Reading and writing are perhaps the most overlooked skills when learning English, but are just as important as listening and speaking. Reading is another way to absorb language (like listening to people speak), and a wonderful resource for improving overall language skills and fluency. Plus, it doesn’t require anything more than a book or the Internet. Language-learners who commit to reading for just 20 to 30 minutes per day are on the road to see great improvements across all skill areas.
So what’s the answer to the often-asked “How can I get better at reading?” It’s simple.
This is the bottom line. You’ve gotta read—it just needs to become a habit. There are dozens of tips for improving reading (such as sticking to a specific time each day), however, here I’ll share one of the most valuable tips I’ve come across. One that will noticeably improve both students’ reading experiences and their language skills: Define your purpose.
Why define your purpose?
It’s important to understand that there is no one single purpose when reading. Therefore, students need to consider what they are reading for: For pleasure? For a class discussion? For a test? (If for a class discussion or test, what will the questions focus on?) Maybe to learn new vocabulary? Let’s look at each, briefly.
Reading for pleasure
Broadly speaking, we read for pleasure the goal is to understand general context, or gist. The same is true when watching a movie. It’s not necessary to know every word to understand meaning. So when teaching reading skills, encourage students not to get hung up on unfamiliar words and phrases, by reminding them of their experiences of reading more difficult books or articles in their own language—they’ve most certainly encountered a word they didn’t know the meaning of, but were still able to understand the main idea. The same is true when reading in English, or any second language.
Reading for discussions or tests
When reading for a class discussion or test, there is typically specific information that students need to identify. Teach them to prepare by first considering what questions or topics will be discussed in class. As the class reads, advise them to prepare for the upcoming discussion by underlining any sentences or phrases that connect to the topic, and making notes in the margins. If it’s a test, particularly a timed test, encourage students to read the questions first, rather than poring over the whole article or text. Show them how to skim, and search for keywords from the questions to find the answers in the text.
Reading to improve vocabulary
Lastly, let’s talk about reading to improve vocabulary. Students frequently ask me, should I stop and look up every new word as I go, or should I ignore them and continue reading? My advice is to keep reading, and identify unfamiliar words as they come up (underlining them or keeping a list in the back of the book on a post-it). Then, after finishing a chapter, I encourage students to go back and look up the new words. Ask your students to refer back to their lists occasionally and quiz themselves to make sure they remember the new vocabulary while speaking and writing.
(Bonus tip: look up these new words in an ENGLISH dictionary—do not translate! I recommend the English Language Learner’s dictionary from Merriam-Webster, which is targeted towards English language learners and therefore has easy-to-understand definitions. There are great vocabulary-building resources on the site as well.)
If students are able to define their purpose for reading before beginning, it will prepare them to focus on what they need at that time, and make reading a much less intimidating skill to tackle!