One of my students – let’s call him Bryan – recently asked me, “How can I be sure that what I’m reading (or listening to) is good for me?” Bryan wants to improve his English as quickly as possible, and he’s worried about wasting time.
A simple guideline
Bryan understands that reading and listening are the keys to better English. He’s been doing a lot of reading, and his English is improving. But he wants to be sure that he always makes good choices.
I gave him a simple guideline, or general rule, for choosing what to read or listen to; you can use it, too:
Read (and listen to) things that are easy enough for you to enjoy without stopping to look up words in a dictionary.
This guideline summarizes several important characteristics of reading or listening material that will help you acquire, or pick up, more English:
- You have very little trouble understanding what you read or listen to. It’s easy to comprehend, and that’s essential for language development.
- You read fast enough to pay attention to ideas, not just the words – you don’t stop to think about words, translate them in your mind, or look them up (unless they’re absolutely necessary for understanding).
- You enjoy what you read or listen to. It’s interesting, you’re relaxed, you get involved with it, and you always want more.
One more question
Bryan had one other question, one that is asked by many students: “What do I do about the words I don’t know?” My answer, in general, is to ignore them. You rarely need to know 100% of the words to understand what you’re reading or listening to. If there are too many unfamiliar words, it’s possible that you’re trying to read something that’s too difficult.
There’s another possibility. Many English learners allow themselves to become so distracted by unfamiliar words – they pay too much attention to them – that they miss the story or the real content of the article they’re reading. When someone does that, we might say that “He couldn’t see the forest because of all the trees.” Concentrate on the story or the content of the article, not the individual words. If you have to know an unfamiliar word to understand what you’re reading, look it up. Otherwise, keep reading!
Remember, every time you see a word, your brain accumulates a little more information about it. After you see it several times in the context of a story or article, you’ll be able to say, “I know it!”
If you follow the simple guideline I gave Bryan, your reading and listening choices will always be good, and everything you read or listen to will contribute to better English. Also, if you follow this guideline, you’ll automatically choose more difficult material as your English gets better, and your English will continue to improve – for the rest of your life!