Rliberni's Blog – Radical language

November 17, 2009

Do I have to read?

Yes you do if you want to improve and learn!!

Students often say to me that they don’t like or enjoy reading. I find this very difficult to believe as most of our world today with the internet and social networking and email involves a lot of reading (and writing too).

If you want to improve your vocabulary and use of language in both speaking and writing then the more you read the faster this will happen. Inputs (listening and reading) drive outputs (speaking and writing). With language, familiarity, far from ‘breeding contempt’,  fixes words and phrases in your mind. (see my post on improving listening skills). Reading is a very accessible and relaxing way to boost your language skills and learn about other things as well.

Does it matter what I read?

Absolutely not! A language learner is in the unique position of being able to learn and absorb useful information from anything at all that they read. I once took a random selection of bathroom items into an Advanced English class (shampoo, shower gel, cosmetics etc..) and handed them around to the students. They had to write down any words on the products that they hadn’t seen before (even if they could guess the meaning from the context). I was amazed that we had a list of over 20 words from this exercise. This was reading!

I haven’t got time and it takes too long!

The above example illustrates, I think, that reading doesn’t need to take any time out of your day.

Start the day with reading!

  • Read your shampoo bottle or shaving cream tube. Peruse the cereal packets at breakfast, use what is around you. You will find a lot of repetition on these products and the more you see these words and phrases the more they will become part of your own language and you can then use them.

Read on your way to work/college

  • Are there things around you? Adverts on the underground or bus. Instructions at the station or airport? Be curious about everything you see in the target language. (I make an assumption here that you are living in the country where this language is spoken. If not then it is true that you will have to look for examples yourself – the internet can provide some).  

Read at lunch!

  • Does your sandwich packet have writing on it? Anything useful here? Does the cafe or restaurant have information on the walls or the counter? Read what is on the menus other than the list of dishes.

Get the free paper on the way home!

  • Many cities offer these. You can pick them up all over. Pick out one or two short articles or just read the adverts!!

Spend the evening reading.

  • Check out the instructions on your food packets. Use subtitles on your TV programme for a short while.

So what have you learned?  I would be surprised if you hadn’t  picked up at least a couple of words and a great phrase or two to bandy around in the coming days!

What about more in-depth reading?

It is true that the above strategies are more about picking up new words than really honing reading skills and developing sophisticated structures to use. If you are a reader (I’m thinking about books here) in your own language then the transition to a new language will not be difficult. If you are one of those people who don’t really like reading books then start with newspapers, magazines etc or replicate in the target language whatever you enjoy reading in your own language.

Reading is boring, I have to look too many words up in the dictionary!

If you read with a dictionary then this is true. Why are you reading with a dictionary? You need to decide whether your reading is  ‘an exercise’ (in which case it should be a short piece that you can analyse for meaning and vocabulary) or whether you are reading a novel or short story for pleasure and to improve language skills? With the former a dictionary is helpful and it should enhance rather than impede your understanding. With the latter a dictionary will be disastrous! It will force you to concentrate on the minutiae of individual words rather than the big picture of the story. You will lose the flow of events and yes, become frustrated and bored.

Don’t worry about not understanding every word or even everything. If you get the  gist then keep going and you will find that the more you read the more you will understand until the experience becomes a pleasure! After that there will be no stopping you! (see my post about thinking in English – it applies to any language)

Many years ago when I began to learn German I was given a short story to read by my Father. In the beginning I struggled with every page and could only get a handful of words. There were a few cartoon pictures which helped with the story. I persevered and by chapter 3 I was beginning to follow the story. I was only a beginner and the book was short and simple  but I managed to gain a lot from it (though I am not a good German user now having neglected it for many years!)

Different writers have different idioms.

Each time you pick up a book by a new author you need to spend a little time getting into their idiom (their way of writing). For a native speaker this may take a page or two but it is still part of the process, engagement isn’t immediate and you will need patience to tackle novels and short stories. So as with all other aspects of language learning don’t lose heart, gradually and with perseverance you will not only ‘get through’ the book but enjoy it too! If not then choose another book – ‘don’t stick fast’  as my grandmother used to say!!

 Try these reading exercises:

For a ‘quick fix’  British newspaper readers

For greater depth  The Stranger – first Episode 

For a grammar based reading exercise


  1. you have done a lot about reading

    Comment by simon mollel — November 24, 2012 @ 12:24 pm | Reply

    • IELTS reading is one area that many people struggle with and there are lots of strategies that will help to get better scores – however the real key to all of this is that you have to practise all the strategies – it isn’t enough just to know about them!

      Comment by rliberni — January 21, 2013 @ 5:52 pm | Reply

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