There are a number of ways in which you can improve your reading skills. Some of these are technical – there are certain techniques that need to be trained if you want to be a more efficient reader. These techniques include training yourself to avoid bad habits such as sub-vocalization (silent speech as you read) so that you can learn to read more quickly. This article though is about a different set of skills – skills that are much less technical – they are really just practical ideas to get you reading more and understanding and learning from what you read.
1. Read for enjoyment
Okay, this one should be self-evident. If you want to read better, start out by reading things that you are positively interested in. The very simple insight here is that if you are interested in what you are reading then your brain will take in the content of what you are reading. More than that, the more interested you are in the content, the more quickly you read, the more you can’t wait to get to the next idea, the next sentence or the next page. Before you know it, you have finished the book. Job done!
2. Don’t just read – read then speak or read then write
Sometimes people find reading difficult because it is such a solitary activity – it’s almost invariably something you do by yourself. If you spend too much time reading, it gives you less time for more “communicative” activities such as speaking to other people. Here’s an idea: talk to other people about what you are reading: there are book clubs galore out there after all. The insight is that if you share what you read by speaking or writing about it, then reading becomes much less of a chore. I’d add that, speaking as a language teacher, reading then speaking and/or writing will speed up your vocabulary learning no end – it makes a passive skill more active.
3. Think about what you have read
Why does reading often go wrong? Well, quite frequently people read “numbly” – the process becomes too automatic, the eyes are moving but the brain isn’t engaged. The symptoms of this are that you get to the end of the page and you have no idea about what you have just read. If this happens, then nothing much has been achieved. Is there a solution? I think so. It can be as simple as asking yourself the question “What have I just read?” at the end of each page or chapter, or perhaps “Do I agree with that?”. These are questions anyone can ask and answer – you don’t always need a language teacher to help you!
4. Think about where and when you read
One way reading has changed is that there are now much more media out there: for example different varieties of e-readers now make it possible to read almost wherever we go. This, for me, is a “good thing”. However, it does pose a challenge to the reader: you are much more likely to lose concentration if you are browsing the net on your mobile phone on the train during your daily commute. The idea here is just that if you want to take in what you read, it is much best to find somewhere quiet first.
5. Use pictures and headings to help you
Another way technology is changing reading habits is that a huge proportion of texts are now in multimedia formats – you don’t just get words, you get pictures or other forms of media too. If you want to understand what you are reading take a look at the pictures first – they’ll give you a good overview of what the text is about. A related idea is to take time to notice and read the headings – that’s what they’re there for! A little word of warning though: newspaper headlines can be very difficult to decipher – they tend to have their own grammar and often make use of highly idiomatic language.
6. Don’t always read in the same way and give yourself breaks
Good habits are good, right? Well, yes, but if you do the same thing all the time it does tend to become boring. So the suggestion here is to do different things as you read – read in different ways and keep your mind stimulated. My personal advice is to find a number of different things to read and vary between them. For instance, you might want to read a novel in bed at night and the newspaper on the way into work in the morning. All I’d suggest is that you choose reading activities that suit you as an individual and make them part your daily routine.
7. Just read lots – forget your dictionary
There is no science behind this idea! My experience though as a teacher is that almost invariably the people who read best are the people who read most. There is a lot to be said for quality of reading, but quantity matters too. If you are aiming for quantity, I’d make one small suggestion: forget the dictionary sometimes – dictionaries are good but they do slow you down. The idea is to learn to guess at meanings and not look every word up. All this takes is a little confidence and texts that you enjoy and want to understand – which takes me neatly back to idea number 1: my very best advice is to learn to read for pleasure.
About the author
Dominic Cole is the author of DC IELTS a website for learners of English and anyone interested in the better use of language.
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