A question I am often asked by students is ‘How can I improve my vocabulary?’ There is no easy, one-size-fits-all answer to this question, and it often depends on the person and their specific needs and learning style. So instead of giving a direct answer I ask my students a question (don’t you just hate it when somebody does that?) ‘Think about the people you know who have a large vocabulary in your first language. What have they done to acquire such a wide variety of vocabulary?’
More often than not, one answer that comes up is that the person with a large vocabulary often reads a lot. If this is the case with a person’s first language then why shouldn’t it also be true with a second language as well?
Unfortunately, and for a number of reasons, many people don’t like reading. It might be because of a negative experience at school, or the fact that it was never part of their culture, or they never found a book they were interested in. So to help get students started with reading, I like to make some of the following suggestions.
Pick something you are interested in
You don’t have to read Shakespeare if you aren’t interested in him. Fiction can mean anything from Calvin and Hobbes all the way to James Joyce. Likewise, if you don’t fancy fiction you can choose a biography or a self-help book. Indeed, reading isn’t just about books. If you are interested in politics, then try a magazine like The Economist or a newspaper. If you are into fashion then find some articles online from Vogue. It doesn’t really matter what you are reading, so long as you are reading something.
Read for pleasure
Don’t kill yourself trying to get through something you think you should read. This isn’t school and there won’t be any tests on what you have read. Try to find something that is a little bit below your level; there are lots of graded readers that simplify the grammar and vocabulary for students. (You can find some examples from Oxford University Press or Richmond).
Maybe the best thing to do is to read a book that you have already read in your own language so that you know the story. Or perhaps you could find a book from your favourite film?
The point here is that you should enjoy what you are reading. If it is difficult and hard work, you will probably not finish it and then never read anything again. Even if the language level is lower than your own, you will always learn something.
Don’t use a dictionary
One way you are guaranteed to stop reading is you constantly stop to check words in a dictionary. If this is the case then what you are reading is too challenging so stop and find something else. If you are always stopping to check words you can’t follow the flow of a narrative and won’t actually remember what you are reading by the end of the page.
‘But what happens when there is a word I don’t understand?’ is the inevitable question after I say this to my students. Of course, there are going to be some words that are new to you, but the best thing is to try to decipher the word from its context and, if you still aren’t sure, underline the word or make a note of it and then, when you have finished the chapter, look the word up in a dictionary. This will help you to keep the flow of the reading passage. This idea of looking words up later also fits in with the next point.
Focus your analysis
Reading on its own is great. However, if you really want to improve your language then analyse a short extract of the book once you have finished reading it. Decide what language you would like to improve, for example prepositions, verb tenses, vocabulary and then select a page or a chapter and go through it underlining examples of the language you are interested in. Then, ask yourself questions such as ‘Why is this preposition here?’, ‘What does it mean?’, ‘Did I already know this?’
Don’t spend a fortune
If you spend a lot of money and then don’t finish the book then you will feel annoyed with yourself. Find a cheap second hand book, talk to friends who might have a couple of books hidden away somewhere, search for articles online. By doing this it isn’t a problem to stop halfway through when you decide that what you are reading is boring, too easy or too difficult.
Find a short book
If you pick up a long read it will more than likely intimidate you and you’ll never see any progress. After a week of diligently reading 5 pages a night, you’ll still have hundreds more to go. Instead, try to find a short book that will set you a goal that is achievable but manageable. The feeling you will get when you actually finish your first book will motivate you to find a second one.
The last tip I give students is to try to read more than one book from writers they like. If you find one John Grisham book exciting (he writes some excellent and accessible legal thrillers) then you will probably appreciate other books by him. A similar point is that lots of people love reading serials, for example the Harry Potter books or Terry Pratchett. One advantage of following the same author is that they tend to use similar vocabulary and structures so you will gain confidence as you read more of them and it will help to reinforce this language.
Stephen Greene has been a language teacher, teacher trainer and materials developer for 20 years with experience of teaching in Poland, Taiwan, London, Russia and Brazil. Before travelling around the world he came from Birmingham in the UK. He holds an MA in Linguistics, as well as a Diploma in Teaching to Speakers of Other Languages from Trinity College, London. He writes about his experiences of teaching at tmenglish.org and what life is like bringing up a bilingual son in Curitiba, Brazil at headoftheheard.com.