According to Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus at the University of Southern California and one of the most famous linguists of the modern era, language acquisition is driven by “comprehensible input”.
Comprehensible input means content that can be understood by someone despite them not understanding every word and sentence in it.
To get this comprehensible input in English, , you have to be exposed to it.
Listening to podcasts is one of the best ways to expose yourself to spoken English. It can improve not just your English listening skills, but also your vocabulary, your grammar, and even your speaking skills.
But another great way to get lots of English input is to read. Reading in English is an extremely effective English-learning activity.
In this article, I want to give you everything you need to make reading in English a regular part of your home English immersion course. I’ll explain why it’s important, how you can read effectively, and where you can easily find reading material.
Why reading is so important for English learners
There are tonnes of benefits of reading in general. It develops your concentration, improves your critical thinking skills, and stimulates your imagination. It may even slow down memory loss.
But in addition to all that, reading in English can be an especially effective way to learn English.
It improves your vocabulary
It can be difficult to learn English vocabulary, but it’s much more difficult if you’re learning the words out of context. That list of “50 English idioms” might be interesting, but you’re probably not going to remember them unless you do some serious spaced repetition.
Reading is great because it gives you context for new words. This helps you understand what the word is and how to use it. Lots of research suggests that reading has a positive effect on learning English vocabulary.
It improves your grammar
Reading also helps you get a feel for grammar. Seeing how English is used helps you develop an intuitive understanding of how it works. Indeed, research suggests that reading widely helps improve both grammar knowledge and the correct use of grammar.
It improves your reading skills
Okay, so this isn’t surprising, but it’s still important: reading in English improves your reading skills. More specifically, research suggests that reading widely helps you get better at understanding what you read and helps you read faster.
So if you find reading in English a bit painful now, just keep doing it. You’ll get better, and it’ll make it easier to do in the future.
It improves your attitude towards learning English
We already know that you don’t have to be smart to learn English. A much more important factor is your attitude towards the language.
Reading in English can improve your attitude. One study found that students who were given extensive reading activities reported that they were more comfortable with English, they placed more intellectual value on reading, and they felt less anxiety towards the language.
It gives you tonnes of input
Large amounts of “comprehensible input” is essential to learning a language. Just as podcasts provide a tonne of language input, so does reading. If you want lots of exposure to English in a relatively quick time, reading is ideal.
So, read English regularly
Reading in English can make a huge difference—it is one of the most effective ways to get familiar with the language and supercharge your learning.
If you can, try to read in English every day. You don’t have to read a lot—even just reading a little bit every day will make a massive difference in your fluency level.
How you can read effectively
Here are some tips for how to make the most out of your reading activities.
- Make time for reading. Setting aside a time to read directly—even marking it directly into your English study schedule—will help ensure that you actually do it. Try to read a little bit every day, even if that’s just 10 minutes.
- Choose materials you like. Always choose materials that interest you so that you stay engaged and motivated. The more you can satisfy your curiosity with your reading material, the better.
- Choose materials at the right level. It’s important to challenge yourself, but it’s also important to not get frustrated. You should be able to understand between 70% and 90% of what you’re reading.
- Ask questions as you read. Thinking about what you’re reading helps keep it from simply being a passive learning activity. You can write a summary of what you read in a reading journal for an additional active learning activity.
- Read it again. Don’t feel bad about reading something again. We often get much more out of something on the second time around.
- Read a variety of texts. You probably have your favourite genre for reading, and don’t be shy to start there. But I encourage you to explore a variety of texts. This will help give you exposure to different types of English and you might just find something new that you really like.
- Don’t worry about looking words up as you’re reading. It’s, of course, great to find new vocabulary and put them in your favourite vocabulary app or spaced repetition system. But every time you stop to look up a word, you break your rhythm. For me, it really ruins the experience. Instead, I highlight or underline new words and when I’m done reading I come back to them. That way, I can make a note of new words without losing my reading flow. One great way of doing this is on a Kindle, where you can highlight a word to see its meaning, or add it as a note to come back to later.
What can you read
Want to read in English but don’t know where to start? Here are some ideas for reading materials, broken down by your reading level.
Beginners: A1 and A2
- The news. Breaking news English is great for beginners, as is News in Levels. They have news stories for beginners up to intermediate English speakers. They also have a number of quizzes to check your understanding and comprehension.
- Articles. Beginners can benefit from short, interesting articles. Lingua and the British Council both offer a bunch of interesting articles on a diversity of topics.
- Stories. Short stories can be great reading material at this level—especially those aimed at children. You can find a collection of easy short stories at English for Students.
Intermediate: B1 and B2
- The news. The more difficult stories on Breaking News English may still be good if you’re at this level. You can also try the BBC’s News Report.
- Articles. Look for articles aimed at children or intermediate English learners. Some good choices could be Time for Kids, British Council magazine, the Smithsonian Tween Tribune, and Mental Floss.
- The Leonardo English blog. There’s lots of great stuff on this site about learning English. We look for ways to include unusual words and idioms as well.
- Change your phone settings. Many of us spend a lot of our day looking at our phones. Turn that into a reading opportunity by changing your phone’s language settings to English. That way, you’ll read English every time you pick it up.
- Get English email. Email newsletters are becoming increasingly popular. These are usually short and use simple language. Check out substack and other newsletter sites to get English email sent to you regularly. You can also subscribe to the Leonardo English newsletter using the form at the bottom of this page.
- Books and novels. At this level, consider reading a book you’ve read before and really liked. I’ve been reading the Harry Potter series to learn Portuguese, and I’ve kept at it because I like the story and I already know it. Reading something you like will help you stick with it even when it’s hard. Here are some books that intermediate readers might like.
Advanced: C1 and C2
- The news. Follow news from English-speaking countries around the world: the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, Australia, or New Zealand.
- Articles. At this level, you can read pretty much anything. Try exploring Medium or the Conversation. Entrepreneur, Forbes, and Business Insider are all other popular options. The New Yorker and the Atlantic feature thoughtful long-form pieces.
- Stories. Check out Reader’s Digest for inspiring stories about people or Modern Love for incredible stories about relationships.
- Books and novels. Delight in the wide variety of English literature. You can look in the English section of your local library, or find books online. Looking for a place to start? Check out the Guardian’s list of the 100 best books written in English.
- Websites. Find new websites in English using services like Mix or Digg.
Where to find books in English for free online
Great, you’re ready to dig into a good read—but where can you find one? Of course, you can also subscribe to paid ebook services, find an English language bookshop, or just buy an English book online… but here are a bunch of my favourite places to find ebooks online for free:
- Project Gutenberg
- International Children’s Digital Library
- Read Print
- The online books page
- Open Culture
Ways to read while you listen
Finally, it is really useful to read and listen at the same time. This is especially important when you’re a beginner or at the intermediate level because it will help you train your ear to “hear” English and associate the sound of the word with the written word.
I absolutely love reading and listening at the same time, and I highly recommend this as a language learning activity. Here are some ideas for how to do that.
- Podcasts. Lots of English podcasts, like the English Learning for Curious Minds podcast, have transcripts available. Reading the transcript while listening to the podcast is a great way to maximise your learning. At Leonardo English, transcripts are available for members although we also have some free transcripts.
- Audiobooks. I’ve listed a tonne of places you can find audiobooks in my article on improving English listening skills. Find your favourite book there to listen to, and then look for the text version in one of the ebook sites above. For example, I found the text of Brave New World by Aldous Huxley through Open Culture, and then the audiobook on Archive.org.
- YouTube. Youtube has a tonne of videos that display the text for books as you read them. For example, you can easily find books like Pride and Prejudice, 1984, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Just search for your preferred book and see what comes up.
Reading will help you become fluent in English
Ask almost any respectable linguist and they will tell you that reading is an essential activity for English learners. It is not only a very effective way to improve your English language skills, but it also helps give you some insight into English cultures as well.
And it can be fun.
The most effective English learning activity is the activity that you’ll enjoy and that you’ll spend time doing. Once you get the hang of the language, reading in English could be something you absolutely love. And at that point, you’ll really see your language skills take off.
Charles W. Eliot once wrote,
“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers.”
If you’re looking for a patient English teacher, and wouldn’t mind picking up a friend and counsellor at the same time, make time to read in English every day.
Alqadi, K. R. & Alqadi, H. (2013). The effect of extensive reading on developing the grammatical accuracy of the EFL freshmen at Al Al-Bayt University. Journal of Education and Practice, 4(6), 106-113.
Alzu'bi, M. A. (2014). The effects of an extensive reading program on improving English as Foreign Language proficiency in University level education. English Language Teaching, 7(1), 28-35.
Suk, N. (2017). The effects of extensive reading on reading comprehension, reading rate, and vocabulary acquisition. Reading Research Quarterly, 52(1), 73-89.
Yamashita, J. (2013). Effects of extensive reading on reading attitudes in a foreign language. Reading in a Foreign Language, 25(2), 248-263.