What to read in English outside class

Summary: 24 manageable and useful things to read to improve your English vocabulary, feel for correct language, reading speed, etc.


Reading is the best way of improving your vocabulary and feel for what sounds natural in English, but it can be difficult to choose the right thing to read. This article gives 24 tips on the most useful things to try reading in English.

Read something at the right level

You are much more likely to remember new language if you understand the context that it is in, so it’s best to read something with between one and three things which you don’t understand per paragraph or page. More than that (e.g. five difficult words per paragraph) is probably too difficult and less than that (e.g. one new word per page) is too easy.


Read graded readers 

The easiest way of making sure that an English book is at the right level for you is by reading easy readers for language learners such as Oxford Bookworms, Cambridge English Readers, Macmillan Readers, or Black Cat Readers. These are available at every level from Beginner to Advanced. They often have their own shelf in bookshops, or can be spotted by being much thinner than similar books for native speakers. As well as being easier and shorter than other English books, they often have more useful vocabulary (for example if the original had old-fashioned or rare English expressions). Many also have recordings to practise listening too and/ or exercises to help you test your comprehension and remember the most useful language in the book. As well as every kind of fiction, you can find biographies, business books, and almost anything else you might be interested in.


Read children’s books

Although they need to be chosen more carefully, kid’s books are also often easier than novels, biographies, etc that were written for English-speaking adults. They also often have more charming and therefore more motivating stories, and can teach you something about the culture of other countries such as things that most British people grow up with.


Read something with pictures

This is something in many graded readers and kids’ books mentioned above that is also a good tip for finding materials that are interesting, easy to understand, and likely to be remembered.


Read things you already know the story of

Another way of making sure that you understand the context and of making reading easier is to choose something that you already know about such as a book based on a movie you’ve seen (as many graded readers are).


Read something similar

Reading books which have the same author, same characters, same setting, same genre, etc will mean that the same kind of vocabulary is likely to come up again, making the book easier to understand and providing useful revision of new language from the previous book.


Read books with lots of dialogue

If you feel like you are ready to read a book written for native English speakers such as the English version of a novel that you have already read in your own language, the easiest tend to be ones in which you see lots of dialogue when you flick through them. Conversely, it is often best to avoid books with lots of descriptive passages (or maybe skip those parts, for example by starting the book on the second page).


Read books that are not too old and not too new

Old books can have language that is uncommon in current spoken English such as things that are very formal nowadays. Very new books tend to have lots of very casual English such as slang and so are often difficult too. Books in the middle, say from about the 1940s to 1960s, such as those by George Orwell, tend to be easier.


Read translations from other languages

Although it might seem silly to practise English with a book that was written in Persian or Norwegian, translations tend to have simpler language than original English books, perhaps because translators usually use less flowery language. The easiest of all are likely to be books translated from your first language.


Read something different

Although you will probably still learn new language every time that you read a newspaper, murder mystery, etc, that will be often be just from one vocabulary area and so will mean that you will find it much more difficult to talk about some other topics that you’ve never read about. It’s therefore worth making a change from time to time.


Read English fiction

Fiction tends to have the widest range of language, and also a story that is memorable and so makes the language stick in your head more.


Read English non-fiction

If you don’t like fiction or want a change, you can find almost as good stories and range of language in similar non-fiction books such as biographies and books by authors like Michael Lewis that use description to make the true-life stories more memorable.


Read local English-language news

Although newspapers are not the best way to learn English (see below), if you read the news every day in your own country, a local English language newspaper is an easy thing to switch to. Local papers are much easier than newspapers from other countries, as you are more likely to know the context of the stories, and they are sometimes also written in easier language.


Read news magazines

Newspapers tend to be a poor source for useful reading practice due to repeating the same news-related vocabulary over and over, lacking paragraphs, having an overall structure to each story or column that is different from other writing, and quickly disappearing from your memory. News magazines such as Newsweek and Time have far fewer of those problems, and also cover more of a range of topics than daily newspapers do. The same is true of weekend newspapers and the magazines in them such as Financial Times at the weekend.


Read English-language listings magazines

Magazines such as the local edition of Time Out are often free. They are also very motivating to read, as you can find things to do in your free time and/ or learn what the life of foreign people is like in your hometown. If your town is too small to have such a magazine, there are almost certainly Twitter accounts, blogs, etc that have the same info in English.  


Read something shorter

Many people nowadays lack the time and/ or concentration to read something long even in their own language, and unfortunately some shorter things like poems and short stories can be especially difficult to understand. The tips below give ideas for easy and useful things that take both less time and less effort.


Read the lyrics to a song

Even native speakers who have heard and sung along to a song hundreds of times can miss some words and/ or find that they have not really thought about the meaning, so it’s well worth reading through the lyrics of songs that you like. They are also good sources of language like idioms.


Read English subtitles

As well as add some reading practice, watching with English subtitles makes it easier to look up things you don’t understand. The context of having pictures should also make the language easier to understand and more memorable.


Read comics

This links several tips above, as comics are all or mostly dialogue, have pictures to make the language easier to understand and more memorable, are often translations into English, and are often related to other media that you might be familiar with.


Read travel books

Although they are not free, travel guides to where you live or where you will visit have many of the advantages of listings magazines, including short individual entries, covering lots of different topics and therefore vocabulary, giving you an interestingly different outsider’s perspective, and hopefully also recommending fun things for you to do.  


Read English around you

Although they are easy to ignore unless you look for them, nowadays most towns have some English instructions on public transport, some English pamphlets on things to do in the town, English ingredients on foodstuffs, English menus in restaurants, etc that you can read while you are out and about.


Switch to reading in English

On top of things that are already available in English, you can easily switch things like the operating system of your computer and menu page of your television to English for some extra everyday practice.  


Read something for pleasure

If the English thing that you are reading gets boring, it will take much longer to read and will not be memorable, so it’s best to throw it away and get something new. For the same reasons, the main focus while reading should be on enjoying what you are reading about.


Read something with comprehension questions/ tasks

Although reading something for pleasure as you would in your own language is great for reading speed and learning new vocabulary from context, it is very unlike the kind of reading that you’ll have to do in English tests, when studying other things through English, in your work, etc. For many people, it is therefore also good to do tasks that make you find and check your understanding of particular information such as TOEIC reading emails tasks and IELTS Yes/ No/ Not Given tasks.

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