How to be a better reader

This page tells you what can make a text difficult to understand and how you can improve your reading skills.

The importance of reading

Reading is an extremely important skill. It is by reading that you learn much of what you need to know for your different school subjects. Reading is also an excellent way to improve your general English.

@ You can only learn from reading, however, if what you read is not too difficult. ~ For this reason, it is important to know what makes texts difficult and how you can improve your chances of understanding them.

If you prefer to listen to advice, here is a video on the topics covered in this page. And here is the file (.pdf) based on the video.

What makes texts difficult to understand

Most of your reading difficulties will be caused by a problem on the list below. Of course, when two or more of these problems happen together, your chances of understanding will be even smaller.

  • the text has many unknown words
  • the text has long, complicated sentences
  • the text is about a topic you know nothing about
  • the text is about a topic you find boring
  • the text has small print, long paragraphs, no pictures
  • the text has been badly written
  • you are feeling tired
  • you are distracted
  • you don't know the important cohesion markers Cohesion markers are the words that writers use to organize their texts. They include everyday words like but and so, and less familiar ones like despite and consequently.

    There is more about cohesion markers later in this web page.
  • you don't know why you have been asked to read the text

How to understand more of what you read

You can do nothing about some of the reading difficulties. For example, you can't change the print in a book or make poor writing better. But there are many things you can do that will give you a better chance of understanding what you read. Here are some suggestions:

  1. 1. Know your reading purpose - @@ The way you should read a book or a text depends very much on your reasons for reading it. ~~ This is why it is so important to know your reading purpose.

    You should read a question in your mathematics exam differently from an entry in an encyclopaedia which you are looking at quickly to find out the date of an event. The kind of reading you do in class or for your homework is different from how you read a novel for pleasure in the summer vacation.

    If you know your reading purpose - perhaps by looking first at the questions you must answer after reading - you can choose the best reading method.

    If your teacher gives you something to read and doesn't tell you what you need to find out from the text or what you will do after the reading, ask her.

  2. 2. Choose the appropriate reading speed - ESL students often take a long time to do their work because they read everything slowly and carefully. Often, however, one of the following speed-reading methods will be the best choice:

    • Skimming - this is reading a text quickly to find out what information it contains. You should skim when, for example, you want to check if a text has the information you need to answer some questions or write a project. It is often enough to look at the first (and last) sentences in each paragraph.

    • Scanning - this is reading quickly to find a specific piece of information. This might be as simple as the date when an accident occurred. Or it might be more detailed information about what caused the accident.

  3. 3. Get background information - Find something out about the topic you have to read. The more background information you have, the easier it will be to understand the text. You can get this background information background in your own language.

    For example, if you are studying the Italian Renaissance, you could read an encyclopaedia or textbook in your own language to find out the most important details about this historical period. Your parents may also be able to give you useful background information. Talk to them in your language.

    You can sometimes get background information from the text itself. Many writers include a conclusion or summary. If you read this first, it may give you a good start.

  4. 4. Use all the information in the book - Good textbooks are well-organised, with titles, sub-titles, introductions, summaries or conclusions. Many books also have pictures with captions. Look at all these first before starting to read.

    Another aspect of good writing is that each paragraph has a topic sentence. A topic sentence is a sentence, usually the first one in a paragraph, that contains the main idea of the paragraph. If you concentrate on understanding the topic sentence, this may help you to understand what comes next.

  5. 5. Increase your vocabulary - Of course, reading itself is an excellent way to improve your vocabulary, but there are many other things you can do. The better your vocabulary, the easier you will find your reading.

    Read my advice on how to learn vocabulary .

  6. 6. Learn to identify subjects and predicates - If you are reading a difficult sentence, it can be helpful to identify the simple subject and simple predicate of each clause it contains.

    These two items are the essential parts of each clause. The other words in the clause give extra information about the simple subject and predicate.

    There is more on this topic on the constructing good sentences page. Furthermore, the video mentioned above has examples of how to identify the subject and predicate of complex sentences. Here is the file version (.pdf).

  7. 7. Use your dictionary sensibly - A common mistake of ESL students is to look up each unknown word in the texts they are given to read. Occasionally this is necessary - for example, when reading examination questions.

    But it takes a long time and can be very boring. It can even make understanding more difficult because by the time you reach the end of the paragraph you have forgotten what you read at the beginning!

    Read my advice on using a dictionary.

  8. 8. Learn the important words that organise text - When you read texts in your science or history books, you will find that most good writers organise their writing with cohesion markers (also called transition words ).

    These are words that connect different parts of the writing and help writers structure their thoughts. If you learn the important cohesion markers, you will find it easier to understand the text. Here are some important cohesion markers:

    also, therefore, except, unless, however, instead, (al)though, furthermore, moreover, nevertheless, on the other hand, as a result, despite, in conclusion.

  9. 9. Choose the right place to read - You can't really expect to understand a difficult book if you are trying to read in the same room with the television on and your little brother distracting you. The same goes for reading in the bus on the way to school.

    You also can't expect to read a textbook and listen to music at the same time. Try to find a quiet and comfortable place with good light, and your dictionaries and other materials nearby.

  10. 10. Choose the right time to read - If you have a difficult text to read for homework, it's probably best to do this first. If you leave it until last when you are tired, you will find it even more difficult.

Important: @@@ If you have tried the advice above and you still cannot understand a text, then it is simply too hard for you. Stop reading and ask someone to help you. ~~~ Nobody likes to give up, but you will just be wasting your time if you continue to work at a text that is too difficult.

What to read

Most of the time you have to read what your teachers tell you to read. But as you know, reading is an excellent way to improve your English. So you should try to do some extra reading each week. Here is some advice on how to choose what to read:

There are several interactive exercises on this site where you can practice and develop your reading skills, including skimming and scanning and identifying topic sentences. You will find these exercises on the Reading drop-down menu on the Language skills index.