea to read something easier every now and then, but it won’t push you to the next level. By reading just above what’s comfortable, you will be challenged to learn a little more each time.

This way, you can push your English reading level higher and higher. Before you know it, a text that used to be a little too difficult will now feel easy!

Don’t push yourself to read something that’s way above your reading level, though—unless you must. Working with text that’s much too difficult can be very frustrating. So the goal is to find something a little challenging, but not too hard.

Steps to Take Before You Start Reading

Whether you’re reading something easy, difficult or just right, here are some steps you can take (before you even start reading!) to make your reading easier.

  • Choose a time of day when you’re the most alert (awake). Are you a morning person or a night person? Do you feel like your brain works the best at a specific time of day? Try to read at that time.
  • Determine your reading goal. Why are you reading the text? How you read a text will be different depending on what you want to get from the reading. Reading for a general understanding of a text will be completely different from reading to fully understand it, or to just learn new vocabulary.
  • Skim and scan. Scanning a text means looking for a specific part or for the answer to a specific question. Skimming a text means letting your eyes look over the text quickly without really reading every word. These are both excellent strategies to use before you start reading. They will let you understand a little bit about the text or topic so you have a rough idea of what you’re going to read about.
  • Make sure you’re comfortable and have plenty of light. Poor lighting can make you strain your eyes, and being uncomfortable is distracting. You want your mind to be completely on the text, not on how much your back hurts from your terrible chair!
  • Eliminate distractions. Find a place where you can have some peace and quiet when you read, to help you concentrate. Turn off the television, put your phone on silent, and go to a quiet room alone.
  • Use a pen or finger to guide your reading. If you’re still having trouble focusing, slide your pen or finger under the words as you read them. This will help keep your eyes from moving all over the page.
  • Take breaks. After a while, your brain gets tired. When you’re tired, it can be difficult to focus. Schedule breaks to give your eyes and mind a rest, or only read for short periods of time.

Learn to Read in English with an Article from The Atlantic

In 2008, journalist Nicholas Carr wrote an article in The Atlantic called “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” It’s about how Google and the Internet are changing the way we read and think. It’s an interesting look at how current technology is changing how our brains work—but it’s a pretty difficult piece for an English learner.

To show you how to read any kind of text, no matter how easy or difficult, we’ll apply our learning tips to two (slightly changed) paragraphs from Carr’s article.

Here they are below. Try reading them now, but don’t worry if you don’t understand it. We promise that by the end of this post, you will!

Reading is not an instinctive skill for human beings. It’s not etched into our genes the way speech is. We have to teach our minds how to translate the symbolic characters we see into the language we understand. And the media or other technologies we use in learning and practicing the craft of reading play an important part in shaping the neural circuits inside our brains.

Experiments demonstrate that readers of ideograms, such as the Chinese, develop a mental circuitry for reading that is very different from the circuitry found in those of us whose written language employs an alphabet. We can expect as well that the circuits woven by our use of the Net will be different from those woven by our reading of books and other printed works.

7 Hacks for Understanding Any English Text When You’re Learning to Read

1. Make a vocabulary list before you begin.

In the excerpt above, you might have noticed some words you don’t know. Some words are more important to understand than others (we’ll learn more about that in the second tip). Before you read a text, skim it for words you don’t know and make a list with definitions.

Look for:

  • Words that are repeated more than once.
  • Unknown words in short sentences.
  • Words you’ve seen in other places.

Here’s a possible vocabulary list for our sample text:

  • Instinctive: Something you do or know how to do without needing to learn it.
  • Etched: Something that is carved into a surface, or something that is remembered very well.
  • Circuitry: A closed route or path that something takes—usually an electric current.

2. Don’t define every word.

As mentioned in tip #1, you don’t need to know every word to understand the text. Stopping to define every word takes time and distracts you from understanding the text.

When you come across a word you don’t know, ask yourself if you can understand the sentence without it.

In our sample text, the last sentence of the first paragraph says:

“And the media or other technologies we use in learning and practicing the craft of reading…”

You might not know what the word “craft” means, but you don’t really need to! If you skip over it, you can still understand the sentence: “And the media or other technologies we use in learning and practicing reading.”

If you’re curious, though, “craft” means the skill of making or creating something. Now you know!

3. Use context clues.

The great thing about sentences is that they give new words context. This means the unknown word is surrounded by other words which clarify its meaning. By looking at the words that come before and after an unknown word, you can often figure out the basic meaning.

For example, the end of the last sentence in the first paragraph talks about the “neural circuits inside our brains.” What are neural circuits? By looking at the rest of the sentence, you can tell that neural circuits are something we have inside our brains.

If you made a list of vocabulary words before starting to read, you might already know that a circuit is a closed route that electricity takes. So you might guess that a neural circuit is the path that signals in our brains take when we think, act or learn something. And you’d be right!

4. Look for word roots, prefixes and suffixes that you know.

Many words in the English language use parts of words from Latin, Greek or other languages.

Prefixes are word parts that come at the beginning of a word. Here are two examples of prefixes:

  • bi- (means “two”): bicycle, bipedal, bilateral
  • im- (means “not”): impossible, imperfect, immoral

Suffixes come at the end of a word. Here are two suffixes:

  • -ology (means “the study of”): biology, archaeology, zoology.
  • -less (means “without”): powerless, worthless, pointless.

Roots are the part of the word that’s left when you remove the prefix and the suffix. A root is the main part of the word, and what gives the word its main meaning. For example:

  • bio (means “life”): biology, biodegradable, antibiotic.
  • hydro (means “water”): dehydrate, hydroelectric.

You might have noticed that both “bicycle” and “biology” seem to have the same “bi” in the beginning. That’s not quite true! Bi and bio come from two different Latin words. So be careful when you’re looking at a new word. Prefixes, suffixes and roots can be very useful, but they’re just a way to get the possible meaning of a word.

In our two sample paragraphs, there are a few words you might recognize from their Latin origins:

  • Ideograms are written symbols that show a concept or a thing instead of the sounds used to make them (like numbers). The word comes from the root idea (form) and suffix –gram (method of being written down). You might know the -gram suffix from “telegram” and “Instagram.”
  • A circuit is (as you probably know by now) a closed loop or path. It comes from the Latin word circum (round), which you might recognize in the more common word “circle.”

5. Break up sentences into chunks

Now that you understand single words, you can apply your new knowledge to full sentences. Some sentences can be difficult to follow because they are long or have a complicated structure. Make them easier to understand by breaking them up into smaller pieces. You can separate sentences by commas, or by thoughts and ideas.

The first sentence in the second paragraph is quite long:

“Experiments demonstrate that readers of ideograms, such as the Chinese, develop a mental circuitry for reading that is very different from the circuitry found in those of us whose written language employs an alphabet.”

Try to break it apart and take it one piece at a time. It can be helpful to restate each part in your own words. It might look something like this:

  • Experiments demonstrate that — studies show that
  • readers of ideograms — people who read characters (which show meaning instead of sounds)
  • such as the Chinese — Chinese people are an example of ideogram readers
  • develop a mental circuitry for reading — create paths in their brains when they read
  • that is very different from the circuitry — which are not like the paths
  • found in those of us whose written language employs an alphabet — found in people who use an alphabet

Since you understand the different parts of the sentence, you can put it together in your own words now:

Studies show that people who read characters instead of an alphabet (like Chinese people, for example) have very different brain paths for reading than those of people who do use an alphabet.

See, that wasn’t as complicated as it looked!

6. Look for related words and ideas.

Understanding every sentence is a good start, but now it’s time to link all the sentences together and understand the full text. You can do that by looking for words and ideas that are related, and making sure you understand how they go together.

One way to do that is by looking for repeated words and phrases. This method works well in our example since the word “circuit” is repeated many times in just two paragraphs.

The first paragraph points out that how we read changes how our brains make sense of the information (using neural circuits). The second paragraph shows a more specific example of this. It states that people who read using an alphabet and people who read using ideograms have very different brain circuits.

Your text might not have repeating words. In that case, you can also look for bold words, words in italics or dialogue found between “quotation marks.”

If you’re reading fiction, you can look for feelings or emotions for a hint on what’s happening to the characters and their response to it. In non-fiction, time-related words and phrases like “before,” “then,” “soon after,” and others can help you organize the information.

Just by following the word “circuit” in our text, you almost understand the full text. Now there’s just one more tip to look at.

7. Read and summarize.

You understand the words. You understand the sentences. You’re even beginning to understand the ideas. Now stop! Read the text again and try to summarize it. Describe the main points and ideas using your own words.

After going through the text little by little using these seven tips, you should be able to understand it a lot better than when you read it for the first time. Here’s a summary of the text, using simpler words:

Reading is not something we do naturally, so our brains need to learn how to change the letters on a page into actual meaning. How and where we read can change the way our brains make this change.

Studies have shown that our brains work in very different ways when we read an alphabetical text than when we read a text of ideograms (like Chinese characters). This probably means that our brains also work differently when we read text online than when we read text from a physical book.

In other words, you might be changing the way your brain works right now, just by reading these words on a screen instead of a printed page. Pretty crazy!

How close did your summary and understanding come to the summary above?

Knowing When to Ask for Help

You just went from barely understanding a text to understanding it very well. Great job! Now you know you can read any text.

We only used two paragraphs from a much longer article. You could read the entire article this way, working through it a paragraph or two at a time.

You might still have trouble sometimes, so remember that it’s okay to ask for help! If part of a text is too difficult for you, try asking a friend, a native speaker, a professor or even searching the Internet for an explanation or a summary. In fact, just by searching Google for the title of the article, followed by the word “summary,” you can find a few one-paragraph summaries of the article.

The author of the article might think Google makes us stupid, but it’s definitely helping to make us smarter, too!

But the best thing for improving your reading skills is practice. You have to look at a lot of English sentences and become confident with how to break them down. 

So read as much English as you can! Even if you’re not reading from a book or magazine, you can still find a way to expose yourself to written English. For example, if you’re watching an English TV show or movie, turn on subtitles and read along.

Language learning programs, with their special tools, can also help you get guided reading practice. For example, FluentU lets you learn natural English with short videos. Each clip comes with interactive subtitles, so you can read what you hear and click on any word to get its definition, grammar details and example sentences. Quizzes are also included so that you can practice reading, writing and speaking vocabulary.


Reading English can be challenging in many ways, but it comes with many rewards too. So keep practicing and building your skills–soon enough, you’ll comfortably pick up any old English book and finish it without any trouble!

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