How to read in English outside class

Summary: Reading in English is an effective way to improve vocabulary and comprehension. This article provides 15 self-study tips for successful reading, including choosing suitable material, reading quickly, and avoiding translation.

If done properly, as well as improving your reading speed and comprehension, reading in English is the best way to learn vocabulary and to get a feel for what correct English sounds like. This article gives 15 tips on the best methods to use while doing so. There is also an article on this site with many ideas for what to read.

Choose something suitable to read

In order to learn from your reading and also enjoy it enough that you keep on doing it, you need to make sure that you are interested in what you pick and that it is the right level. For most people, the easiest way to achieve those two things is by choosing from the huge number of graded readers that are available at every level from beginner to advanced. However, others might be so motivated by reading something written for native speakers such as the original book of their favourite film that the extra effort is worthwhile.


Get ready to read

Particularly if you are reading something that is likely to be difficult (e.g. something for your studies or a book that you’ve always wanted to read the original of), the more that you know about it before you start, the easier it will be to understand unfamiliar language etc from the context. It can therefore be useful to watch the movie version first, read a plot summary first (maybe a spoiler-free one from the publisher), read about it on Wikipedia, read the novel in your own language first, etc.


Read quickly

Reading very slowly and carefully will get boring, will not help with other skills like listening, and will mean that you read too slowly for purposes like work and exams. You might also find that the thing you are reading several times to understand actually becomes clear in the next sentence or paragraph. You should therefore read as quickly as you can (as you probably do in your own language).


Read for pleasure

Reading something that you find fascinating will increase your reading speed and make the language in the reading more memorable and so increase your learning.


Don’t be afraid to skip while reading

As you probably do in your own language, there is nothing wrong with skipping long descriptive passages, ignoring footnotes, and even looking much later in the book to see if it will get more interesting.


Almost always read silently

In order to read more quickly and fluently and to be able to skip forward when you want to, it is best to avoid reading out loud as much as possible. If possible, you should try to stop silently sounding out each word in your head too.


Sometimes read out loud

Reading small parts of a book, article, etc out loud can be useful to help understand things like sentences with complex structures, and to start trying to remember useful language that you find there, so it can be useful to do for up to thirty seconds per reading session.  


Avoid translation while reading

Translating from English into your own language as you read is likely to be slow and to mean that you remember the story in your own language, without the English vocabulary that was in it.


Save things to check later

In order to be able to do all the things above and still learn new things, I find that the best thing to do is to underline anything that is difficult to understand and/ or new to me as I’m reading quickly. After one paragraph, one page, or one chapter, I then go back to see if any of that is still something that I want to look up in a dictionary and/ or note down to learn later.


Select which things to look up in a dictionary after reading

If you follow the tips above, you should find that lots of the things that you didn’t understand become clear later in the text or turn out to be something not worth learning such as someone’s nickname, which will leave just the most useful things to actually check the meaning of. If you still find yourself often looking up things that turn out not to be worth learning, you could try using a paper dictionary and ignoring any words or phrases that aren’t in it when you look them up.


Select which things to learn from the reading

If you follow the tips above but still look up more useful words and expressions than you have time to learn, you can select further by choosing things that really affected your understanding (including language that meant you couldn’t answer comprehension tasks) and/ or things that were repeated in the reading materials.


Put the right amount of effort into learning new language from reading

It can be really frustrating to learn a new word from reading and then have forgotten it completely the next time that you see it. However, you don’t want to spend so much time learning vocabulary from previous reading texts that you have no time for new reading. I tend to limit myself to 25 to 70 words or expressions to learn, look through that list two or three times a day, and cross off words when I’ve successfully remembered them four times.


Try an English-English dictionary

Using a monolingual dictionary could stop you consciously translating in your head and so mean a faster reading speed. It could also have extra benefits like other useful English words and expressions in the definitions and providing a good example of trying to explain something that you don’t know the English words for.


Talk and/ or write about it afterwards

Other good ways of fixing the new language from what you were reading in your brain include describing it to a classmate, writing a review, writing a summary, and writing an imaginary email about it to someone such as the author.


Give up and try something else

It’s important that you read a lot and find what you read stimulating enough for it to stay in your memory, so if what you chose to read turns out to be too easy, too difficult, uninteresting, etc, just put it away and start something else.

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