Here’s a situation. Think about whether you’ve been here before.
You start reading something in English.
You can’t understand a lot of it, and there are many unknown words.
You start looking up every word you don’t know in a dictionary.
Thirty minutes later, you’re either asleep, or you’ve read about two paragraphs. Of course, this makes you feel bad, and you start feeling that you can’t read in English, that it’s too difficult, and so on.
But, this isn’t true! You can read in English and you can improve, whatever your English level now.
What’s the key?
You need to select materials at the right level. Often, people try to read the same things they would read in their native language.
But, if your English level is intermediate, like many of the learners we meet, then you need to accept that you can’t read all the same things in English that you would read in your own language. If you try, you’ll feel frustrated, and probably give up.
So, it’s essential to select reading materials that are the right level for your English abilities now. But, how can you do that?
Here are some tests you can use:
One: can you understand the general meaning of the text without using a dictionary?
Two: can you understand the general meaning of most sentences without using a dictionary?
Three: can you read the text at a reasonable speed? This is subjective, but it shouldn’t take an hour to read a few paragraphs.
If you can’t answer ‘yes’ to these questions, then the text is probably too hard.
Of course, you don’t want it to be too easy, either! If you can understand everything first time, it’s probably too easy. There should be some words and ideas which aren’t easy to understand.
You’re probably thinking: so where can I find suitable reading materials?
That’s a hard question to answer, because this depends on your level, your study goals, and your personal tastes.
Here’s one suggestion: look for graded readers.
Graded readers are books adapted specially for English learners. They take famous stories, or even things like Shakespeare plays, and adapt them for different levels.
Naturally, there are many other sources of English reading materials: news websites, magazines, blogs, forums, books, journals, and so on.
However, whatever you read, it should pass these tests. You should be able to read and understand most of the general ideas without using a dictionary or spending hours reading a short text.
If you can get this right, then you’ve done the most important work. Remember that you don’t have to finish reading everything you start. For this lesson, we’re talking about reading in order to improve your English level. To do this, you need to find the right materials at the right level. Don’t waste your time trying to read things which are much too difficult.
So, what’s the next step?
2. Time + Variety = Progress
Let’s get one thing clear: improving your reading skills in English is going to take a lot of time. It’s not something you can do in days or weeks. There aren’t any tricks which can help you to improve faster.
So, the best thing you can do is very simple: read as much as possible. Spend as much time reading in English as you can.
Also, variety is important in your reading practice.
If you read the same kind of texts again and again, you’ll get good at reading that kind of text. For example, if you only ever read news articles about economics, you’ll get very good at reading news articles about economics, but you might find it difficult to read other styles of text on other topics.
If you’ve seen our video about how to improve your listening, then you might recognise these ideas. That’s because improving your reading and improving your listening need a similar approach.
Let’s make an example reading study plan together, but first, we want you to think about something: how many different things could you read in English? Pause the video, and try to think of five different things you could read. Make them as different as possible.
Ready? Let’s make a reading study plan together. There are two rules:
Do something every day. If you’re very busy, try to do five minutes a day. Five minutes is better than nothing. If you can do ten minutes a day, do ten minutes. If you can do more, do more. But, do something, even if it’s just a little bit!
Do something different every day. If you read part of a novel one day, read something different the next day.
Also, try to find things you’re interested in, and that you really want to read. That way, it won’t feel so much like studying, which will make it easier to do regularly.
Anyway, here’s a possible plan for one week:
Monday: read 1-2 pages of a short story Tuesday: read a blog post Wednesday: read a BBC news article Thursday: do a reading exercise from an English textbook Friday: read a film review online Saturday: read the comments on an online news article Sunday: read the lyrics to a song
Of course, you should make your own plan to suit your own interests and level.
When you’ve made your plan, write it down and stick it on a wall, or on your bathroom mirror, or somewhere where you’ll see it every day. When you finish each thing, cross it off your plan. That way, you can track what you’ve done, and feel good about finishing your plan.
On the one hand, it’s good to challenge yourself, so give yourself one or two harder days, where you’re reading more, or reading something more difficult.
On the other hand, be realistic and don’t try to do too much. It’s more important to make reading in English a long-term habit, so make a plan which you can stick to regularly!
Next, keep doing this, every day, every week, every month. You might not feel that you’re getting better, but over time, you will improve.
Now, you’ve seen the most important ideas you need to improve your English reading. There are a couple more points to think about. Let’s look.
3. Improving Your Language Abilities
Here’s a situation: you’re taking an English exam, maybe an IELTS exam. You have a reading text which is difficult for you. There are many words you haven’t seen before, and many sentences which you don’t understand clearly.
The clock is ticking. What can you do? Are there any tricks to make it easier to understand the text in this situation? Surely there must be some special techniques which make it easier, right?
Not really. If you’re reading a text and you don’t know many of the words, that’s a bad situation. If your grammar knowledge isn’t enough to understand complex sentence structures, then that’s a bad situation.
At that moment, when you’re in your exam and you’re faced with this difficult text, there’s really no good solution.
There are many videos and lessons giving you ‘reading tips and tricks’, including some of our own! However, these are only necessary if your reading level isn’t high enough for a specific task, like an IELTS reading exam. These tips and tricks are ways to deal with having a lower reading level than you need.
Like everything in this lesson, there’s no quick fix here. To improve your English reading level, you also need to improve your grammar and vocabulary knowledge, and that’s a long, slow process.
But, it’s necessary. Remember in part one, we said that you should choose reading materials which you could understand most of without a dictionary? Now, we need to look at this from the other side. Often in life, you can’t choose the things you need to read. If you’re at work, or taking an English exam, you’ll be given a text. You can’t choose to read something easier.
In that situation, you need to know most of the words in the text already. If you don’t, it will take you a long time and a lot of work to read and understand the text, and there’s a high chance that you’ll misunderstand parts of it.
So, what should you do?
Firstly, your reading practice needs to be supported by regular grammar and vocabulary work. We won’t go into details about this here, because it’s too big as a topic, but if you need advice, there are many free vocabulary lessons and other free materials and videos on our Oxford Online English channel and our website to help you learn vocabulary and grammar effectively.
Secondly, when you read something in English, don’t just read it once. Read it two, three, four or more times, especially if it’s difficult to understand the first time. Vocabulary learning depends on repetition, so by reading a text many times, you give yourself more chances to see new words and phrases in context, which makes it easier to remember them.
Thirdly, as you practice and as your reading level improves, increase the difficulty of your reading materials. This way, you’ll continuously see new words, new phrases, new sentence structures, and so on.
Okay, let’s look at one more useful point you can use to practice your English reading.
4. Set Yourself Challenges
If you’re still here, you’re probably bored of hearing that improving your English reading is a long, slow, pro… Okay, okay, you get it. We’ve told you many times.
The problem with long, slow processes is that they’re often boring. And, when something’s boring, it can be hard to motivate yourself to do it.
So, how can you deal with this?
The most important point is something you’ve already heard: read things you’re interested in.
However, there are a few other things you can do. One idea is to set yourself challenges.
For example, use a timer when reading something and set yourself a time limit. Try to read the whole text within the time limit.
Or, get a speed reading app. There are many available in the Apple Store or Play Store, including many free apps like this reading practice app. These apps display text at a specific speed, so you have to read at the same speed. As you get better, you can challenge yourself by increasing the speed.
Another good challenge is to read texts without a dictionary or any help. You shouldn’t do this all the time, because it’s useful to learn new vocabulary when you read, and you need a dictionary for this. However, sometimes it’s good to practice without any help. It’s also useful because this is often closer to real-life situations, where you might be under pressure and unable to look up every word you don’t know.
Follow these tips and your English reading level will improve. Remember that you need to be patient!