How to read English texts if you want to improve your English
By Tomasz P. Szynalski, Antimoon.com
Reading for content
Normally, when reading a text, people use a strategy that I call "reading for content". The goal of this strategy is to get the main idea of the text as quickly as possible and with as little effort as possible. To accomplish this goal, your brain will try to read as few words as possible and spend only a fraction of a second on each word.
For example, when reading the following passage, you don't really see it like this:
Once when I was six years old I saw a magnificent picture in a book, called True Stories from Nature, about the primeval forest. It was a picture of a boa constrictor in the act of swallowing an animal. Here is a copy of the drawing. In the book it said: "Boa constrictors swallow their prey whole, without chewing it. After that they are not able to move, and they sleep through the six months that they need for digestion."
I pondered deeply, then, over the adventures of the jungle. And after some work with a colored pencil I succeeded in making my first drawing.
To your brain, it looks more or less like this
Once when I was six years old I saw
a magnificent picture
in a book, called True Stories
from Nature, about
the primeval forest
. It was a picture
of a boa
constrictor in the act of swallowing
. Here is a copy
of the drawing
. In the book
their prey whole, without chewing
are not able
to move, and they sleep
through the six months
that they need
."I pondered deeply
over the adventures
of the jungle. And after
some work with
a colored pencil
I succeeded in making my first drawing
Here are some characteristics of "reading for content":
?Not seeing "grammar words" like a, the, in, of, through, that. The eye only stops at content words (main nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs).
?Not seeing word forms: Was it look or looked? Has looked or had looked?
?Not noticing the exact spelling. It is well known that the brain recognizes whole words ? it does not analyze them letter by letter. Native speakers see the word piece all the time, but many of them still misspell it as peice, because the two spellings have similar shapes.
?Ignoring difficult words that are not essential to understanding the meaning (here: primeval, constrictor). Who has the time to use a dictionary?
An extreme example of "word blindness" is the rather well-known puzzle where you're asked to count how many times the letter F occurs in the following passage:FINISHED FILES ARE THE RESULT OF YEARS OF SCIENTIFIC STUDY COMBINED WITH THE EXPERIENCE OF YEARS.
The answer: Six times. The word of, being a grammar word, is not noticed by most people.
Reading for content is a great, time-saving way to extract information from printed sources. The problem is that you may not need the grammar words to understand a text, but you do need them to produce a text. So if you don't pay attention to things like articles and prepositions, you won't be able to use them correctly in your own sentences.
For example, here is a sentence from the opening paragraph of this article. Most learners (except those who are proficient in English grammar or extremely observant) will probably find it difficult to fill in the blanks:
To accomplish this goal, your brain will try to read as ___ words as possible and spend only a fraction of ___ second ___ each word.
The above explains why some learners can read a 300-page book and still have problems with relatively basic grammar. It also explains why articles and prepositions are among the hardest aspects of English to learn. The conclusion for the English learner is that if you want to improve your production (output) skills, you will have to train yourself to notice grammar words.
Here's an illuminating passage posted by Maya l'abeille at the Antimoon Forum:
I believe that seeing correct and typical English sentences helps a lot to learn how to use English properly. It is also important to read and read again every structure that is new to you, so that you can remember them. If you only read the book without taking any pause to think carefully about the "new" sentences, you will hardly remember any of them.
I've read all Harry Potter books straight myself, and when I opened them again, I realised I had viewed loads and loads of useful structures whithout remembering them - which was such a shame! I'm reading The Full Monty (Penguin Readers collection) using the "pause and think" method at present. Now after a few days of daily reading, when I take a look at an English text, many structures are familiar to me - "hey, I remember reading this one in The Full Monty!".
Therefore, I believe this method is efficient and I would advise it to all learners.
Sometimes, we don't realise how wealthy a single book can be - loads to learn just in one of them.Pause and think
I agree with Maya l'abeille about the "pause and think" method. Here's the process that I recommend for dealing with sentences in texts:
1. Stop at interesting (not obvious) things: a new word, how a word was used, a grammatical structure, a preposition, an article, a conjunction, the order of words, etc. For example, spend a while to think about the fact that the sentence contains the preposition at, and not on. Perhaps the sentence uses the present perfect tense where you would have expected the past simple. Perhaps the word order is different than in your first language.
2. If the sentence contains a useful phrase, ask yourself: Could you produce a similar phrase yourself? Would you use the right tenses, articles and prepositions? Would you use the right word order? If you're not sure, practice saying a similar phrase aloud or in your mind. The idea is to move the phrase to your "active vocabulary".
3. If necessary, or if you feel like it, use your dictionary to find definitions of words in the sentence and get more example sentences. This will help enrich your "feel" of the word.
4. If you use SuperMemo, consider adding the phrase to your collection (e.g. as a sentence item) to make sure it will stay in your memory. Of course, only useful phrases should be added.
If you don't like to stop reading (to look up a word in your dictionary or add a phrase to SuperMemo), you can write down all the interesting sentences, or you can underline them in the book with a pencil. This way, you can handle these sentences later.
Another important piece of advice is that you don't have to use the above strategy all the time. Reading in this mode can be quite exhausting, so don't do it when you're tired after a long reading session. Also, do not try to give equal attention to every sentence. Some sentences in books (e.g. long poetic descriptions) do not contain phrases or structures that are useful for building your own sentences. Some characters in books use weird slang expressions which aren't very useful either.
Finally, the "pause and think" technique will not always make you remember the exact way to say something. But perhaps you'll remember that this particular type of sentence is "weird" or "difficult" in English. If you remember that, it will at least make you stop before you write that sentence, and look it up instead of making a careless mistake.An example
I'll now give you a short demonstration of the "pause and think" method. Here are two English sentences and examples of thoughts that you should get when reading them:
Former President Jimmy Carter will visit Venezuela next week to mediate talks between the government and its opposition, which have been locked in a power struggle since a failed coup.
?"Former President" ? not "The former President", so I guess we say "President Carter" and not "The President Carter", even though we say "The President will do something" when we don't mention his name.
?"to mediate talks" ? not "to mediate in the talks" or something like that. I wonder if that would be OK, too...
?"power struggle" ? I think I've seen this phrase before.
?"since a failed coup" ? so I can say "He's been paralyzed since an accident" (preposition use), not only "He's been paralyzed since an accident happened" (conjunction use).
?"since a failed coup" ? not "since the failed coup". The author does not assume we know about the coup.
?"coup" ? hey, I know this is pronounced [ku:]!
Jennifer McCoy, of the Atlanta-based Carter Center, told reporters Saturday that Carter may be able to help break the political deadlock when he visits beginning July 6.
?"Jennifer McCoy of the Carter Center" ? not "Jennifer McCoy from the Carter Center" (in Polish I would say from). So we'd say "John Brown of IBM", for example.
?"Atlanta-based" ? another way of saying "based in Atlanta". Guess I could say I'm a "Wroclaw-based webmaster".
?"told reporters Saturday" not "on Saturday" ? seems we can skip the "on" sometimes. "I met her Friday" would probably work as well as "I met her on Friday".
?"told that Carter may be able" ? not "told that Carter might be able" ? lack of reported (indirect) speech. And my English teacher taught me to say things like "She said she might stay" (not "She said she may stay").
?"to help break the deadlock" ? It looks like help can be used without an object (it does not say "to help Venezuelans break the deadlock"), and without to (it does not say "help to break the deadlock"). This is different from some other verbs like force (we cannot say "The President will force break the deadlock", we must say "The President will force Venezuelans to break the deadlock.").
?"when he visits" ? not "when he will visit", even though it will be in the future. I don't think I have ever seen will used in such a sentence.
?"to visit beginning July 6" ? interesting structure ? I would say "to visit on July 6", but here beginning replaces on. This may be the first time that I've seen this phrase. It may be some sort of news jargon.Reading everywhere
If you think you don't have time to read, try to carry a book with you everywhere you go. That way, you can read when you're waiting in line, waiting for a bus, or even when walking (but make sure you don't walk into other people or vehicles).
- 5 Speaking Rules You Need To Know!
1. Don't study grammar This rule might sound strange to many ESL students, but it is one of the most important rules. If you want to pass examinations, then study grammar. However, if you want to become fluent in English, then you should try to learn...
- What Is Necessary To Learn English Well?
This article was written by Leila Moghbel Learning English requires action. You may know all the learning tips, but if you don?t start doing things, you will achieve nothing. The fact is, if you want to learn to speak English well, you must change your...
- What Is Necessary To Learn English Well?
© Tomasz P. Szynalski Learning English requires action. You may know all the learning tips, but if you don't start doing things, you will achieve nothing. The fact is, if you want to learn to speak English well, you must change your life. Here are...
- Myth #4: "as A Beginner, You're Bound To Make A Lot Of Mistakes"
© Tomasz P. Szynalski, Antimoon.com This is often given as justification of the "Mistakes are OK" myth. The reasoning is that mistakes are a part of learning, therefore it is pointless to try to avoid them. Fact:While you cannot eliminate mistakes completely,...
- Myth #2: "the Best Way To Learn A Foreign Language Is To Speak It"
© Tomasz P. Szynalski, Antimoon.com This is probably the most frequently repeated piece of advice for language learners. You will hear it from teachers, webmasters of ESL sites, and people in the Antimoon Forum (e.g. see Jeff Hook's posts in this...