Of the four primary language skill areas, reading is the most demanding. In fact, it is so demanding that many people never become proficient readers in their first language. If you don’t like to read, you don’t read, which means you don’t get better. It’s one of the big problems in American education, and the problem has spread to Europe and Asia as well. Smart Phones and the Internet haven’t helped matters either.
The real problem is not that people don’t read well, but that, even with electronic technology, reading remains the key to learning, to developing many types of job skills, and to accessing detailed information. For students who want to attend a college or university, skill in reading is a must. Yet this is hard to develop in a second language, even if you like reading in your first language. If you generally never read, it’s even harder. So what can you do?
Well, there’s no easy fix, no magic pill you can take to make reading in English come easily. If you like to read, developing English reading will still be a chore. If you don’t like reading it will be harder still. But if you are really serious about your future, you move forward. And it can be done.
The most common two mistakes are to attempt to read something that is too difficult, or to read something that doesn’t interest you. Of the two, I think interest is more important. If you really want to read something, you will, even if it is a challenge. When the third Harry Potter book was coming out in Britain, children and parents were lined up outside bookshops in London. The stores were going to open at midnight, just to sell the book. I saw an interview with a 9-year-old French girl, who had gotten her mother to bring her to London to buy the book. The interviewer asked her if she was really good at English. “No,” she said, “I don’t read English that well, but can’t wait a year for the French edition. I’ll do my best in English, because I have to know what happens next. Then I’ll buy it in French, and read it again.”
If you can have that level of determination and motivation, you will succeed at reading in English. The key is wanting, that need to read that one thing – that novel, that poem, that play. If you really want it, you will overcome the obstacles.
However, most of the time we aren’t so crazy about reading one thing that we will do anything to read it. And this is where appropriate level comes in. Research has shown that most readers will give up on a book if there are more than 5 unfamiliar words in 100. That means, on the average book page, if you find more than around 13 words you really can’t recognize, you will eventually become so frustrated you will quit. So one thing to do is read a page of a book you think you will enjoy, and do a rough word count. Only a couple of problem words? Great, go for it! You feel like you will do more reading in the dictionary than in the book? Forget it – at least for now. Remember, the more you read, the easier it will become. The key is to start with something high-interest and low difficulty. Go to the library, and ask the librarian for something appropriate for English Learners. If you’re in an English-speaking country (for example, at EC San Francisco), you should be able to get a lot of suggestions. Who knows – one might be right for you. Just give it a try!