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What is the best method to improve your English reading ability? Let’s try to answer this question by looking at some of the most popular and scientific approaches to improve your comprehension, efficiency, and reading speed!

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Reading is an essential skill for any English learner. And I have received hundreds of messages asking for tips and advice on how to improve and develop your reading abilities. I’m going to look at and evaluate many of the best approaches to improving your reading, but first let’s briefly discuss why reading is so important.

The Importance of English Reading Ability

Reading is one of the main ways in which we gain new knowledge and information. With good English reading ability, you have access to a vast array of resources. You can expand your knowledge base and stay informed about current events and developments. Reading also helps to develop critical thinking skills and engage with complex ideas and arguments.

A lot of my own personal academic achievements in the past, as well as the current success of Thinking in English, is down to my love of reading. I read hundreds of articles every day, and love to consistently learn and challenge myself. And, as English is the current lingua franca, there is a lot more information in English available compared to other languages.

Improving your reading will allows you to better comprehend emails, memos, and reports, and respond appropriately. Being able to read proficiently also means that you are better equipped to express yourself in writing.

In many countries (not just English-speaking countries) academic courses are taught in English, and you may be expected to read and comprehend texts written in English. Poor reading ability can limit your ability to understand lectures and complete coursework, affecting academic performance.

And the skill of reading is highly valued in the job market. Many jobs require employees to read and comprehend documents such as reports, contracts, and technical manuals. In today’s globalized world, many businesses operate in English, meaning that being proficient in English reading can open up career opportunities in a wide range of fields.

I strongly believe that English learners should be actively developing their reading skills, as it will benefit them both personally and professionally.

But how can you do this? What is the best way to improve your English reading ability? Let’s take a look at a few popular methods and some scientific or evidence-based approaches!

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Popular Techniques for Improving English Reading Ability

There are various popular techniques that language learners around the world use to improve their reading ability. I have tried a lot of these myself, and even recommended them to many of you listening.

In this section, I will discuss some of the most popular techniques, including extensive reading, intensive reading, vocabulary study, graded readers, reading aloud, and reading speed exercises. I’ll examine the strengths and weaknesses of each technique, based on anecdotal evidence and personal experience.

Extensive Reading

Extensive reading is a technique for improving reading ability that involves reading large amounts of text for pleasure or general understanding. It is typically done at a comfortable reading pace and with a focus on enjoyment rather than analysis. The goal of extensive reading is to improve overall reading ability and fluency by exposing yourself to a wide variety of texts and vocabulary.

The primary strength of extensive reading is that it exposes you to a broad range of topics and vocabulary, which can help improve reading fluency, speed, and overall comprehension. However, a potential weakness is that you may not gain a deep understanding of the texts you read, and there is a risk of becoming disinterested in the reading material.

Intensive Reading

The opposite of extensive reading is intensive reading. This technique involves reading shorter texts in detail, with a focus on comprehension and analysis. It usually involves a slower reading pace and may involve activities such as highlighting, note-taking, or summarizing. The goal of intensive reading is to improve reading comprehension and develop analytical skills by examining the structure, vocabulary, and meaning of the text in depth.

This approach is great because it can improve your understanding of the text, enhance your critical thinking skills, and deepen your knowledge of the language. But… you may find it tedious and may not enjoy reading in this way.


Vocabulary Study

The vocabulary study approach focuses on intentionally and deliberately learning new words, phrases, and expressions. This often involves using flashcards, studying word lists, or practicing word usage in context. By doing this you aim to expand your vocabulary and improve your ability to understand and use new words in your reading and writing.

Vocabulary study can help you understand the meanings of words in context, which can improve your reading comprehension. This is an approach I have tried a lot… using memorisation apps to cram new Japanese vocabulary. The drawback of this approach, however, is that you may struggle to remember and use the new vocabulary in your own writing or speaking.

Graded readers

If you have followed Thinking in English for a while, you will know that I love graded readers. Graded readers are books or texts that are specifically designed for language learners at different levels of proficiency. They are written with simplified language and grammar, and often include exercises or comprehension questions to help learners practice their reading skills.

Graded readers can be a useful tool for improving reading ability by gradually increasing the complexity of the texts you are able to read. And by reading materials that are appropriate for your level, it makes reading more accessible and enjoyable. But if you only read graded readers, you may become too reliant on them and not challenge yourselves to read more complex texts.


Reading Aloud

Reading aloud is an approach to improving reading ability that involves speaking the words of a text out loud while reading. It can be done individually or in a group, and features practicing pronunciation, intonation, or comprehension. The goal of reading aloud is usually to improve reading fluency, pronunciation, and overall comprehension by engaging with the text both visually and audibly. And as a podcaster I can tell you that reading aloud is challenging and a skill that takes a lot of practice!

Reading aloud can improve pronunciation, intonation, and fluency. It can also help you identify grammatical errors and improve your comprehension. One of the drawbacks is that you may become too focused on pronunciation and intonation and lose sight of the overall meaning of the text.

Reading speed exercises

Reading speed exercises aim to increase reading speed without sacrificing comprehension. Some examples include timed reading drills, finger pacing, or other techniques to encourage faster reading. The purpose is to improve reading efficiency by increasing the amount of information you can process in a given amount of time.

Reading speed exercises can improve reading fluency and enable you to read more texts in less time, which is their primary strength. Nevertheless, you may trade off comprehension for speed, leading to misunderstandings and errors, which is a potential weakness of these exercises.

Scientific or Evidence-Based Techniques for Improving English Reading Ability

Scientifically-supported techniques for improving English reading ability are based on empirical research and theories in the field of cognitive psychology. These techniques have been shown to be effective in improving reading comprehension, fluency, and speed.

In this section, I’ll discuss some of the most commonly used scientifically-supported techniques, including Schema Theory, Bottom-Up Processing, Top-Down Processing, and Cognitive Load Theory.

Schema Theory

Schema theory is a cognitive theory that explains how individuals use prior knowledge and experience to understand and interpret new information. In the context of reading, schema theory suggests that readers use their existing knowledge and experience to create mental frameworks or “schemas” for interpreting and making sense of the text. These schemas can help readers predict what will come next in the text, make inferences, and build connections between different pieces of information.

English learners could use schema theory to improve your reading ability by activating your prior knowledge and making connections to the text. For example, before reading a news article about climate change, you could brainstorm what you already know about the topic, such as greenhouse gases, carbon emissions, and global warming. By activating your prior knowledge, you can build a schema for understanding the text and make more informed predictions and inferences while reading.

Bottom-Up Processing

Bottom-up processing explains how individuals process information starting from individual components and building up to a complete understanding. In the context of reading, readers begin by understanding individual letters and words, and then combine this information to understand the larger meaning of the text.

You could use the theory bottom-up processing to improve your reading ability by focusing on individual words and letters before moving on to larger meaning. For example, try reading unfamiliar words by breaking them down into smaller parts and identifying common prefixes, suffixes, and roots. This can help them develop a more accurate and efficient word recognition system. You could also practice reading aloud to strengthen your decoding skills and build your confidence with individual words and letters.


Top-Down Processing

Top-Down Processing is similar to schema theory but more a little more general. It suggests individuals use their existing knowledge and experiences to make sense of new information. Readers use their prior knowledge, context, and expectations to understand the meaning of a text before even processing individual words or letters. Research has shown that using Top-Down Processing can improve comprehension by enabling learners to make predictions about the content of the text and anticipate what will come next.

For example, if you are reading a news article about a new scientific discovery, you could use your knowledge of scientific terms and concepts to infer the meaning of unfamiliar words. You can also use the context of the sentence to help you understand the meaning of the text.

Cognitive Load Theory

Cognitive Load Theory is a scientific framework that explains how the human brain processes information and how cognitive overload can negatively affect learning. In the context of improving English reading ability, Cognitive Load Theory suggests that learners should be given texts that are appropriate to their level of understanding, and that they should be taught strategies for managing their cognitive load, such as skimming, scanning, and note-taking.

How can you use this theory? Select texts that are appropriate to your level of understanding and break down the material into smaller, manageable parts. Use skimming and scanning strategies to identify key points and keywords in the text before reading it in detail. Take notes or use graphic organizers to help organize your thoughts and ideas while reading. By managing your cognitive load in this way, you can improve your reading comprehension and retain information more effectively.

Which Approach is the Best?

Out of all of these different techniques and approaches I’ve talked about today, which one is the best? This is probably an impossible question answer. Different techniques have their strengths and weaknesses, and what works best for me may not work for you. The most effective approach will depend on your needs, preferences, and learning style.

If you prefer a more relaxed approach, extensive reading may be the best choice. This technique allows you to read a large amount of text at your own pace, helping to build vocabulary and reading fluency over time. If you struggle with comprehension or need to improve your reading speed, you may benefit more from intensive reading or speed-reading exercises.

If you want a more evidence-based approach, schema theory, bottom-up processing, top-down processing, and cognitive load theory may be more effective. These techniques are grounded in scientific research and have been shown to improve reading ability in controlled studies. However, they may also require more focused effort and time commitment.

Ultimately, the best approach will depend on your individual needs and preferences. It is important to experiment with different techniques and approaches to determine what works best for you. You may benefit from a combination of techniques, such as using graded readers to build vocabulary and then practicing speed reading exercises to increase reading fluency. By adapting to your own needs and preferences, it is possible to find the most effective approach for improving your own English reading ability.

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Final Thought

People always ask me what the best method is to improve their reading skills. Today, I’ve tried to introduce a whole range of popular and scientific techniques.

Extensive reading, intensive reading, vocabulary study, graded readers, reading aloud, reading speed exercises, schema theory, bottom-up processing, top-down processing, and cognitive load theory are some of the most effective methods that you can use to enhance you reading skills.

However, choosing the best approach ultimately depends on individual learning preferences, goals, and needs. Therefore, you should explore and experiment with different techniques to find the one that works best for you!

What is your favourite way to practice reading in English?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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