Did you know that around 20% of British teenagers find reading difficult?
They read slowly, can’t focus and remember little.
I honestly wasn’t much of a reader myself until I was around 16. Today, personalities like Lebron James tell us reading is fun.
We also know that good reading skills are key to high grades and a good job.
So, if you think you need to improve your reading speed and understanding in English, this guide is for you.
Common Problems with English reading
Does this sound at all familiar?
In English I read slowly. It’s very frustrating. I don’t get much out of it. I feel like a fish on a bicycle. Slow and getting nowhere.
Maybe you are studying English or need to read textbooks in the language for your studies.
Whatever the reason, the first thing you need to do is find out your reading level.
There’s no point in trying to understand something that is too difficult.
Speed and comprehension
Knowing your reading level is one thing.
Speed and comprehension are others. We can’t separate the two. Most adults read at about 200-250 words a minute and college students can increase that to 300.
There are also speed reading methods where you can reach up to 600 words a minute. The drawback?
Tests show that reading too fast does not help you remember or understand what you read.
As a reader, you need to find the balance between speed, difficulty and comprehension.
Of course, what you read will affect your speed. A chapter from a Physics textbook is not the same as a news item on your favourite sport.
What’s easier for you? Turning pages or scrolling down? Desktop, laptop or phone?
And it doesn’t help if we understand every other word.
An online dictionary or using a Kindle can help but working on our store of words is something we can all benefit from.
Determine what the purpose is
Let’s get back to the idea of balance.
Just as you can find out your reading level, we can do the same with books and texts.
One way is to check the difficulty of the vocabulary using an online checker.
But what kind of reading are you interested in?
We read different things for different reasons in different ways.
If it’s for pleasure, anything from a novel to a magazine or website, choose what you want to read.
The more you enjoy or know about the topic, the more you’ll understand.
And if you’ll always found concentration a problem, set an alarm for, say, 30 minutes at first, find yourself a quiet spot without distractions – turn off that phone! – and just read.
If that works for you, do it for longer next time. Try 45 minutes next time.
There’s a pleasure we get out of studying too, especially when we feel we are learning. It takes a different style of reading though.
We need to grasp concepts and distinguish between what is and what is not relevant. Most of us will be highlighting parts of the text or taking notes.
These and more factors will affect how we read in these circumstances.
What about those reading passages with questions we find in exams like IELTS? (the International English Language Testing System)
In one sense, it’s not real reading at all. We don’t choose the topic and we are probably too nervous to think about learning something new.
Above all, it’s about applying the right strategies to answer the types of questions they ask.
How to improve your English reading skills
So, let´s look at how we can improve our reading skills with the right strategies.
We mentioned that reading speed is important.
There are readers who read too slowly, subvocalizing or sounding out every word.
There are also those that practice speed reading techniques.
Try this guide from Tim Ferris if you want to try a new method.
He reminds us that the average reading speed is around 200 -300 wpm (words per minute), about a page a minute and that to read faster we need to do two things.
First, fix on groups of words, not single items, and secondly, train ourselves to cut out regressions, those moments when we look back at what we have read.
It’s simply the connection between the eyes and the brain: our eyes take in information in groups of words, then jump to the next group in less than half a second.
If we can train ourselves to do this efficiently without constantly going back over the page, then we will be reading faster.
Some recommend using a pointer or a finger to guide our eyes through the text.
Try it out for yourself.
Of course, reading faster does not necessarily mean understanding more.
Comprehension is another complex issue but we can simplify it by thinking again of our reading purposes.
Sometimes we choose books and sometimes they choose us. We’ve talked about reading for enjoyment but we also know that we have to read things for class assignments that are heavy going.
That’s why we need clear reading strategies before we even start to read.
Do this from the beginning, starting with the topic, the title and ask yourself what do you know about this. You can note it down if it helps.
Remember to question the text: ask why? who? what? how? when?
Make the text relevant to you with these critical questions.
When you finish the reading, take a few minutes to write your summary of it without re-reading the text in depth.
Revise that summary if you need to re-read the text later.
These strategies help you retain more of what you read. Your comprehension will improve.
How to skim read
This is effective for studying and in exams to read the text quickly first to get a general idea of what is about.
Read the title, the first sentence of each paragraph, the one that introduces a topic.
Read the last sentence of each paragraph, which often summarizes the content.
Look for any graphs or illustrations in the text.
Spend 3 or 4 minutes on this and you will have a pretty good idea of what it is about.
Then you can re-read in more depth.
If it’s some specific information you are looking for, a date or a name for example, you don’t need to read the text at all.
Just look for the relevant information words as quickly as possible. We call this scanning a text.
Just set yourself some of these tasks and try them out. Remember to find your perfect time and spot for reading. Focus and concentration.
There are no hard rules here.
I always look for complete quiet around me, adequate light, natural or artificial, and no mobile phone in sight.\
Other people I know listen to music.
Improving your English reading comprehension
Reading by taking in groups of words at a time at a reasonable speed, and applying the right reading strategies like skimming and scanning to suit each occasion, will definitely improve your reading comprehension.
Now, if by that we mean getting something out of the text through asking questions and writing down or recording your summary of what you read, test yourself doing this.
Take something on your reading list. Open it to a page or a section of it. Read it using the strategies. Close it. Write down what you remember. Check it over after with the source page.
Do this with reading tests at the right level for you.
Comprehension is the result of applying strategies; answering exam questions for example where they will be questions on detail (requiring scanning), a general question (skimming) also on lexis and interpretation where your knowledge of vocabulary is vital.
Try out some model tests you can find online and test yourself. The Reading Tests of the IELTS exam are one example.
I recommend Mortimer Adler’s classic How to Read a Book. One easy way into it is this review.
Adler identifies 4 levels of reading and shows us the importance of thinking clearly and critically about what we read.
Tools and techniques to improve your English reading
Everything I have said so far is of limited help if you find it hard to concentrate. I know there are a lot of distractions out there. There are also a lot of tools that come with promises of making you a better, faster, more focused reader.
I am not saying that any of these tools are effective or not. I believe that there will be something for everybody but not everybody will go for the same thing.
Take Brain FM for example, it uses what they call functional music that will have positive effects by putting you in the desired mental state to help you do what you need to do.
Give it a try. It could work for you. I have always doubted if that would work for me.
I guess I come from the old school of studying in complete silence with the occasional stimulating cup of coffee.
But, I’ll tell you what. I’ll try their 3-day free trial and see how it goes. I’ll keep you posted.
Another tool worth looking at is Focusmate.
Focusmate works at the level of planning your work, setting precise goals and being accountable.
It’s interesting because it puts a kind of pressure on you to be productive.
It does this by asking you to specify in some detail your work tasks.
I am going to start reading for 50 minutes at 9 a.m. and will read two chapters, make notes and write a summary, for example.
It also involves what they call social pressure: you interact with another person to achieve your goals. You have your own partner, your focusmate.
Here is a great resource to truly blast through a lot of text, Zap Reader.
This awesome little site flashes the words online and you can breeze through the entire article.
You can change the speed, colour and amount of words shown. Below is an example.
Reading in a digital format with a Kindle is great for finding the meaning of unknown words. Just press and hold the word, then release and we see the definition.
You don’t waste time looking them up in a dictionary, even if it is an online one and so your reading speed will not be affected.
Try out audiobooks too that will help with pronunciation and give you an alternative to traditional reading.
One source is Audible. There are also academic books ranging from from economics to medicine.
Reading is not simply collecting information. It is understanding and acquiring knowledge. Reading can also be, and very often is, a very enjoyable experience. It can make us think. It can make us laugh. It can make us cry. These are the rewards it offers us.
These rewards will come with your effort. You have read this guide for a reason. Now it is time to make decisions, to take steps that will make you a better reader in English.
Most of the time those steps will take you forward as you learn and practice strategies and try different tools. Never be afraid though to look back sometimes at what you have read from before.
Re-reading something that we once struggled to understand can be rewarding in itself when we see how much progress we have made.
Many famous authors have said how reading changed their lives. But I leave you with a comment from England footballer Marcus Rashford who has just launched a book club for children to enjoy reading.
He said: “I only started reading when I was 17 and it completely changed my outlook and mentality.”
Let reading become part of you.