How to improve your reading skills in English – The (almost) complete guide

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They say the best way to learn how to do something is... by doing it (duh?), and learning languages is not the exception. If you want to learn to read in English then you need to read in English. If you want to learn to understand spoken English you need to listen to things in English. If you want to be able to write and speak in English, then you need to practice by writing and speaking once you have a strong vocabulary and grammar base inside of you.

The thing is that if your English level is low you can't just go and sit down to "read" in the same way as you would read books and articles in your native language. In your native language you can understand almost anything you read, you can read relatively fast, and you rarely have to search a word in the dictionary. But you can't do that with texts in English yet.

In this stage of your learning, your English level is pretty low, and the process of reading anything in English will be inevitably slow, exhaustive, and will require patience and dedication from you. To be able to read a text in English you will need one or more software dictionaries at hand (I mean... at "keyboard"), which you will consult every time you find a word you don't know, and/or if you don't know how to pronounce it.

I like to refer to this process of slow and exhaustive reading as deciphering , because that's basically what you will be doing with your texts in English: You will decipher them carefully with your dictionaries, as to figure out what those texts actually say. Slowly, patiently, bit by bit, as if they were ancient hieroglyphs.

Following this process of deciphering (or just call it "learning" or "studying" English, whatever) a lot of different materials written in English, one or two hours a day (or whatever you can), each day, week after week, month after month, with discipline and constancy... that's how you will train your reading abilities in English.

Looking up words in the dictionary will gradually build your vocabulary, and seeing certain phrase patterns repeatedly in what you read will gradually develop your natural sense of English grammar. After many months of deciphering texts you will have so much practice under your belt that you'll be able to read texts in English with the same ease as you read texts in your native language... but you have to invest the necessary time and effort first to reach that point.

Why does this process of "deciphering" work? Because by deciphering is how you transform texts in English into comprehensible input for you. If you consume comprehensible (and new) input in the language, you will gradually acquire it. That's how language acquisition works for all human beings, and for any language.

I will proceed to share with you in detail how to follow this deciphering process, so you can learn to read in English using whatever texts you want to use. Let's go go go GO!


What content should you use to learn English?


To me, this is the best part of this entire process. It's true that deciphering texts takes it's time and you will have to do it every day for many months to be able to reach a good level of reading skills in English. But the VERY good news is that to follow this process you can use any written content you want. You can read whatever your heart desires to improve your English.

Let me repeat it: You can use any content That. You. Want. You can use whatever that you, and only you, like and find interesting to read. You can decipher texts in English about the topics you like the most, and from your favorite authors. No material is out of limits – the only limit is in your tastes (and your bandwidth huehuehuehue). For instance...

Do you want to train your English by reading webcomics, or classic newspaper comics? They are all yours. Or what about reading manga translated into English? Sure, which one do you want to read?

Do you like to read about science and new technology? Resources like that abound on the web. Or you like to read about history, or world news? You will never have a lack content in those areas.

You like videogames? I got. You. Covered. Or you like to read about computers and mobile devices? Same thing.

You like to read fiction? What genre? Science fiction, romance, adventure, mystery, erotica? Or you like to read non-fictional content like personal development, business, fitness or chronicles and personal tips? ¿Or you like to readrandom entertaining stuff?

The topic doesn't matter, neither does the style. Doesn't matter how serious, or crazy, or technical, or dirty, or religious, or politically incorrect, or sexy, or geeky, or atheist, or formal, or informal, or abnormal is whatever you like reading. As long as the material is written well, and it's all in English, you can use it to improve your reading skills.

Think about what kind of things you like to read in your native language when you have free time. Search for similar content, but in English. Read and decipher it to improve your reading.

Also, if there is any kind of content in English you don't like, then you DON'T have to use it (the only resource I believe is indispensable is at least ONE dictionary). You can find a lot more content in English that you do like to replace whatever you don't like. For instance, you don't have to use academic textbooks to learn English if you don't want to, like the ones you have to buy for English classes. if you like using books like that, use them. If you can't stand them, use materials that you DO like.


What content to read when you are learning English from scratch


If you can read this, then this section is not aimed at you. But hey, if you master a language different form English and Spanish (say, Italian), and you'd like to help English beginners who can't read articles in English yet (beginners from Italy, for instance), you are more than welcome to translate this section (or the whole article if you want) and share it on your website or social networks. Spread the love! :D

Anyways, so... if the only interaction you've had with English was in your English classes at school (which is the same as if you've never seen any English in your life), and if you barely know what "Hello" and "Bye" is and nothing more, starting to decipher materials as dense as articles and books in English could feel daunting to you.

It doesn't have to be that way. If you want, and if you decide to do it, you can start deciphering any kind of written content in English you like, no matter how dense and complex it may be. The difference is that you will have to consult your dictionary much more frequently, and you will need more patience. You can do it that way... but hey, if you'd rather start with more simple content to gradually get used to reading in English, you can do that too. It's just that your options to find content will be a bit more limited.

If your English level is almost zero and you'd rather decipher "training-wheels"-like content, these are the kinds of resources I suggest you use:

* Parallel texts in English and your native language: A parallel text is when you are presented with text in a certain language, and by its side you can see a translation into another language of that same text. Many fictional stories (usually stories for which their copyright has expired) are published in this format.

When you are just getting started reading in English, it can happen that when you read a sentence it's not clear to you what it actually means, even if you looked up all the words you didn't understand in said sentence in your dictionary (that's normal). So, the advantage parallel texts give you is that they allow you to verify the correct meaning of each sentence you read in English, and compare your interpretation of each sentences with the correct meanings of each sentence.

The act of verifying the correct meanings of the phrases in English you read in parallel texts will help your brain to interpret correctly similar sentences that you find in the future.

* Song lyrics in English (translated to your native language): Music in English is a very versatile resource to help you learn the language, whatever your level may be. In particular, song lyrics in English are specially useful for beginners because:

1. Song lyrics are much less dense pieces of content compared to articles or book chapters, for instance.

2. If that song is popular enough, you will likely find a translation in your native language. If you find one, you will have the same advantage as with the parallel texts.

* Graded Readers ebooks and stories: These are books and stories written in relatively simple English, with certain words and grammatical structures omitted to make the texts more simple. The disadvantage of these texts is that you won't have translations in your native language to help you out – just your dictionaries and your perseverance.

* Simple English Wikipedia: Did you know this existed? I present to you: Wikipedia, but with articles written in simple English. This resource is ideal for beginners. There you will find 120.000+ articles in total, all written in simple and easy to understand English. It's very likely that you'll find articles there about topics that interest you.


How to find written content in English


To begin, you can follow any of the links I provided above. You might like some of the sites I've shared with you.

Now, to search for content in English just do the same you would do in your native language: Search it on Google. Google is your friend! Think about what you like reading, and then type keywords related to what you would like to read in the search bar.

Try searching strings like "Reviews of Nintendo games", "world news articles", "chicken recipes", "how to increase my productivity", "funny life comics", etc. Even just one word, like "birds", "karate" or "chess" can give you a good starting point to find content. Browse Google and visit different sites until you find an article that catches your attention.

Note: The following blue links are affiliate links. This means that if you follow those links and end up buying something at Amazon.com, I earn a commission.

If you want to read digital books, and you have access to a credit card, I strongly recommend you open an Amazon.com account and that you browse Kindle ebooks to buy there (some are free). You can see some ebooks I recommend at the Inglesk Amazon store here.

If you don't have a credit card there are many web resources that offer free ebooks that are in the public domain, and many websites also offer ebooks in .pdf format (usually created by the author of the webiste) in exchange of your email address.


Get your digital dictionaries ready


Your dictionary is your codex, the tool with which you will decipher all those words in a weird language you don't understand (yet) to make them comprehensible. For now, I recommend you use the following:

Online dictionaries – For beginners, I suggest the WordReference English – X, and X – English dictionaries (where X is your native language). If your native language is not listed in the WordReference collection, search for the phrase "English – X dictionary" in Google, replacing X with your native language.

For intermediate learners who feel comfortable reading definitions in English, my favorite dictionary is the Oxford Learner's Dictionary. For more information about online dictionaries, read this article.

Offline dictionaries – A dictionary program I used to recommend you use is called Lingoes. This program for Windows is like a "dictionary engine" that you can put dictionary files into in .ld2 format. For more information on how to install and use Lingoes read this article. I will look into better offline dictionaries soon.


How to decipher texts in English


All right, to read and decipher texts in English you will need to follow the following steps, whatever your English level may be, and whatever the written contents you will be using may be.

Always have in mind the objective of deciphering: To convert into comprehensible input all that written content in English that you can't understand for now. In other words, to somehow make what you are reading understandable for you:

Step 1 – Preparation:

First, set one or two hours (or more if you want... but take breaks) on your day that you will dedicate to search for content in English, and to read/decipher it. It's better if you do your hour in one go, but if you have to spread that time during your day (say, 30 minutes in the morning, 30 minutes during lunch, and another 30 minutes at night, or something like that), then so be it.

Open your Internet browser. Once you know what kind of content you would like to read in English, search for content of that kind on Google or maybe on the websites I already gave you. If the content is downloadable (like a kindle ebook, or an ebook in .pdf format), download it and open it in its respective program (on your kindle reader, or your .pdf application, etc.)

Also open in your browser the online dictionaries you will use, or install in your browser the search engines for each dictionary (more information about how to do that here). Open your offline dictionary program if you installed one.

Now, once you have your content ready to be read and your web/offline dictionaries handy, it's adventure deciphering time! If you want you can play some music or a podcast in English while you read, but I think it would be better to read in silence for higher concentration.


Step 2 – Read:

Start reading your text and repeat clearly in your mind each word that you read. If you don't know how to pronounce a word you just read, or you don't know what it means, or both, look it up in your dictionaries. Copy-paste or type the word in the dictionary you want to consult.


Step 3 – Checking pronunciations:

If you are not sure about how to pronounce a word in English in your text, look it up. DON'T try to guess how to pronounce it. Remember that knowing the correct pronunciation of most words in English you find is crucial.

If you are going to consult a word in one of your dictionaries, first read its IPA transcription to learn well how it's pronounced. The dictionary should give you the US and UK pronunciation of the word in question. I recommend you pay more attention to the US pronunciation. Also, a word could have more than one valid pronunciation, like the word "proboscis", which can be pronounced as /prəˈbɑsəs/ o /prəˈbɑskəs/.

Repeat the pronunciation of the word in your mind twice or thrice. If you want (this is optional), say it out loud once or twice. And if you want (optional too), play the audio of the pronunciation a couple of times. Finally, if you can't find the pronunciation of the word in your normal dictionaries, search it on one of these online pronunciation dictionaries.


Step 4 – Looking up definitions and examples:

Before we start, if you search for a word in all of your dictionaries and none gives you any information about that word you were looking up... first, check if you wrote it correctly. If it's well written, then it might be a proper name, or a very technical term, or a fictional word. Don't worry about that word, and keep reading.


Ok, now: Because of how (I assume) all English dictionaries are built, we'll have to divide words in English in two categories: Base words and derivative words. A derivative word is just a word that comes from a base word, like plurals, verb conjugations, or adjectives with suffixes.

Words like ships, stronger, smartness, destroying, are derivative words from the base words ship, strong, smart, destroy, respectively.

The problem is that if you search for a derivative word in your dictionaries, chances are that the dictionary will throw you its respective base word. For instance, if you search for "longest", your dictionary will show you the results for the word "long". Or if you search "reaching", you will get to the page for "reach".

To me, it's a shame that dictionaries don't offer definitions for derivative words. The definitions don't have to be very long – just four words, a link to the respective base word, and ONE small example phrase.

For instance, if you search "ships" in a bilingual dictionary, it should show you the plural for "ship" in your native language. And if you are using a monolingual dictionary, the definition should read "Plural of ship." In both cases, one example phrase should be provided, like "Our ships are inexpensive, sir!. / (Insert translation of this phrase in your native language here)".

But anyways, that's how dictionaries are and that's that. But it's good to have in mind what happens when you search for derivative words in the dictionary, so you can be prepared and you can use other ways to check what those derivative words mean. A bit later I will show you what to do in that case.

* Looking up base words: If you search your word in your dictionary, and the entire word appears there, then chances are your word is a base word. In that case, just read the definitions in English, or the translations into your native language for that word that appear in your dictionary. Read them again. If the definitions/translations include example phrases (and they should), read them too. If you don't understand the example phrases very well, don't worry.

* Looking up derivative words: If you search a word you don't know in your dictionary, and the dictionary shows you a word similar to what you searched, but it's not exactly the same, then chances are the word you are searching for is a derivative word.

With time, as you keep reading and listening to content in English, you will start realizing certain patterns that derivative words follow. For instance, you will notice that words that end in "-ing" are actions that are being done progressively at the moment, or you will notice that a lot of word that end in "-ness" are referring to abstract qualities, but they refer to them as things (nouns).

Yes, grammar guides teach you these rules directly, but discovering and internalizing these patterns yourself through examples and comprehensible input is much more effective than studying a rule and trying to remember to apply it consciously.

Ok, if you already master some of those patterns that derivative words follow, and you search in the dictionary a derivative word that follows that pattern, then by seeing the base word in your dictionary you will be able to infer the meaning of the derivative word.

For instance, if you already understand what it means for a word to have "-ing" at the end, and you search the word "longing" in your dictionary, and you find the verb "long", then you can infer, "Ahhh, 'longing' is 'to long', but it's happening progressively in the present. Ohh, ok."

But if you are still a beginner and you have almost no idea of those patterns, you will have to verify the meaning of your word through examples. I will show you how right up.


Step 5 – Verifying the correct definition of your word for the context you found it in:

Now, whether your word is base or derivative, a word can have multiple meanings depending on the context it's in, so you will have to verify the correct definition that applies to the context that you found that word in.

To try to verify the correct definition return to your original text, look again the sentence where the word you searched occurs, and try to determine which one of the definitions/translations that you read is the correct definition/translation for your word in that sentence. In other words, ask yourself, "Ok, for the context of this sentence... what would be the correct definition/translation of this word?"

If by looking at the sentence you manage to determine what would be the correct definition of your word, awesome! If you tried to determine the correct definition, but you couldn't determine which one is it, try searching for example phrases that use your word in example dictionaries like Fraze.it (monolingual) and Tatoeba.org (bilingual).

If you can't determine the meaning of your word this way... I'll share with you what to do in a bit.


Now, let's say you need to verify the meaning of what seems to be a derivative word. Let's say you search for the definition of a word like "smartness", and in the dictionary comes the definition of the word "smart". To see the definition of "smart" will give you a clue of what the word "smartness" means, but will not give you complete clarity of what "smartness" means.

Or maybe you search for a word like "thinner", and instead of showing you the word "thin", the dictionary sends you to the definition of the noun "thinner", the substance you use to remove paint. You read that definition... but you notice that that definition in particular doesn't make sense in the sentence "He got thinner and healthier after working out for seven months."

So, if the dictionary doesn't help you clarify the meaning of the derivative word you just searched, then what follows would be (just like before) to search for example phrases that use the word in question. For more clarity search for examples at Tatoeba.org or Linguee.com, where each example phrase will probably have a translation into your native language. Resources like this should help you to determine what the word really means.

And if the example dictionaries couldn't help you... again, in a bit I will tell you what else you can do.


Step 6 – Verify that you understood well the phrase or sentence you just read in your text in English:

Once you've searched for definitions and examples for your word, keep reading your text. If you see another word which pronunciation and/or meaning you don't know, then repeat the previous processes of looking up its pronunciation, definitions and examples.

Now, when you are reading and you reach the end of a sentence (or if the sentence is too long, once you've read a 10 word phrase more or less), read again that sentence/phrase. Look at how the words in the sentence are ordered. Then, analyze and think: "Did I understand what the sentence/phrase meant?"

Analyze if you think you understood well what the sentence/phrase meant, or not. Do you feel that you understood it well? Or you feel confused and you are not very sure you understood it well? Or you have no idea what that sentence/phrase really meant?

If you are reading a text that has a trusty translation in your native language, like a parallel text or the lyrics of a song in English with a translation into your native language, then check the translation of the sentence/phrase. Check if your interpretation of the sentence/phrase in English was correct. If your interpretation was good, cool! If it was incorrect, then that will help you interpret correctly similar sentences/phrases in the future.


Now, how do you verify if your interpretation of the sentence/phrase if you don't have a trusty translation at hand? And what do you do with words which meaning you couldn't clarify despite looking them up in your normal dictionary, AND despite searching for them in example dictionaries? In this case, I can think of the following solutions:

1. Let it go. Don't worry about verifying that phrase. Chances are that with comprehensible input and practice you will be able to interpret similar phrases in the future. If you couldn't find the meaning of some word despite searching for examples and everything, let it go for now. It's likely that in the future, when you get more experience, you will be able to identify well the meaning of that word by looking at its context.

2. Ask in a forum about English and/or language learning, like Ask a Teacher. Register in the forum, read the rules, and ask about the meaning of the word/phrase you didn't understand. Don't abuse this resource - use it only when strictly necessary.

3. Pay for someone to translate the sentence/phrase at Gengo.com. Through Gengo.com they can translate as many sentences as you need... but you need to pay for the service. Handle with care.

4. And as a last resource... throw the phrase into Google Translate.

Ohhh, the mechanical translations of Google Translate. Although this service has evolved and improved throughout the years, to me it's still a resource you should trust very little. Use it only if you are desperate, and under your own risk.

And if NONE of this works to help you verify what that phrase means, then you are probably reading a text from another planet. That thing doesn't sound like English :P


Step 7 – Repeat:

Ok, whether you've managed to verify your phrase/sentence or not, keep reading your text in English, and repeat these processes for each word you don't understand, and each sentence/phrase that you read in your text in English.

Keep going until you finish your text, and start deciphering another text if you have strength left. Or decipher a piece of audio/audiovisual content instead, like a song, or video, or half an episode of a show. Follow this process each day, for the very least an hour a day, for a year and a half more or less. That way, in a not-so-far future, you will be able to read in English as easily and naturally as you do in your native language.


And that's it! This is, in general, what you have to do to learn to read in English by reading and deciphering.

I wish you great success in your reading adventures in English, and I hope you enjoy a lot of texts in the language! :D


More information


Summary


1. Look for content written in English about anything you want. If you are learning English from scratch you could feel more comfortable reading simple texts in English like parallel texts and simple English Wikipedia.

2. Open up your online dictionaries (WordReference, Oxford), and/or your offline dictionary.

3. Start reading. If you don't know the pronunciation and/or definition of a word, look it up in your dictionaries. Read its pronunciation (in IPA) 2-3 times, and read its definitions/translations and example phrases a couple of times.

4. Try to determine the correct definition/translation of the word for the context that you found it in. Which one of those definitions for your words has the most sense for the sentence its in? Try to determine that. If the dictionary didn't help you determine the correct meaning of the word for that context, try looking up examples in example dictionaries like Fraze.it and Tatoeba.org.

5. After reading one sentence or 10-word phrase, stop. Analyze a bit the order of the words in the sentence/phrase. Analyze if you feel that you understood well what the sentence meant, or not completely. If the sentence/phrase doesn't have a translation in your native language, try to search a translation some other way (asking in a forum or using Google Translate). If you can't find a translation for the phrase, don't worry. Keep going.

5. Repeat this process until you finish reading your text. If you have time and energy, read another text or follow these processes with a piece of audio/audiovisual content that has a transcription.


Last updated: May 22 of 2015

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