Helping you find new ways to improve your English

Posts tagged ‘reading’

Reading more effectively

Listen while you read.

Part 1 (to the end of ‘Find out how difficult the text is’)

Part 2 (from ‘Prediction’ to ‘Looking up vocabulary’)

Part 3 (from ‘Using reading to practise grammar, vocabulary and punctuation’ to end)

Do you read much in your own language? What about in English? What kind of things do you read?

A lot of us read all the time without really realising it. How many text messages, emails or facebook messages do you read every day? Do you use Google? Are you like me, reading whenever you can, even if it means reading food packaging because that’s the only thing available?!

Some of my favourite ever packaging (for an Innocent Smoothie)

Here are some ideas that should help you get more out of your reading in English, and understand more of what you are reading. If you have any other tips, please leave them in the comments for others to read.

Choosing what to read

If you don’t read much in your own language (and sometimes even if you do) it can be difficult to motivate yourself to read in English. It’s important to read things which you are interested in, or which you know will help you in some way. For example, if you love football, but hate going to the cinema, read the sports section of the newspaper and don’t read film reviews. If you want to go to an English-speaking university to study marketing, read marketing books in English. If you aren’t interested in science and technology at all, don’t bother reading about them!

Why you should read in English

Reading more doesn’t just help you to improve your reading skills. It also improves your English instinct by helping you to recognise the way grammar, vocabulary and punctuation are used in practise. Through this exposure, reading makes writing easier too. Finally, reading can give you information about lots of different areas of culture, and help you to learn how other English speakers see the world.

What you can read

Reading doesn’t just mean books or newspapers. It could also include:

  • short stories;
  • advertisements;
  • text messages;
  • emails;
  • websites;
  • Wikipedia;
  • facebook;
  • magazines;
  • puzzles;
  • the back of DVD cases;
  • essays;
  • reports;
  • packaging;
  • and much more…

Find out how difficult the text is

If you are using a text from the internet, it is very simple to find out how challenging the text you want to read is by following the instructions below.

If the text is not from the internet, read the first paragraph or first few sentences. How many words are there which you have never seen before? If you don’t know a lot of them, you should probably try reading something else.

Using a text checker

The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary uses only 3000 words in all of its definitions. On their website there is a text checker. Copy and paste the text you want to read into the first box:

Text to check

In the second box write any words which you want the checker to ignore, for example names.

Words to be ignored

Then click ‘Submit’.


You will see your text with different coloured words:

  • black: these words are some of the 3000 most common words in English, so should be the easiest to understand.
  • red: words which are not part of the Oxford 3000. If you look at the words here, some of them may still be quite easy, like ‘Antarctica’, ‘UK’ and ‘Australian’.
  • blue: words which are on the list of specialist words for Art, Science or Business and Finance.

Checked text

At the bottom of the page is an analysis:

Text analysis

This shows you the length of the text and the difficulty level:

In a typical lower intermediate text close to 100% of the words will be Oxford 3000 keywords.

In a typical upper intermediate text 90-95% of the words will be Oxford 3000 keywords.

In a typical advanced text 75-90% of the words will be Oxford 3000 keywords.

From the Oxford Text Checker home page

That means the text I will use as my first example in this guide is an advanced level text (86% of words in the Oxford 3000), but hopefully my tips will help you to use it anyway!

Why does this help? Text checkers can help you to focus on the most important words you need to understand a text. See ‘Looking up vocabulary’ below for more information.

When should I do this? Text checkers are most useful when you are trying to choose something to read yourself, but you are not sure about the level of difficulty. Things you get from your school/teacher should already be right for your level.


Before you start to read something, spend a minute or so using clues to help you predict what you will read about.

For example, look at this headline, photo and caption from a BBC News article:

Emperor penguins counted from space

Choose one or more of these things to do when you first read a short article:

  • Think of five words which could be in the article.
    Mine are: satellite, chicks, ice, scientists, researchers
  • Think of two facts you think could be included.
    Mine are: Counting penguins from space is not as dangerous as counting them on the ground. It is important to know how many Emperor penguins there are to know how climate change affects them.
  • Think of two questions you would like an article with this title and this picture to answer.
    Mine are: What methods were used to count the penguins? How much did the project cost?

Then read the article as quickly as you can to find out if your words/facts were included or your questions were answered. Three of my words were there, both of my facts were, and one of my two questions was answered.

Why does this help? Prediction ‘puts your brain in the right place’ ready to read about a specific topic. Reading quickly gives you an overview of the whole text.

When should I do this? This is best for short texts, or done between small sections of a longer text, for example before each chapter of a book.

Summarising the main points

Read your chosen text more slowly, then turn it over/minimize the window and try to remember the main points of the text. You could write them down or record yourself saying them.

For example, from the penguin text above I remember:

  • There are twice as many Emperor penguins as originally thought. I think they said there are about 600,000.
  • The scientists who did the study are from the US, UK and Australia.
  • They find the colonies by looking for the brown patches of penguin poo, then count them using the satellite images. Sometimes they have to check the counts using aerial photographs or ground counts.
  • Climate change means the amount of ice could decrease in the future, although it is happening faster in the Arctic than the Antarctic at the moment.
  • By counting the penguins now, scientists can track how changes in the ice affect the population.
  • If the ice shrinks, the number of krill (which the penguins feed on) could decrease too. A reduction in the amount of ice could also mean baby penguins don’t have time to become adults before the ice melts, so they will die.
  • This was the first census of a species from space.

Then read the text again and focus on the points you couldn’t remember or didn’t get quite right.

Here are some of the points I forgot:

  • There are 44 colonies of Emperor penguins, including 7 which weren’t known about before.
  • There are 595,000 penguins, not 600,000 as I thought.
  • Warming in Antarctica could also mean new predators, which would be bad for the Emperor penguins.

Why does this help? Summarising texts helps you to train your short-term memory. It is good writing or speaking practice. Most importantly, it helps you to see how much of the text you can understand.

When should I do this? It is normally best to summarise a text after you have read it a few times, as this will help you to remember more facts. Don’t forget to compare your summary to the original text to check it!

Looking up vocabulary

As a general rule, try to only look up a maximum of four or five words each time you read any text. Remember, you don’t need to understand EVERY word in a text to be able to understand the general message. If you need to look up more than this, then you are probably reading something which is too difficult. Use the text checker described above to help you choose something easier.

When I read in different languages, I try to only look up two kinds of words:

  • verbs or nouns which are obviously important to the message of the text;
  • words which I have seen more than four or five times in the same text, but I still don’t understand.

It is best to use a monolingual dictionary to look up words, as this is also a kind of reading practice. Find out how to use a monolingual English dictionary.

Why does this help? Looking up every word you don’t know is a quick way to get depressed and demotivated about reading in a foreign language! Choosing to only look up some vocabulary is good practice, especially if you remember to learn the new words and phrases too. I also find that the words which I have seen many times before I look them up are easier to remember than words which I have only seen once.

For example, I was reading a German book and kept seeing the adjective ‘spöttisch’. It was not important to the story, but I was annoyed because I didn’t understand it. I looked it up once, and I still remember it means ‘mocking‘. 

When should I do this? Don’t start underlining words or looking them up until you have read the text completely at least once. If you don’t read the text first, you will start reading the words but not the meaningmaking it harder to understand the text.

Using reading to practise grammar, vocabulary and punctuation

Do you do a lot of grammar exercises? Do you try to learn a lot of new vocabulary? Do you have trouble using punctuation in English ;:!? You can use reading to help you.

Choose a piece of grammar (for example the passive), a piece of vocabulary (for example ‘make sacrifices’) or a piece of punctuation (for example an exclamation mark!).

Find quite a large amount of English text, like a newspaper, a few pages of a book or an entry on Wikipedia.

Read it as quickly as you can looking for your chosen piece of grammar/vocabulary/punctuation. Every time you find it, highlight it.

When you have a few examples, go back and look at them more carefully. Ask yourself questions about why the writer used them. For example, why did they choose to use the passive and not the active? What other words can you find around the collocation ‘make sacrifices’? How many times did the writer use an exclamation mark in the whole text?

Why does this help? These kind of questions help you to see how the theory you study is used in real English. It helps you to understand how common or unusual some grammar/vocabulary/punctuation is in different styles of written English. Spending a couple of minutes looking for a piece of vocabulary can also help you to remember it more easily.

When should I do this? Try not to do this too often as it can be depressing if you can’t find what you are looking for! However, using this technique sometimes is a great way to activate your grammar/vocabulary/punctuation knowledge and  it will also help to improve your writing.

Reading books

Books are a great way to get a lot of exposure to language in context.

You could start with readers, which are books made especially for English language learners. They normally include a mini dictionary of vocabulary from the story and some questions to help you understand the text. Many of them now also come with a CD or a downloadable mp3 so you can listen to the story at the same time as reading it. Here are links to the readers sold by Cambridge Macmillan Collins Oxford Black Cat

If you want to read books written for native speakers, I normally find it is best to start with books for children and teenagers, as they are shorter and the stories are easier to understand. Some of my favourite fiction authors are:

Author word cloud

These are some tips for reading fiction in another language (all from personal experience!):

  • Try to read for at least ten minutes each time you sit down. This gives you time to get in to the story. If you just try to read one page at a time it is difficult to understand the story.
  • Don’t read books with a pencil! If you do, you read the words but not the story.
  • Only look up words that you see many times. If you have seen it so many times that it annoys you, you will remember it much more easily when you do look it up (see ‘Looking Up Vocabulary’ above).
  • Don’t worry if you don’t understand the story at the beginning. I expect not to understand the first 25% of any book I read. If you keep reading you will find you understand more and more. I normally understand more of the second 25% and almost all of the last 50%. You need time to get used to the characters and the way the author writes.
  • Only read stories you would consider reading in your own language. I tried reading some chick lit in German but gave up after about ten pages, because it annoyed me too much! I would never read chick lit in English, so in German I didn’t enjoy it at all.

Why does this help? Reading longer texts regularly is proven to really improve language skills. Language learners who read regularly in a foreign language are generally those who reach higher levels fastest. It can also be an enjoyable way to practise.

When should I do this? Whenever you can!

Working with others

Reading doesn’t have to be something you do alone. A lot of the activities here could be done with a ‘reading buddy’. Both of you could read the same thing and do the same activities, then compare the results you have. For example, when predicting, did you choose the same words? Can your partner help you understand some vocabulary which you don’t know?

If you both read the same book at the same time, you could meet to discuss the story and what you think will happen next.

Why does this help? It is good to read with another person as you can motivate each other to continue. It can also help you to see that other people have the same problems as you if you are finding things difficult.

When should I do this? As soon as you have found a reading buddy!

I hope all of these tips are useful. If you have any other tips to share, please add them in the comments.

(By the way, 95% of the 2470 words in this guide are in the Oxford 3000!)


English Club

In the first guest post on Independent English, Tara Benwell introduces, a site with many different areas for English learners to explore and use. Tara works very hard as the administrator on, setting challenges for learners and helping them to practise their English as much as possible. Over to Tara:

(and you can listen to her read the post too:)

An Introduction to (for English Learners) has been online since 1997. It was one of the first websites for English learners, and has been growing in popularity ever since. The site is useful for self-learners as well as learners who study English at school. This club is FREE for English learners and teachers.

English club homepage

Here is how English learners can get the most out of

Take the English Club Tour

On the homepage you will see a red bus. Click on the bus for a very short tour of the site. You will discover the 5 main sections.

EC tour bus

The Learn English and Member Pages are the most popular sections for English learners. The Grammar pages in the Learn English section are written in easy English. We also have a Grammar Help Desk.


Do you want to learn phrasal verbs? Do you need listening practice? Are you looking for dictations or videos? Find exactly what you are looking for via’s search box. The search box on EC is on every page, and works just like Google. Some of the search results will be for English Club’s main site. Some will be from the Member pages. Search is very helpful if you need homework help! If you can’t find what you are looking for, put in a request.

Sign up for RSS feeds

English Club will email you regular updates if you request them. You can receive all of the new pages, or just the ones you want. For example, many members subscribe to Idiom of the Day! Choose the feed you want here. You can also see all of the new EC content in a sidebar on MyEC (Member Pages).

Sign up for Member Pages

My English Club (MyEC) is the social side of English Club. Sign up to receive your own FREE Member webpage, blog and media gallery. Blogging within a community is a great way to  practise English. You will have an instant readership of thousands of English learners and teachers. Read the FAQ for more details.

MyEC homepage

Here are some of the things we do on MyEC.

Join or Start a Group

What are your interests? Do you like music, cooking, or anime?  MyEC has several groups that you can join. Find other learners with the same interests and practise your English as you discuss topics that interest you. Any member is welcome to add a new group.


Many English learners (and teachers) come to EC to chat. MyEC has one of the most active international chat rooms online. We have an English-only policy, and our moderators work hard to make sure that our chat room is a fun, safe place to practise English. There is also a chat room on the main site called 1997 Chatroom. Here you can create password protected private chat rooms for you and your friends.

Accept or Create Challenges

Many of our long-term members and teachers create regular challenges for English learners to try. These include writing, photo, video, and audio challenges. You can also create your own challenges and contests! Try fun online tools that embed right in your blog posts.

Find a Learning Partner

Self-study is becoming a popular way to learn English, but don’t try to learn a language alone. MyEC will help you make good friends quickly. Join the “Find a Learning Partner Group”  to post a request for a learning partner. You can also use the Advanced Member Search to find other learners in your level or country.

Practise Speaking and Pronunciation

Our members use tools like Audioboo to record and share their voices. The Audio Speaking Group is a great place to practise speaking. In this group you can practise being a newscaster with’s Weekly News. Volunteers will help you improve your pronunciation. Many English Club members also Skype together. Find out who uses Skype by using the Advanced Member search.

Connect with EC  via other Social Networks

EnglishClub is on Facebook, Twitter (@EnglishClub), YouTube, and Google +. You can set your MyEC status updates to go to your other accounts. Use the tag #twinglish on twitter to tweet with English learners and teachers from around the world. Invite your friends to join MyEC.

EC Poster

If you sign up for MyEC, be sure to add me as a friend, and let me know if you have any questions. I am Tara,  the administrator of MyEC, and a teacher of English. I hope you’ll join my monthly writing challenges.

Quick Links

English Central

(Sorry, no recording to listen to while you read this blog post at the moment as I’m losing my voice! I will add it when I feel better)

English Central is a website which allows you to watch videos, read the dialogue and record yourself saying it. It analyses your pronunciation and compares it to the original video, offering advice on how to improve. It also helps you to expand your vocabulary.

This video shows you how it works.

For me, the best thing about this website is the ability to work on your pronunciation. When you log in to the site (for free!) it will track your progress and show you how you are improving. It also records how many times you have seen pieces of vocabulary in the videos and shows you which areas of pronunciation to focus on. Here are some testimonials from students and another teacher who use the site. They describe why they find it interesting/useful.

How to sign up

You don’t have to sign up to use the website, but I think you should, as you can personalise your experience on the site and it will remember things for you!

Go to the home page.

English Central homepage

Click ‘Register Now’ in the top centre. You will see this window.

English Central registration

You can enter your details or join via facebook. Click ‘Register’.

Choose your main reason for learning English. You can change this later (see ‘How to manage your topics’ below)

English Central reasons for learning English

Next, choose your level. At our school we use levels A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2. These are part of the CEFR.

English Central levels

Finally, personalise your English Central experience by telling it your native language, country and if you are male/female.

English Central personalisation

When you have finished registering, you will be welcomed to the site with this box.

English Central welcome

Click ‘Get Started’.

How to manage your topics

When you first join English Central, you can choose a reason for studying English. This helps the site to choose videos which you might be interested in. You can edit this list at any time.

On the ‘My English’ page, look for ‘My Topics’. Next to it, click ‘Manage’.

Manage topics

Then, tick the boxes next to the topics you are interested in.

Manage topics

Watching the videos

Click on a video which you are interested in. One of my favourites is ‘Do you speak English?

Click on the image from the video in the top left corner.

Do you speak English?

Watch the video and read the words.

Watch the video

If you want a puzzle, you can set a challenge. Click in the bottom right corner of the screen and tick the box next to ‘Hidden Challenge’.

Set hidden challenge

The programme will remove some words for you to write in.

Hidden challenge example

If there are any words you don’t understand, you can click on them to see a definition and example sentence and see and hear the pronuciation.


Click on the snail to hear any line more slowly.


Practising your pronunciation

When you have finished watching the video, it will take you to the ‘speak’ mode. Click ‘Start’.

Speak now

Listen to the line again, and click on words if you are not sure about their pronunciations.

When you are ready, click on the microphone.


Read the line as accurately as you can. The computer will analyse your pronunciation, give you points, and show you something like this:

Pronunciation analysis

The green words are pronounced perfectly. There is a problem with the yellow word. Click on it to compare your pronunciation to the native speaker and to see what the problem is.

You and the native

I got 33/44 points for this line. I am a native British English speaker, so sometimes some of my pronunciation isn’t exactly the same as the American system. Don’t worry if you don’t get 100% – aim for 80-90% if you can. You can record each line as many times as you want to.

All of the points for the videos go into your progress bar at the top of the page. The more videos you do, the more progress you will make. Eventually, you will move to the next level.

Progress bar

A freemium service

So far, everything I have told you about is completely free. If you want to get more vocabulary practice, or listen to specialist pronunciation videos allowing you to focus on particular sounds, you need to pay. I haven’t tried the full paid version, so I won’t tell you more about it here, but if anybody does, please add your experience to the comments.


Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary

Listen while you read:

How do you find out the meaning of words which you have never seen before? Do you translate them? While this is quick and easy, it is probably not the best way to improve your English. Instead, you can use a monolingual English-English dictionary. This will take you longer, but it will improve your English more in the long run.

My favourite monolingual learner’s dictionary is from Oxford, so that is what this post is about. There are also dictionaries available online from Macmillan, Cambridge (Essential/Intermediate/Business) and Longman. Each of the dictionaries is also available in paper form, often with a CD-ROM. Many of them are also available as apps. Try a few out and see what works best for you. The advice below should apply to all of them.

Why you should use a monolingual dictionary

By looking up words in an English-only dictionary you:

  • practise your reading skills;
  • practise your writing skills (when you copy the definition/write an example);
  • can check the pronunciation of the word;
  • see the word in context;
  • find common collocations;
  • find out how important the word is;
  • learn about common problems for English learners and how to avoid them;
  • spend time with words, instead of rushing, so that your brain has more time to take them in;
  • expand your vocabulary by learning synonyms, opposites, and words you don’t understand in the definitions.

I have studied many languages, and I always arrived at a point where my teachers told me to stop translating everything into English. Each time, it was very difficult at first, and when I was feeling lazy I always went back to my English-Spanish/German/French dictionary, but in the end I got used to it, and all of my language skills improved as a result.

Find the definition of a new word

Go to the homepage of the dictionary and type the word into the ‘search’ box.

Dictionary search

If you are not sure about the spelling, guess and the dictionary will help you. You can then click on the correct spelling. For example:

Spelling help

Understanding the dictionary entries

Here is the definition for different. In the picture, I have explained the information you can find in the dictionary entry. Click on the image if you want to make it bigger.

Anatomy of a definition

Anatomy of a definition 2

If you are using a computer (not a mobile device), you can double-click on any word in the dictionary and it will take you to the entry for that word. This is very useful if you don’t understand the definition completely. All of the definitions are given using the Oxford 3000, the 3000 most common words in English, all of which are marked with the red key symbol.

Some advice

  • Make sure you know which form of the word you are looking for. There are different entries in the dictionary for the noun, verb etc form of each word. You can find a box like the one below underneath the ‘search’ box in the top-left corner of the page.
    Search results
  • Try to learn words from a context, not from a list. This will help you to remember them, but more importantly, it will help you to decide which definition is the one that you need. For example, there are thirteen definitions including the phrasal verb ‘put up’, and without a context it would be impossible to know which one to choose.
  • When you take notes about new vocabulary, use the dictionary to help you write a definition in English, as well as an example sentence. This is a much more useful way of recording vocabulary than just translating it, and because it takes you longer, you are more likely to remember the word/phrase.

Do you have any other advice? Do you know about any other online dictionaries for English learners? Feel free to share in the comments.


You can listen to this post while you read:

What is postcrossing?

Through the Postcrossing website you can send postcards to people all over the world, and get them in return. Here are some of the postcards I have received through the website:

Examples of postcrossing cards

They come from several countries, including the USA, Russia, Australia, Germany, Finland and China.

It’s a great way to practise reading and writing in English with real people from around the world.

Joining postcrossing

To send and receive postcards, first you need to join the website, like this:

  1. Click ‘Sign up’Postcrossing sign up
  2. Complete the information, including your full address. If you don’t normally use the Roman alphabet (like the English alphabet), you need to use it here so that everyone can write to you, not just people with the same alphabet as you. Don’t forget to include your name and your country! When you have finished, click ‘sign me up’.
    Postcrossing sign up form
  3. Next, you can edit your profile to say something about you. Don’t forget to include ‘English’ in the list of languages which you speak! You shouldn’t include your address on this page. For example, here is my profile:
    My postcrossing profileThe mailbox map is automatic, but only shows the town you are from. Only people who will send you postcards will be able to see your address.

Sending a postcard

Once you have joined, login and click ‘send a postcard’

Send a postcard

Read the information, then tick the box at the bottom and click ‘request address’.

Tick box

Postcrossing will give you an address for you to write to. When you first join the site, you can only send 5 postcards at one time, but as you send more your limit will increase. This is what you will see:

Postcrossing recipient information

At the bottom of the page you will also find information from the other person’s profile, normally telling you what kind of postcards they like. This can help you to choose something to send them.

The most important things are the address and the postcard ID. Don’t forget to write this unique number on the card you send!

Then, sit back and wait for your postcards to arrive. When the person you send a postcard to registers it, another postcrosser will receive your address and send you one.

Receiving a postcard

When you get a postcard, go to and click ‘Register a postcard’

Register a postcard

Write the postcard ID and a short thank you message to the person who sent it to you, then click ‘Register postcard’

Registering a postcard

That’s it! Happy postcrossing 🙂

My students replying to postcrossing cards

My teenage students replying to postcrossing cards