5 Steps to Improving Your Reading Skills in another Language
From a traditional school approach, reading in a foreign language was more about:
- Reading a text out loud
- Answering boring questions about the text
- Looking at grammar points which come up in the text
And in some schools, it was also about:
- Translating the text
However, reading in real life doesn’t require any of these. An example of a more modern approach to reading and learning in general would be our Spanish courses in Bristol.
Think about it – when do you read aloud? When does someone quiz you about something you just read? When do you translate a text? – You can use technology to do that. To find out more about this head on over to our post on the role of tech in the language learning classroom.
The answer to all of the above questions is simply never or almost never.
Reading is a skill which you have to learn. You usually learn reading at primary school. However, it is a skill which involves a number of sub-skills – these are usually developed during secondary education and beyond.
For example: it is very usual for someone to read a good novel and then tell their friend all about it when they meet for coffee – this sort of activity requires the sub-skill of summarising.
In addition to summarising, there are a number of other sub-skills involved in reading, including:
- Reading for gist
This is when you read quickly to get an overview of the text. You might do this on a daily basis with a newspaper – you quickly scan articles to see which ones are worth your while reading properly.
- Reading for specific information
This is when you read to extract detailed information. You might do this when reading instructions on how to take medicine, or when reading an e-mail from your boss which contains instructions for a task you should complete.
- Skimming and Scanning
This is when you look over a text quickly. You might do this to find something specific but not detailed – such as a specific time on a bus timetable – or you might make use of this sub-skill to help you get the gist of the text.
If you use a text in class or at home to help you improve your knowledge of the language you are learning, then you are working on your language and not on the skill of reading.
To improve your reading skills in another language, you need to develop the kind of sub-skills mentioned above. So, how can you do that? You could do the following with your teacher or on your own at home – for all of them you will need to find a text in the foreign language you are learning (ideally find something you think you might be interested in):
So how do you improve your reading skills then?
Take one quick glance at the text – 5 seconds max – and ask yourself these questions:
What kind of text is it?
How do you know that?
What do I think the text might be about?
Quickly scan the text over to see if it interests you. In order to make sure you are scanning and not simply reading you should give yourself a time limit. If the text is one page long on your web browser, I recommend you give yourself two minutes. If it is twice as long as that, then give yourself four minutes.
The important thing to remember here is that you aren’t reading the text per se – you are simply reading it very quickly, possibly skipping over many words, just so you can get a quick idea of whether the text interests you or not.
If you think the text is interesting, then stick with it; if not, then you will need to find another text and repeat steps 1 and 2.
Now, read the text again but this time give yourself a couple of more minutes – add an extra two minutes. This time you are reading to get the gist of the text. While you are reading, you should be asking yourself: what is it all about?
Many texts, especially if they are from a newspaper or magazine, usually contain numbers and/or names. Read the text through and see if you can pick out the names and numbers and figure out what they relate to – this way you will be developing the skill of reading for detailed information but you won’t be answering any mundane questions.
Summarising is an important and useful skill, so why don’t you read the text through once more and make some notes about each paragraph. Can you then tell a friend or a colleague what the text is about – even if you have to do it in your mother-tongue, you will still be practising summarising.
All of these tasks above can be applied to just about any text and each one develops a specific sub-skill. Most importantly, they are not level dependent – which means you can be at any level and take any text and still complete these tasks: the only difference will be the level of detail you go into. If you’re just starting on your language learning journey and need help on knowing exactly how to start then our blog post on how to start learning a new language will help.
Harmer, J. (2007) The Practice of English Language Teaching. London: Pearson.
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A polyglot and international traveller. Anthony speaks 6 languages and loves sharing his passion of language learning through his writing.
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