English Language Reading Advice and Strategies for My ESL Students (and Native English Speakers, too)

Map to Literature in the Library

This morning, I met with an ESL student from one of my ENGL 1101 classes. She sought advice about how to improve her English reading speed and comprehension. We discussed various strategies for about 40 minutes. While we were talking,  I thought that our conversation might be useful for other ESL students (as well as many native English speakers wanting to boost their reading abilities). I have included the notes from our meeting below.

  • Takeaway ideas: If you want to improve your English reading ability and reading comprehension, you need to read and think about the reading on a daily basis. Improvement comes through applied practice over time. If you track your progress with a journal written in English, you will be surprised by the advancement after a semester, a year, or longer. Practice and reflect–then, repeat.
  • Three substantial hurdles to advancing your reading skills are grammar, vocabulary, and confidence. More exposure to English grammar and syntax through reading and writing in English will lead to improvements in those areas. Building your English vocabulary will improve your comprehension and the speed of your reading (i.e., if you spend time figuring out meanings by context or looking up words in a dictionary). Accomplishing more reading (“Yes, I just finished another novel in English!”) will improve your confidence in your English comprehension abilities.
  • General reading strategies can be found on this site: <http://www.nclrc.org/essentials/reading/stratread.htm>.
  • The important things to try is build your confidence by reading everyday and writing a note in English about what you read in a journal. This writing practice reinforces your English reading practice the expression of your ideas in written English. Over time, you will find your ability improving based on reviewing your notes.
  • Don’t be frustrated by the difficulty some texts might present. It usually takes about 30 pages before you “learn” the author’s writing style. If you can make it through 30 pages, the book will generally become easier to read. Other texts might simply be difficult to anyone–ESL or native-English speaker alike.
  • Don’t be afraid to skim or skip parts of a text. When you hit a word that you do not know, underline it and keep reading. You might figure out its meaning by its context, or you can come back to the underlined words after finishing the section or chapter. Look up the word in the dictionary, and re-read the sentence or paragraph to capture its meaning.
  • While it does take extra time, it is extremely useful to re-read sections and chapters in order to gain a better understanding of the text. I do this regularly even though I hold a PhD.
  • Skim the section headings before reading a chapter (if it has these), because these headings provide clues to the topics covered in the chapter’s sections.
  • A trick for growing your vocabulary is to write down a list of words that you hear or read during the day that you do not know. At the end of the day–before you go to bed–look up those words, read the definition, and write down a sentence using that word. Putting the word in context will improve your brain’s remembrance of that word.
  • Instead of aiming for greater reading speed in the short term, you should focus on the quality of your reading. Consider this analogy from weight training: Before you begin lifting heavy weights, it is important to learn the proper form and technique of lifting. By spending time in the short term to improve your form and technique, you maximize the effectiveness of your workouts in the long term. Similarly, by spending time now to develop your English reading skills and effective reading comprehension, you will increase the effectiveness of your reading over the long term. Connected to this technique is the necessity for patience. Improvement will come through practice over time.
  • Make an appointment for a one-on-one consultation with Georgia Tech’s Language Support Center: <http://www.esl.gatech.edu/language-support-center>. They have trained tutors who can give you advice on a number of topics important to ESL students. The Georgia Tech Language Institute has a number of online resources here, too.
  • Reading novels is a great way to build your reading skill. If you find a novel that thematically interests you (campus narratives, romance, science fiction, everyday life, etc.), you will be more engaged with your reading than if you read something that does not interest you as much. Building your reading ability through enjoyable novels will make reading less enjoyable things easier.
  • Participate in a book club. I found this one, the Midtown Book Club, which meets once a month to discuss a book at the Georgia Tech Bookstore/Barnes and Noble: <http://midtown.patch.com/events/midtown-book-group>. Book clubs generally pick interesting books to read. Members have one month to read the book. After everyone has read the book, they meet to discuss its story, meaning, and interpretations.
  • You can find many new books in the Georgia Tech Library on the first floor (see map above). There are other books in the stacks located upstairs.
  • Young adult novels (a literary genre in which the story usually involves young people and might be perceived as easier to read–though this is not always the case) are a great place to read entertaining and exciting stories as practice in English reading. Very popular examples include the Harry Potter series, The Hunger Games series, and the Twilight series. Some of these can be found in the GT Library (see map above), or they can be easily purchased at the GT Bookstore/Barnes & Noble at Tech Square or Amazon.com.
  • Here is a large list of Young Adult novels with reviews: <http://www.npr.org/books/genres/10121/young-adults/>.
  • Cory Doctorow, a science fiction writer and promoter of open culture, shares his novels (some of which are Young Adult–Little Brother is one example) online for free: <http://craphound.com/?cat=5>.
  • You can find many classic (and public domain novels on Project Gutenberg for free! Click here to find the most recently downloaded books from Project Gutenberg.
  • For more technical kinds of reading, you likely will have to do research in your field. This will involve reading journal article abstracts, or short summaries of the research presented in the article. Noah Gray, senior editor of the science journal Nature, gives advice about how to break down the abstract into its component parts for easier understanding: <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/noah-gray/abstract-science_b_1923214.html>.
  • Good luck with developing your mastery of the English language!

Thanks to Y (my wife) for helping me think about some of the strategies presented above. Thanks to my student for making good use of my office hours and for presenting me with a question that led to new pedagogical thinking.

Published by Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I direct the B.S. in Professional and Technical Writing Program and coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.