Reading improves English.
If practiced correctly, reading books and novels suiting your level 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.
Before we jump to how reading improves your English, let’s quickly cover three cardinal rules on how to get the most out of your reading:
1. Slow down on a small sample of your reading (Crawl Method)
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 (I call this Crawl Method), 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?
With that done, 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.
Same goes for phrasal verbs. Phrasal verbs are derived from a root verb, but their meaning can’t be inferred from the meaning of their root verb. For example, give up, give in, give away, and give out are all phrasal verbs of the root verb give. When you see phrasal verbs in context again and again while reading, you start to understand their meaning and use intuitively.
This is not to say that you should shun your grammar books. 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.
In her TEDx Talk, Esha Manwani describes her journey to improve English (duration: 1:45 minutes):
She mentions she started reading books at 15 when she should have started years before. She started with children’s books and soon ate, read, and slept books (that’s called immersive language learning). As a result, gradually, ‘somehow voice in her head started forming grammatically correct sentences’. She started using words in the right context even though she didn’t know their meaning (that’s building vocabulary subconsciously).
That’s what regular reading can do.
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.
Any kind of reading will improve your vocabulary. Fiction, especially, will expose you to slangs and phrases used in spoken English because it contains lots of dialogues between different characters. 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.)
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 topic in detail in this post.
3. Reading out loud improves your spoken fluency
Reading out loud brings following benefits to improve your fluency:
- It brings clarity to your voice by exercising your vocal cords – lips, throat, and tongue – for multitude of sounds.
- It improves pronunciation.
- It can act as a practice ground for intonation, pauses, emphasis, and pace (of your speech).
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 written English. And if you want to improve fast, slow down on a sample (remember, crawl method we covered right in the beginning).
5. Reading improves your knowledge, makes you smarter
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 of space technology through books before he founded SpaceX.
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.