3 tips to improve your reading skills

Books are the best teachers – reading is undoubtedly one of the best ways to expose yourself to new vocabulary and grammar. Unlike listening, reading is a skill you can take your time with. You can read in bed, on your break, on the loo – you get the picture.

But how can you improve your reading skills and actually enjoy reading a good book in a foreign language without giving in to frustration or boredom? What kind of reading material should you choose? Here are three tips on improving your reading skills when reading in a foreign language.

  1. Just read!

Your reading skills will improve whatever you read, be it a novel, a trashy magazine article, a comic, or even the text on the back of a cereal box.

Vary your reading material and read anything you can get your hands on. You’ll only get bored if you read the same kind of thing over and over. Think of when you started reading in your first language – you might have read comics, illustrated general knowledge books or video game magazines, apart from the school books and literature you had to read later on.

Reading shouldn’t feel like a chore, and it should certainly never bore your pants off. Don’t limit reading to just being a dreaded part of your studies. Give yourself a break every now and then and read something fun – a good children’s book (you don’t have to tell anyone), a comic, an interesting blog post or Wikipedia article, film or album reviews, even memes or tweets – the sources are endless.

  1. You don’t have to understand every single word

It’s tempting to translate or turn to your dictionary whenever you come across a new word, and it’s only natural to get frustrated after reading a word you don’t get, even if you’re quite sure you’ve already heard or read it before. Nowadays, a translation is only a quick search away, but will it really help you understand and (most importantly) remember what you’ve just read?

Most of the time, you translate a word, go back to the text and try to piece it all together to keep reading, until you come across yet another word you aren’t sure of. Stopping to translate every few words isn’t just frustrating – it will completely put you off reading. You’ll only tell yourself it’s impossible and that you should give up, and this is exactly what you should avoid.

It’s important to vary the difficulty of your reading material. Don’t shy away from reading something (beyond the first couple of lines) just because it’s too difficult. You will always get something out of it, even if you only know a total of one or two words in a sentence. Your skills will never improve if you stick to the same level of reading material, so challenge yourself and try to get out of your comfort zone.

If you’re looking for something that doesn’t fry your brain circuitry, however, you could also buy graded readers – books which are adapted to help learners of English of all levels. Graded readers adapt grammar structures, vocabulary and word count according to what is expected of every level from beginner to advanced. This way, you won’t be overwhelmed with overly complex grammar or vocabulary – it’s simply stuff you have to learn before moving on to the next level. There’s nothing wrong with taking things slow, and doing it step by step could also give you a sense of structure and allow you to set learning goals.

  1. Read strategically

When reading in your first language, you normally use a variety of reading techniques. You wouldn’t read a news article the same way you’d read a novel. You already possess the necessary reading skills in your first language – what you need to do is to learn to transfer them to the language you’re learning.

It’s not an easy task. After all, it comes naturally in your first language thanks to years of practice and exposure. Being aware of the different reading techniques you should use, however, already makes a difference.

Give yourself clear aims when reading, depending on the kind of text. Try reading an article or short story once without looking anything up, for example, and only check definitions after you’ve read the whole thing and given yourself a chance to guess what the text is about.

Look at the big picture – try to guess or infer meaning from context. Look at headlines, pictures and captions in a newspaper, or try to summarise events in a story to get a clearer picture. You could also ‘cheat’ by looking up a plot summary of the book you’re reading online. This way, you’ll know what the story’s about, so you’ll have a vague idea of what’s going on even if you don’t understand some of the vocabulary.

Reread texts whenever possible. You’ll often notice something you might have missed or get a better gist of the topic. Go back to novels and short stories you’ve read after a few weeks or months and you’ll definitely notice your level of comprehension has improved.

And finally: fight the urge to understand everything at first glance – be patient and allow yourself more time. You can’t learn a language overnight, so don’t expect yourself to be able to read in a foreign language without a bit of effort.

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