Better reading – it’s in the chunks


in TOEFL, Tools & Techniques

What is reading? Very simply, reading is trying to make sense of a sentence, paragraph, essay, article, or book. It’s trying to understand what’s in the writer’s mind. And the key to making sense of what we read is in the chunks – groups of words – not individual words.

You read more than you know

We read – try to make sense of – many things in life. We do it automatically. We read people’s faces to see whether they’re happy or angry. We read situations so we know how to act: we act differently at the scene of an accident than we do when we walk into a party with friends or into a cathedral during a religious service.

Trying to make sense of things is natural. Unfortunately, many try to do it unnaturally when they read print because they reduce reading print to only recognizing words. Let me give you an example.

Last year I asked one of my students if he had any trouble reading an article we planned to discuss. He said “no.” He told me that he knew most of the words and had looked up the few that he didn’t know. However when I asked, he couldn’t tell me the main idea of the article. For him reading was recognizing words, not making sense of, or understanding, the article.

Making sense of what you read – it’s in the chunks

Good readers do not read word by word. Why? Because meaning comes in groups of words, sometimes called chunks. And if you want to make sense of what you’re reading, you need to read – to recognize and understand – the chunks.

Let me give you a simple example; look at this sentence:

I left my iPhone at home when I went to the doctor.

This sentence consists of three meaningful chunks:

I left my iPhone (what I did)

at home (where I did it)

when I went to the doctor. (when I did it)

If you want to understand the sentence, you have to understand each chunk and how it works together with the others to describe what I did. You can’t do that if you are simply trying to recognize words. You have to be able to read – make sense of – the chunks, quickly and smoothly.

Developing the chunking habit

There are two methods you can use to improve your ability to make sense of what you read – and what you hear – by paying attention to chunks and not just words.

1. Read very easy books, stories, or articles.

You cannot make sense of what you read if you read slowly, word by word. This is especially true if you have developed the habit of translating English words into your first language while you read.

The best way to correct this problem is to read things that are very easy – that you can understand in English without using your first language (or a dictionary). As your reading speeds up, slowly increase the difficulty of what you read.

2. Listen and read at the same time. If you hear and see the text at the same time, you’ll begin to develop a “feel” for chunking. Again, begin with easy.

Today there are many good sources for reading and listening at the same time. Here are a few suggestions:

  • ESL Podcast – subscribe to the learning guide and read it while you listen to the dialogue and to Dr. McQuillan talk about it (intermediate).
  • VOA Special English – read the stories and listen to the audio at the same time (intermediate).
  • TED presentations – exciting presentations on many different subjects by great speakers. Listen to the presentation and read the interactive transcript. Warning: some speakers have strong accents; avoid them for now (advanced).
  • Academic Earth – try Dr. Paul Bloom’s Introduction to Psychology class; listen to the video and read the transcript at the same time (advanced).

Some of my students have used audio books and listened to them while they read the print version of the book. You can find audio books at many different levels of difficulty. Here are some articles to help you get started:

Be patient

Developing a new habit takes time. Changing your reading habits certainly will. So be patient. As you begin to read faster and more smoothly, slowly increase the difficulty of what you read. But don’t try to rush it; it won’t work.

Warren Ediger

References: Nishizawa, Yoshioka, Fukada (2009) The impact of a 4-year extensive reading program; Smith (2007) Reading FAQ.

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Sanaz November 1, 2011

Many thanks Warren,
Your points are always useful. I’m looking forward to reading your new articles soon:)

Andreu Martínez November 2, 2011

You have excelled yourself again!
I’m listening “Introduction to Psychology”. I’ve glanced at Academic Earth and I think is an amazing web. You can find and listen to a lot of interesting stuff there.
Thank you very much indeed!
Best wishes.

David Monteiro November 6, 2011

Hi, dear Warren! How have you been, man?

Firstly, please forgive me for ‘breaking the protocol’, but I’d like to say that I loved your last article (Revising for better English)! I tried to comment on it, but I couldn’t… So I read it innumerable times, and every time I did it, I found out something new and useful. It’s impressive how you make the hard things seem easy… and I, as an English learner, just have to eternally thank you for those great suggestions!!

Secondly, thanks (again) for helping mostly me break that terrible habit of translating words. Since I started to follow you and your heavenly tips, things became much easier for me. I used to experience bad times, mainly in conversations, for trying to understand every individual word, not the meaning of the message. And I always blamed myself for not getting the idea. But today, I proudly say out loud that Warren Ediger has helped me change my mode not only in situations that involve the English language, but in all aspects of my life! Now, I can understand, read, write, and speak English better, thanks to you! You also taught me that it’s okay not to grasp everything. And I must confess that your words are very powerful because they have changed the attitudes of a perfectionist guy (me). I’m not trying to be a ‘kiss-ass’ (sorry if this word is vulgar), I just want to express how much I’m happy and grateful to you and to have found this full-of-teachings website.

Thanks for every little thing! Best regards!

David Monteiro

Warren Ediger November 6, 2011

Thank you, David. I’m very grateful for your comments because they tell me that “clear explanations and practical suggestions” are hitting their target.

Gordon Scruton November 16, 2011


An excellent post and a clear description for students. I’ll be showing some of my academic reading/writing class this article later this week to help them get their heads around these very important points.

Your point about reducing texts down to words is certainly what left me dry and bored in my French and German classes at secondary school. I think we do it naturally – our reading skills in L1 have become so advanced that we simply don’t remember all the work we did and coping mechanisms we employed to achieve that level of mastery. Many learners approach an L2 text without the ‘training wheels’ they had to support them when they were learning to read L1.

Warren Ediger November 16, 2011

Thanks, Gordon – When we acquire our first language (L1), we do acquire chunking naturally. We hear it in the speech of those around us and when our parents and others read to us. Many English learners, unfortunately, don’t get that support. For that and a variety of other reasons, they get into the habit of focusing on words individually, often translating as they go. To compensate for that, they often need to go back and read text that is very simple – something they can read faster than usual – so they can break the habit of reading word by word and, if it’s a problem, translating as they read. They are also helped by listening or listening and reading at the same time. If they do that they will gradually pick up the natural rhythm of the language.

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