English reading comprehension is the ability to understand a piece of writing in English and understand what the writer or author is trying to convey to the reader.
It is also the ability to understand not only the main meaning of the passage but also to have a full understanding of the subtext and any hidden meaning too.
When you have a full comprehension of a piece of writing in English you not only understand all the words in front of you but you also understand their relationship with each other and how they combine and work together.
When we reach this level of comprehension we are able to understand the full emotional impact of the writing too.
Why you need to improve your English reading comprehension
You might be asking yourself — Why do I need to improve my English reading comprehension to such a high level?
By understanding what you read fully it can help you focus on the writing and improve your memory of what you read.
It can help us come to terms with the nuances of the writing.
Nuance is the subtle shades of meaning in writing that writers often use. A gradual shift in the dialogue or characters in novels that sometimes is never fully clear.
But better reading comprehension can help to improve our lives too.
It can help us in terms of our education and work. Also our interests and hobbies.
Reading is not just something we do to gain simple information from text messages from our friends or simple sentences we read in social media.
If we practice reading we can gain a much wider context of the world we live in.
For many English students better reading comprehension can help us in the following ways:
- To fully understand English literature books in class at school
- To also fully understand books that we read in other classes such as history, maths, geography or sociology
- To help us prepare for tests such as SAT or IELTS
- To be able to engage with current affairs of the world and be informed of global news
- To understand and comprehend any reading we do at work in the form of reports, essays, white papers and so on
- And reading in our leisure time too
How to improve your English reading comprehension
This is the question that students often ask.
How can I improve my English reading comprehension?
How can I get better at reading?
Effectively we can read anywhere and everywhere.
We live in an age of smartphones, tablets and kindles — we can read on the subway, while waiting for a bus or in line at the supermarket.
But the best way to improve your reading is to do it in a place where you can concentrate and focus on what you are reading.
You need to be in a place where you can focus. A place that is quiet and comfortable. A place where you will not be interrupted.
The lighting must be bright enough for you to read. But not too bright. Bright enough for you to read without straining your eyes.
The library is the ideal place for this.
But if you have a room where you can read alone and not be disturbed then go there.
But it must be a place where you can regularly go and read.
A place that you associate by habit that this is the place where you practice your reading.
You also need to establish a time to do your reading. Choose the same time every day if you can. Small habits can reap great benefits. Aim small – maybe 20 minutes a day. But build this up. 20 minutes is acceptable to begin with but you need to do longer time than that.
Your reading time needs to become a habit too.
Make sure it is the same time every day that you start your reading practice.
If you can’t make it the exact time, try to make it close to the same time — for example, every morning or every afternoon.
The more your mind becomes accustomed to reading at the same time, in the same place, the more you build it into a regular habit.
It will feel comfortable and just something you do regularly, like brushing your teeth or having a shower.
You must make sure you have the following items with you in your reading place:
- a pen
- a notebook
- a dictionary
- a drink of some kind
You will need a pen and notebook to take notes of what you are reading. To write down new vocabulary and make notes of phrases that you want to learn.
You will need a dictionary to look up any difficult words.
And it’s a good idea to have a drink with you so you don’t feel tempted to take a break and go to the kitchen to make some tea or coffee.
One thing you absolutely should not have with you is your phone.
Keep this far from your reading place. You will not need it and it will just be a distraction.
Do not use the dictionary app on your phone or any note-taking app to keep new vocabulary.
Your phone will break your reading habit so keep it out of reach.
Guided and Recreational Reading
When doing your reading practice you should combine two kinds of reading — guided and recreational reading.
The guided reading is where you are learning new words and phrases.
The kind of reading where you are looking at articles set by your English teacher or to practice a certain category of vocabulary.
It could be an article or passage on modern furniture because you want to reinforce the vocabulary of that category into your memory.
But you also need to read books or articles that you enjoy reading.
Recreational reading is reading just for fun. This is good for you as it will make reading less of a chore and something to be enjoyed.
Reading should — and must — be a pleasurable experience too as well as something we do for learning.
By making time for recreational reading it will not seem like ‘work’ and so you will enjoy it more. This is where you must read anything that you enjoy. Do not read for work purposes only or study purposes. Read for fun!!
Determine your English reading level
Before you dive into reading any books that come to hand you must determine what your English reading level is.
You need to read books or articles that push you a little. But not so much that you cannot understand most of what you are reading.
If you are reaching for the dictionary every few words then you are probably reading at too high a level.
So how can you find out your English reading level?
You can do this by yourself by finding books or other reading material that you feel comfortable to read.
Another useful thing you can do is use online resources to test your English reading level.
The following websites can help you with online reading tests:
It best to determine what your reading level is before finding the book you want to read.
But if you have a book you want to read you can check its level by using one of these tools:
Once you have established what your English reading level is you can now start thinking about what you want to read.
Improve your reading through English literature
I strongly recommend learning to read through English literature.
There are thousands of books to choose from in all kinds of genres. You will definitely find books that you will love to read.
You can start with very simple books and progress to more advanced levels as your reading comprehension improves.
Why should you read English literature?
Of course, the main reason is to widen your vocabulary and learn new words. Just by reading something for pleasure you can build your English vocabulary in great leaps.
As you read the book of your choice you will find that you are learning these new words in context. You will start to see groups of words appearing that all seem to belong together.
For example, if you read a legal thriller by the author John Grisham you are going to see many words and phrases associated with law, legal terms and crime.
Equally, if you read a book by JK Rowling you will find vocabulary about magic and fantasy figures like witches and wizards.
Another reading skill you will develop is in grammar and English fluency.
Authors are fantastic at using the English language in a very complex manner. Your English will improve as you learn English grammar and English usage from the pages of a good book.
You will gain far more from reading a novel that you love than from a normal English vocabulary book.
Finally, you will learn Real English from the book of your choice.
Novels use real English, the dialogue is written in a realistic way and the emotions described, the descriptions, these are all realistic too.
This is essential for you, not just for your reading comprehension but for your general English too.
Read the right books
Students often ask me: What should I read?
And I always say: Read what you like to read.
This is very important.
There is no use in reading things that you hate to read. Only read books and articles that you really want to read.
I once had a student whose father asked me to improve his reading. He told me to teach his son to read daily news and business books.
For a 15-year-old boy whose only passion was basketball!
This is crazy.
When you choose what books or reading material to look at there are only two criteria to think about:
- What books you like to read
- What is your English level
If you are new to reading start simple.
There is no need — or use — diving into really heavy English literature when you can barely understand what the author is saying.
Start with some simple books and develop from there.
When looking for an English book to read you need to find one that you are really interested in reading.
It will not help you to read a book that you have no interest in.
You must want to read it.
And when you pick a book up check that it is the right level for you.
Try reading the first two or three pages. Are you able to understand most of what you are reading? It’s a waste of time if you are reading something where you have to reach for the dictionary every two seconds. You need something that pushes you a little but not too much.
Finding books to read
These days it is very easy to find the kind of books you like to read.
Let’s take a look at some resources to help you.
GoodReads is the best choice for you to find reading material.
It is like Facebook for book fans.
One of the best places to start looking is Listopia. On this part of the site, you can do a search for the kind of books you are interested in.
You can search by genre – science-fiction, horror, crime, romance – or by other styles. There are thousands of lists and you can find an endless choice of books to read.
You can also join groups and find other readers who enjoy the same kind of books as yourself. The people in the groups will recommend other books to you.
GoodReads is a great place for you to start finding books to read. I use it all the time.
This is a great website that can help you find other books that you may like to read.
You just type in the name of the book or the author and it will suggest other writers or novels that you may like.
These are just two book websites but there are dozens of others.
It is very simple to find the right kind of books that you enjoy. Just search carefully and these websites can make some great recommendations for you.
Another method you can try is via movies.
Is there a movie or TV show that you really enjoyed? Maybe there is an original book of this movie.
A good example is Harry Potter.
Also the TV series Game of Thrones.
If you loved the movie or the TV show why not read the original story in the book?
So now you have found the right kind of books to read we need to know one more thing.
How to read?
Read every day
Practice makes perfect and the more you read the better you will become.
Make reading a habit.
Each dedicated time you have selected for reading make sure you use it only for reading.
Make this a habit that stays with you.
Take your time
Do not rush.
Read slowly if you have to. It is not a race. Reread any text or parts of the book that you do not understand.
Read along with an audiobook
If your chosen book has an audio version it is a good idea to read along with the audio version. Play the audiobook and as the narrator reads out the story you can follow it in the real book in your hands.
Some apps allow you to slow down – or speed up if you need – the speed of the narrator’s voice. If he is speaking too quickly you can slow the playback down to a speed you can understand.
By reading at the same time you can follow more difficult parts of the text more easily. It also helps with pronunciation too.
Librivox has a massive selection of audiobooks.
Try to read the whole sentence – not individual words
It is an easy habit to fall into trying to read each individual word and not have a real clue what the sentence is about. Instead, try to get an idea of the meaning just by following the sentence. Even native English speakers do this – they come across words they have no real clear meaning of and just guess the meaning from context. Try to do this yourself.
Years ago in school, I studied French. My French teacher advised me to read a book in French to improve my reading skills.
I bought 20,000 leagues under the sea by Jules Verne.
As I read through it I found I was stopping every other word to look up words in the dictionary. Mostly it was things like verbs in different tenses that I did not recognise but there were a ton of nouns too that I didn’t know.
It was a very slow process and sometimes I had forgotten what the passage was about. I was reading so slowly that I could not follow what was happening.
This is a common problem for non-English speakers trying to read something in English.
You need to reach a stage where the words fly off the page and into your head like a flowing stream.
You. Cannot. Read. Like. This. Or. It. Will. Just. Slow. You. Down. And. It. Becomes. A. Painful. Process.
You must pay attention to the right level. It’s great to push yourself and make sure you are reading at a more advanced level. But don’t pick up books that are so advanced that you are unable to follow the passages correctly.
As your fluency improves you will find that you skim over what we call sight words.
These are words that we read all the time and the most commonly seen words.
Words such as — the, and, in, to, you.
We see these words all the time in a given piece of writing and we don’t need to think about what we are reading.
These words are ingrained in our memory so deeply that we know instantly what they mean.
You can find lists of these words here.
You can learn to pass over these very quickly.
Context is Important
Reading by using context can help us have a more complete understanding of the text. Even if we don’t understand every single word.
That way you can pass over certain words because you can guess the meaning.
For example, we might read “The sun set over the ultramarine sea” and come to the understanding that ultramarine is a shade of blue.
The other words we understand and so through context we assume that the writer is talking about the colour of the sea.
Picture what you are reading
As you are reading a text try to create a mental picture of what you are reading. It will help you with what you are reading.
Imagine in your mind’s eye the scene from the book taking place.
What the characters are saying and the actions they make.
By picturing this it will help form a visual image that is strongly related to the text you are reading.
It will help you have a better understanding of the book you are reading.
How to improve reading speed
The industry standard for a page in a novel is 250 words.
The average time to read one page by native English speakers is one minute.
So, about 250 words per minute.
Taking that as an average, read a page and time how long it takes you.
Again, it is not a race and the goal for your reading should not be speed but comprehension.
But it is a good idea to measure your progress. To see if you are reading at a faster pace as well as retaining a full understanding of what you read.
We all read different things at different speeds. For example, we may read novels at a much faster rate because the story is so captivating. But non-fiction books may take much longer. Bear this in mind when testing your reading speed.
Use your pen or your finger
If you are reading something and finding it a little difficult to follow, try using a pen or your finger to follow each line of the book.
It is a good way of keeping your place on the page.
Don’t worry about this being only for absolute beginners. I find I do this when reading certain passages too.
Get into the habit of chunking
Chunking is a process of learning whereby you take small parts of the knowledge you are trying to retain and form them as one group.
These parts — the chunks — are learned by repetition.
They are then put together as one whole and it makes sense to the student as he can recall all the information with ease.
In reading, you can do this by absorbing whole phrases or sentences rather than going through the text word by word.
Try not to read in your head
Get rid of the voice inside your head!
When we read inside our head it actually slows us down. This process of reading is called ‘sub-vocalising’.
Get out of the habit of doing this when reading.
The Art of Skimming
What is skimming?
Skimming is a process in reading a text where you just read the title, the headings and the subheadings of the text to get a general idea of what it is about.
It is a very useful practice often done by researchers and people working in universities.
Students often learn how to skim a text as it can help speed up the reading process.
Before we watch a cool new TV show or a great action-packed movie that is about to be released, we get all kinds of information about it from various sources.
We see previews, trailers, advertising, short clips. We get a general idea of what we could be watching in the future to prepare us for something we want to watch.
You can do the same with some reading.
Skimming is just glancing quickly over the text so that you have a basic understanding of what the reading is about.
How to do it
- Read the title and first paragraph
- Read all the headings and subheadings
- Read the first sentence or two of each paragraph. These are called the topic sentences.
- Look out for anything in bold, italics, pictures, graphs, diagrams and lists.
- Go over the whole thing as fast as you can BUT you must be able to answer the main Wh questions about the text – What, who, why, where, when
Just by skimming the whole passage we have a clue of what is to come. That can help us when we read the passage in detail. The writer might state something in one section and we can understand the context of it because we know what section he is going to talk about next.
This is why skimming is very useful.
You should get into the practice of doing this when reading a text or passage.
It can be particularly useful if you have to read a passage for a test such as IELTS.
Evaluate what you read
You cannot just read a book and not really understand what the thing is about.
The purpose of this entire exercise is for you to improve your English reading comprehension.
You have to strive towards a better understanding of the books and other material that you read.
Just reading something and assuming that you are learning by some form of osmosis is futile.
I have encountered many students who do exactly this.
They read out loud and they sound like they understand every word they are reading. But in fact, they are just reading like a robot. Reciting all the words without really understanding or comprehending what they are reading.
Do not do this!
To combat this ask yourself questions about the text. Every few paragraphs – or maybe every paragraph – ask yourself what is going on in the book you are reading. What actions have taken place? What is the main character thinking about? What are the people saying in the dialogue?
You can try to summarise what you have read.
There are two ways you can do this — speaking or writing.
You can tell a friend of your teacher about what is happening in the book you are reading.
As you explain each action, each thought of the main character, it will help to forge what is happening in your own mind.
Another way is to write a summary in your notebook and show it to your teacher.
If your teacher understands what is happening then you know you have written the summary clearly. You also have a very clear understanding of the writing too.
The more you think about what you are reading the more you will understand. You must make this a habit!
It is a good idea to ask yourself questions about the book all the time.
- What was the reading about?
- Define the most important parts that you read. Key moments.
- Was there anything confusing in the text? Highlight it.
- Was there anything surprising? Highlight it
- Was there anything you did not understand? Highlight it.
You can also ask questions about the main character:
- What is the main character doing now?
- What is she thinking?
- Why did she say that?
- What action could she take next?
Asking these questions will help you form a clear mental picture of what is going on in the story. Your understanding of the book will become clearer.
In your notebook jot down a question any time you think of one. Then later try to answer them all. This will help your progress.
Try to think of more questions you can ask yourself about the reading. Come up with at least three.
Read out loud
It is only a fairly recent phenomenon to read in silence to ourselves.
Many years ago people read books out loud. This was considered the right way to read.
It was a kind of social event where people would read books out loud at gatherings.
There is scientific evidence to support the idea of reading out loud.
You can try reading out loud to help with your reading comprehension.
As you read out loud pay attention to the words, pause at the end of each sentence; take a breath after every paragraph. This will help you digest the text and help you to understand what you are reading more easily.
Another exercise we can put to good use is rereading.
It is very difficult to get a full understanding of something we read just from one reading.
You should read the text again.
By reading again you will find things that you missed the first time around. You get a new look at the text and a much clearer picture. The words will start to make more sense to you the second – or even third – time around.
Try this as an exercise.
Read the text and write down everything you can remember from it.
Now read the same passage again and write everything down that you can remember.
See the difference? The second reading helps you get far more from the text from the first time around.
The second reading might help you get a clearer understanding of what the author is saying but the third reading might bring out subtexts and deeper meanings.
Most of the emphasis I have made here has been on reading books.
But there is a ton of other reading material available to you.
You don’t just have to read books.
You can read the news. There are hundreds of blogs, websites, magazines and journals.
All of these sources cover a very wide range of interests and topics. You should dive into all of these sources and read from a wide variety of them.
The more you read a wide variety of things in English – in different styles of written English – the faster you will develop your reading skills.
Read magazines in the style of the interest and hobbies that you like. There are hundreds of them available. Read Facebook posts and join groups there.
A good place to join for reading is Reddit – this is an aggregator website in thousands of different interests. It is free and easy to join and you can find any of your interests there.
12 Easy Books to Read
I have listed below twelve easy books for English students to read.
This is by no means an extensive or perfect list. I have just put these here as a starting point. Maybe you can find one or two books that you like then use GoodReads to find other similar books to read.
Charlotte’s Web by EB White
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Peter Pan by JM Barrie
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom
The Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemingway
The Giver by Lois Lowry
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
Animal Farm by George Orwell
Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl
To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee
This is far from being the perfect list. But I hope you can find something you like to read here.
Improving your reading comprehension is great for your life – great for studying, for work, for educating your mind.
I have emphasised in the above article the need to create a habit of reading. This is essential. Make sure it is the same place and same time if you can. But for leisurely reading, you can do this anywhere. On your way to school, college or work. In a coffee shop or outside on a nice day.
I also outlined some important skills to learn. Skimming, for example, is a very useful thing to do when studying. But it can also help you later in your working life.
I hope that you are able to put some of these reading skills to use in your life. If you do, I am sure you will see great improvements in your English reading comprehension.