Reading improves English.
If practiced correctly, reading can accelerate vocabulary-building, improve grammar, and sharpen writing. Although reading doesn’t directly impact your spoken English, it can to some extent improve it through better vocabulary, reading out loud, and a deeper knowledge base.
First off, let’s cover few cardinal rules of reading that will get you the most out of your reading:
1. Slow down on a small sample of your reading
When you read you typically breeze through paragraphs and pages, and not pay close attention to tidbits such as punctuation, grammar rules followed, grammar rules deliberately broken, style, how arguments are made and defended, and so on.
What if you pick a sample of your daily reading, say just 5 percent (2-3 pages if you read 50 pages of a book), and read it way too slower than your normal reading speed, paying attention to the details mentioned in the previous paragraph. During this slow reading, notice the subtleties and think how all the rules you’ve painstakingly studied have been applied in a real writing. You may not understand some of the stuff, but that’s fine.
This is learning from the real world and if you can do it regularly, you’ll learn – especially written English – way too faster than others who aren’t deliberately slowing down. I can say this because I’ve done this myself especially when reading books.
The effectiveness of deliberate slowing down has an obvious, commonsensical scientific rationale – the power of attention. The more attention you pay while learning something, the better you learn. (Spending disproportionately more time on a sample of your reading implies greater attention.) To quote John Medina, a leading authority on brain study and founding director of two brain research institutes, from his book Brain Rules:
The more attention the brain pays to a given stimulus, the more elaborately the information will be encoded – that is, learned – and retained… Whether you are an eager preschooler or a bored-out-of-your-mind undergrad, better attention always equals better learning.
This is so obvious that it is often missed.
2. Start with stuff that matches your level and interest
If you aren’t into reading much and your vocabulary is average, don’t start with tough reads. Start with simpler stuff, say newspapers. Within a newspaper, start with topics that interest you. It could be sports. It could be entertainment. It could be even crime… depends on your interest. Bottom line, if the language is difficult to comprehend and topic not interesting, you’ll likely give up even before you form the habit.
And once you get regular at reading, broaden the range of your reading. Embrace topics you don’t understand intuitively, but are useful to you.
3. Read regularly. Read when you aren’t at your peak energy level
Read every day, even if it’s for 20-30 minutes. Make it a habit.
If you want to be productive with your time, you can schedule your reading when you’re at your lowest energy level in the day.
Because reading is a low-effort activity. Why not utilize the time in which you would otherwise not do anything significant?
Let’s come to how reading improves your English.
1. Reading improves grammar and punctuation
Prepositions such as ‘at’, ‘in’, and ‘on’ alone can be used in multiple ways, which can look daunting to a beginner. And there are many prepositions… and there are many classes of grammar similar to prepositions. However, if you’re into reading (and listening), you’ll naturally learn which preposition fits in where. You’ll intuitively know that ‘remind’ goes with ‘of’, ‘prevent’ goes with ‘from’, ‘dream’ goes with ‘about’ and ‘of’, and so on.
This is not to say that you should shun your grammar book. Get the basics from there and then build on them through reading and listening. Learning from the real stuff is better than solving standalone grammar exercises, although they have their place, especially in the beginning.
Reading is also one of the best ways to master punctuation, especially the innocuous-looking, but complicated, comma.
2. Reading improves vocabulary
Do you pause for lack of appropriate words when speaking?
Do you sometimes make a winding explanation for want of a precise word?
If the answer is ‘yes’ to any of the two (first – pauses – is more serious), you need to work on your vocabulary. However, a ‘no’ to both the questions doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve a great vocabulary; it only means your vocabulary is good enough for sustaining pauseless conversations.
Reading can improve your vocabulary, and if you go above and beyond with additional steps (discussed in the next few paragraphs), you can improve your vocabulary by leaps and bounds. Here is how.
While reading, mark the words (by a pencil or marker) whose meaning or usage (how they’re used in sentences) you aren’t sure of. After you finish your reading session, refer an online dictionary to check the meaning and usage, both, of these words. Two of the best online dictionaries you can use are:
Many, however, look only at the meaning and proceed to the next word. With meaning alone, your ability to use the word in speech and writing improves much less than it could with usage as well. The real magic is in the example sentences or usage that follow the meaning of the word. Here is a screenshot of meaning and example sentences of ‘temerity’ from Oxford Dictionary:
Examples teach you how a word is used in sentences, and that’s what matters the most.
After you check the meaning and usage…
After you check the meaning and usage of a word, see if this word makes sense in the context where you marked it in your reading material. It’ll of course, but this exercise will solidify the meaning and usage you just learnt.
You can take your vocabulary to the next level by…
You can take your vocabulary to the next level by adopting spaced repetition to retain more of what you’re learning and by practicing few vocabulary exercises. (Spaced repetition will work especially well for beginners who lack basic vocabulary and therefore pause too often in their speech.) I’ve covered spaced repetition and exercises in vocabulary building in the following post:
How do most people read, however?
They don’t explore the word in a dictionary. (BTW, exploring words on an online dictionary is much easier than physical dictionaries.) Nothing wrong with it. They’ll also improve their vocabulary, but the volume will be a trickle and the quality, mostly passive.
What does passive vocabulary mean?
People can understand passive vocabulary when reading, but they can rarely use it when speaking or writing. For example, many would understand the meaning of words such as ‘deride’ and ‘incisive’ when reading, but they would struggle to use them while speaking. (Most people’s spoken vocabulary is limited to common words such as ‘go’, ‘take’, ‘eat’, and ‘drive’.) In contrast, you can use words in your speech and writing if they form part of your active vocabulary. And exploring words in a dictionary and using them shifts them from your passive to active vocabulary. I’ve covered this in detail in the post I last linked to few paragraphs back. I’ll end this section with an extract from the book Word Power Made Easy by Norman Lewis:
Educational testing indicates that children of ten who have grown up in families in which English is the native language have recognition vocabularies of over twenty thousand words. And that these same ten-year-olds have been learning new words at a rate of many hundreds a year since the age of four. In astonishing contrast, studies show that adults who are no longer attending school increase their vocabularies at a pace slower than twenty-five to fifty words annually [emphasis mine].
Why such a slow rate (25-50 words per annum)?
They’re reading passively and don’t bother to explore words further.
3. Reading out loud improves your spoken fluency
Reading out loud brings following benefits:
3.1 It brings clarity to your voice
Because your vocabulary is limited, you speak a limited range of words again and again in your daily conversations. But when you read out loud from a newspaper or a book, you cover a much broader range of words. What does this do?
You speak a wider variety of sounds. Your vocal organs – lips, throat, and tongue – get exercised in ways not exercised before, which makes your voice clearer. (I’ve noticed that although I’ve been reading out loud only in English, my voice even in my native language has become clearer. It’s tough to appreciate this unless you yourself experience this change, which is slow.)
3.2 It improves pronunciation
Regular reading out loud also acts as a revision board for the pronunciation you’re learning. The words whose pronunciation you learnt will come up in your reading-out-loud exercise sooner or later and speaking them loud is one of the best exercise to embed pronunciations in your long-term memory (here, you’re unwittingly doing spaced repetition, albeit bit randomly).
You can learn how to improve pronunciation in this post:
3.3 It can act as a practice ground for other components of your speech
You can also practice pauses (at full stops and commas), intonation (the rise and fall in your voice), and pace of your speech while reading out loud. Remember, what you practice creeps into your real conversations.
How often should I read out loud?
You can start with a session of five minutes per day and then take it to two sessions separated by at least few hours. You can in fact make these sessions part of your regular reading, wherein you take out five minutes to read out loud.
4. Reading improves writing skills
Stephen King, whose books have sold more than 350 million copies, famously said:
If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.
Besides learning the very basics of writing such as grammar, punctuation, and vocabulary, you can also learn how popular writers transition their sentences and paragraphs, build and defend arguments, research their stories, break rules of written English, infuse personality and style into their writing, and so on.
Such learning from published authors is gold if you want to improve your writing. And if you want to improve fast, slow down on a sample (remember, the first rule we covered right in the beginning).
5. Reading improves your knowledge base
You would struggle to sustain conversations or write compellingly if you’re hollow on content, right?
Reading fills this gap.
This knowledge, however, benefits you way beyond the topic we’re covering in this post – English language skills.
Knowledge gained through reading helps you way beyond sustaining conversations
Every mistake that was to be made has been made and documented. Every hack and best practice have been tried, honed, and documented. Well, almost! If they’ve been done and documented, why not learn from others instead of reinventing the wheel and wasting months and years. Why do Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Mark Zuckerberg, Oprah Winfrey, and many other successful persons are or have been avid readers? Remember, their each hour is worth millions of dollars and yet they ‘waste’ few hours reading a book. For sure, they must be getting much more out of their reading.
Adam Gilmour founded Gilmour Space Technologies, a space company, in 2015. Guess what, he learnt the basics on rockets through reading lots of books and NASA publications. And we, of course, know the more famous example of Elon Musk who learnt the initial ropes on space technology through books.
In nutshell, reading will not just equip you with the knowledge on variety of fields that can be so helpful to strike and sustain conversations on myriad topics, but also expose you to new ideas, lessons, and best practices, which can be crucial for you personally and professionally.