Have you taken a four-part language exam? Which part scared you the most? It probably wasn’t the reading section. Reading is about understanding – it’s a “receptive skill” – and it allows you to understand at your own speed.

Listening, the other receptive skill, forces you to go at the speaker’s own speed. Writing and speaking – the “productive skills” – force you to come up with the language yourself.

Because reading exams seem easier, the questions are often trickier; they try and trip you up. In a language test, the examiner sets the goalposts, they decide the target, and most students will not get 100% (otherwise the test is too easy!). The examiners want to know if any students fully understand the text.

This is not a practical everyday goal. It would be too much to aim for 100% understanding in everything you read in real life. Life is too short! In your everyday reading, you set the targets.

Here are some everyday reading tips: do as much or as little as you want – remember it is about your needs, your motivation and your progress.

Read Messages

Do you have any friends who are native speakers? Do you chat on social media or via email? Do it as much as you can! Not only will you get writing practice but it’s the easiest way to fit reading into your day.

Read the News

Spend a few minutes reading the news – choose one article and read it through once. Do you understand the key information of the article? Read it again. If there are new words, can you understand them from context? If not, look them up in a dictionary.

Read a Book You Know

Read a book you know well, but in the original English (or translated into English). If you already know the general narrative or story, you can concentrate on understanding the details.

Read Non-Fiction

Non-fiction books – biographies, travel diaries etc – can be easier because the language is often closer to everyday English. It is more concrete. If you read a first-person narrative (I did this, I did that) – for example, Wild by Cheryl Strayed – it is more like listening to a conversation or reading an email.

Finally… Read Fiction

Fiction can be the most challenging thing to fully understand in your second language. Choose a novel or a short story – but sample it first. Don’t buy it if it depresses you straight away! The more dialogue there is, the easier it will be. There will be descriptive language you don’t understand – don’t worry about it! You don’t have to write down any vocabulary, but if you want to, try this method:

  1. Underline any unknown words with a pen or pencil as you read.
  2. Can you still understand the sentence or the paragraph from context? If so, keep reading.
  3. If the unknown word leaves you totally confused – you really don’t understand what is happening – then you can stop and look it up.
  4. You can look up other words at the end of the chapter.
  5. If you want to make a note of new words, first ask yourself: will I do anything with these words? If you do want to memorise the words, just write down the most useful or interesting ones (ideally just a few per chapter).
  6. If you try and write down or memorise every single new word you will only lose motivation! I am a native English speaker, I read a lot, and I still come across new words. It is not possible to know all the words – cut yourself some slack! (Be kind to yourself!)

Got Any Book Tips?

Leave them in the comments below!