Fine-tune your reading for better English


in Beyond the Basics, Tools & Techniques

Reading (and listening) is the key to language development. More specifically, the comprehensible input we get from reading and listening is the key to language development. Without it very little happens. With it, vocabulary grows, a feel for correctness emerges, and fluency increases. Comprehensible input is necessary and also sufficient to achieve your goal – better English.

Decisions you make – what you read and how you read – determine most of the language benefits you receive from reading. Here are some ideas from a recent book, Free Voluntary Reading, that can help you fine-tune your decisions and make your reading as effective as possible.

Effective reading is effortless reading

The best reading for language development is effortless – “easy reading that seems to be completely comprehensible without struggle.” Many students believe they need to challenge themselves, to read above their comfort level to improve. The opposite is true. One researcher, for example, found that your vocabulary grows faster if you know at least 95% of the words in the text you are reading.

Effective reading involves you in the text, not the language

You acquire, or absorb, more language when you get so involved in what you’re reading that you forget that it’s in another language or contains language you haven’t acquired yet. To do this, your reading must be effortless and interesting, or even compelling, so you can focus all your attention on the text and ignore the language.

This idea is related to the concept of flow. Flow is the mental state or condition you experience when you are “deeply but effortlessly involved in an activity. In flow, the concerns of everyday life disappear … our sense of time changes [e.g., time ‘stops’] and only the activity we’re involved in seems to matter.” When we say we “got lost in a book,” we’re describing the effect of flow. Language acquisition happens most effectively when you experience flow.

Worrying about your progress makes reading less effective

Language acquisition takes place “behind the scenes.” As a result, you won’t usually be aware of the progress you’re making until sometime later, when a word you need suddenly “appears” or when someone comments about your improvement.

Many students worry too much about progress. They create stress for themselves by worrying about remembering and forgetting what they’ve read. Some manage to convince themselves that they’re not improving.

If you do what you need to do – become deeply involved in effortless reading – your brain will automatically and quietly do what it does well – acquire more language. And you will make progress.

Checking your comprehension makes reading less effective

When you stop reading to check your comprehension, you interfere with the language acquisition process and make it more difficult. This happens, for example, when you stop to look up a word or add it to a vocabulary list for later study.

Stopping to check a word or write it down takes your attention away from what you’re reading. It requires you to remember what you’re reading while you stop to do something else. The result? You’ll be focused on the language, you’ll be less involved in the reading, and you will experience less flow. You’ll enjoy the reading less and, most importantly, significantly reduce its benefits. The more you stay involved in the text without interruption, the more language you will acquire.

Your job

Dr. Jeff McQuillan recently wrote that language acquisition is both incremental – it happens little by little – and incidental – it happens as the result of another activity – reading. Your job, as an English learner, is to do the other activity – to read interesting, effortless English. To enjoy what you’re reading. And to get deeply involved in it. This is the greatest contribution you can make toward your ultimate goal – better English.

A final note: it works for listening, too

You should also apply these ideas to the listening you do.

Warren Ediger

References: Krashen (2011) Free Voluntary Reading; McQuillan (2012) Even better than you think: more good news for incidental vocabulary acquisition.


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Sergio Fabbri May 9, 2012

Dear Warren,
thank you very much for underlining again this approach to the language. You are right, I know, but it’s really difficult reading something don’t find what a word means and carry on resisting to such a temptation!
I reached this compromise: I allow myself to seek for a meaning only when I meet the word almost three time! That talking about paper books.
Instead, if i’m reading a novel on my Kindle, I give a quick glance to what a word means using the dictionary that appears in the cursor position…
And now a question. Writing this comment I did’nt use at all the dictionary… That is, we must follow your advice about writing too? In this case a serious problem is don’t know English enough to sustain my thoughts!
My best wishes,

Warren Ediger May 9, 2012

Sergio – I understand the temptation, but there is a “price to pay” any time you interrupt the flow. Some of the research I’ve seen suggests that if you’d kept reading until you had seen your new word a few more times, you would have acquired it and wouldn’t have needed to look it up at all.

About writing – I encourage students to work at writing well within the limitations of their current language ability; in other words do the best you can with the language you have. If you continue to do a lot of reading and listening, your language reservoir will continue to grow and you’ll be able to handle more and more complex ideas when you write.

When you write, begin by creating a draft (step 1), a first attempt to get all your ideas down, without using any kind of reference. When you revise what you’ve written (step 2), you may benefit from looking up a few words to be sure they say what you want to say, but don’t make this part of step 1. During step 3, check spelling, punctuation, etc., to be sure they’re correct. During this step, something like Hacker’s “A Writer’s Reference” can be helpful.

Mariz May 13, 2012

Upon writing a draft I try to get lots of ideas down on paper as quickly as can be. Tend not to be concerned about spelling or punctuation at all at this phase. If you tried to change something just write an improved version. You might have a lot of repetition in your first draft but i that’s okay.

Andreu Martínez May 15, 2012


Let me explain here my experience. I’ve started writing almost everything in English some years ago. At the beginning it seemed an impossible thing to do. Added to the fact that obviously I wasn’t used to it I didn’t find the right words because I haven’t them….

It is true that my level of English is far from my level of Spanish but day by day it’s closer.
True be told there are moment when even I’m surprised of myself. For example it happens to me that from time to time I’m writing in English and suddenly I know that what I’ve written is correctly written and that it was what I was trying to express. My ideas that were coming up from my brain were correctly expressed in English but… I don’t know exactly the Spanish translation of the sentence that I’ve just written in English. I go to the dictionary for the sake to know that I’m having a right feeling and that’s it… the translation to the sentence in Spanish fits perfectly with the idea in my mind that I’ve just written in English.

Keep reading a lot. Keep trying to write and keep reading the advices of our good friend Warren.
I know he is totally right. He and Jeff McQuillan and Dr. Stephen Krashen also. Follow them and you’ll be in the good track.

Practices makes perfect! Don’t give up! Be patient.


Sergio Fabbri May 15, 2012

@Mariz – Thank you very much for your tip. If I can explain better my situation, I want to tell you that my problem is not about writing in general, but writing in English. In my own language I write school physics books and I know how many problems there are in writintg clear and essential…

However, when I write in English I think as a mature man despite my skills in English are that of a 5/6-year-old child! My grammar aknowledge cannot follow my thoughts! In the meantime my goal is not translate what I think in Italian but thinking direcly in English… It’s sometimes funny and sometimes frustrating… In any case there’s an inner reason for I’m studying at my age (56) a new language! I’m seeking for, for… And that’s really exciting – thanks to Warren too, with his pondered [does it exist in English?] and plenty of experience advice.


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