Getting the most (English) from your reading


in Beyond the Basics, Tools & Techniques

There is no doubt that reading for pleasure is the best way to improve your English.  Research clearly shows that readers have larger vocabularies, better grammar, and write better than non-readers. This article describes several things that you can do to get the greatest benefit from your reading.

I am going to talk mostly about reading books, but you can apply the same principles and ideas to reading – or listening – to anything.

What should I read?

You can read anything – books, magazines, comics, online books, and articles – that you honestly enjoy reading. Usually popular fiction is the best. Don’t try to impress people with what you read. Look for things that are so interesting that you “get lost” in the story. One of my students says that “time disappears” when she reads. That’s the way it should be. If you’re reading something that bores you, stop! Reading that is enjoyable will help you acquire more English than reading that you don’t enjoy.

Find something that you can read and understand without stopping to think about the words. This doesn’t mean that you will know all the words. It does mean, however, that you will know almost all of the words, enough to understand the story or article that you are reading.

How do I know if what I’m reading is too difficult?

If you can read comfortably without stopping and understand what you are reading, it is probably about right.

If you want to do a little math, try this: estimate how many words there are on one page of the book you’re reading. You can do this by multiplying the number of lines on the page by the number of words in one line. Then count the number of unfamiliar words on the page. Divide the number of unfamiliar words by the number of words on the page. If the percentage of unfamiliar words is 2-5%, the book is about right for you.

One of my students did this yesterday. She estimated that there were 320 words on one page, and she found 8 unfamiliar words. When she divided the number of unfamiliar words (8) by the total number of words on the page (320), she got 2.5%. That’s just right for her!

If you start reading something that is too difficult, stop! Put it down. Find something easier for now, and come back later when your English is better.

How much should I read?

Certainly, if you read more, you will acquire more. But it’s better to read almost every day, even if you can read for only 20-30 minutes, than to read for a long time only once or twice a week. According to a research article I read recently, if you read 20-30 minutes each day for two years, you can acquire, or pick up, about 5,000 vocabulary words. That’s significant!

What about the words I don’t know; should I look them up?

No, especially not while you’re reading. If you’re really curious about a few words, you can look them up when you finish. But even that might not be necessary.

One of my students tells me that he rarely looks up unfamiliar words because he knows that he will see them again. And he knows that after he sees them a few times, he will probably acquire, or pick up, the words naturally. So he has decided to continue reading rather than stopping to look up unfamiliar words.

The only time I suggest looking up a word is if you have to know it to understand what you’re reading. But if you have to do this very often, it is probably a good idea to find something easier to read.

Do you have other suggestions to make my reading more effective?

Take advantage of your personal experience, including reading in your first language. Some of my students are reading English books that they originally read translations of in their first language. One of them had read Gone with the Wind in Spanish. When she read it in English, the experience of reading it first in Spanish helped her understand the English version.

Another one of my students, a university law professor, began by reading John Grisham’s books. Grisham’s stories are about lawyers and the legal system, so my student’s knowledge about law helped him understand what he was reading.

You should also consider narrow reading: reading several books by the same author, on one topic, or of the same kind – like Grisham’s legal thrillers. When you read books that are similar in some way – author, topic, kind – each book will be easier to understand than the last one, and you will acquire more English.

Buy or borrow paperback books, which are smaller and easy to carry. Take them with you, in your purse or backpack, and read every time you have a few minutes.

Make reading a habit, a part of your daily life. And plan to do it for the rest of your life!

More questions?

Do you have a question about reading to acquire English? Take a minute to write a comment with your question, and I will answer it.

Warren Ediger

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adrian March 24, 2010

Dear Warren,

Great post!


JA from MX March 24, 2010

Hi Warren! I studied English in 2007 and I’ve enjoyed your tips and posts… keep writing and teaching… and take care.

Ed. March 25, 2010

More one great post. Congratulations. Readings has become part of my English development. I have just a question.
What focus on during the reading ?

I can read of two ways, focusing on story or focusing on how it was wrote paying attention at words and prepositions.

I´m sure with time will be easy but at begging is not. Is there any tips ?

Warren Ediger March 25, 2010

Ed – Pay attention to the story. When you do, your brain will automatically acquire, or pick up, what it is ready for. If you want to read a little more about this, look at The Power of Reading and Listening and Inside the Brain. They’re both part of The Basics.

Don’t try to read things that are too difficult.

yu xiang March 26, 2010

I have a question.
If I face unfamiliar words I don’t know how to pronounce them corectly, should I look them up?

Warren Ediger March 26, 2010

When we read, our first responsibility is to make sense – to understand, or get the meaning – of what we’re reading, not to recognize words. So, the only time to stop is if you have to because a word is absolutely necessary to get the meaning of the sentence or paragraph. If that happens too often, you probably need to choose something easier to read, at least for now.

If there are some words that you’re curious about – either the meaning or the pronunciation – look them up after you finish reading. The Longman dictionary is a good place to do that. It includes easily understood definitions, example sentences, and an audio file so you can hear the pronunciation.

namcuahiem April 6, 2010

Warren Ediger
Should I speak (whisper) when I am reading?

Warren Ediger April 6, 2010

No, I wouldn’t encourage you to do that. There’s no benefit, and it will slow your reading.

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