Before discussing the best ways in which to increase level of competence in reading, it is necessary to draw attention to two facts concerning reading material itself:
The First Fact: Types of Reading
There are two different kinds of reading exercise which need to progress in unison if increased proficiency in reading is desired. These are intensive reading and extensive reading. The former is much more tightly controlled; there are time limits, texts are of a limited length, there are questions, vocabulary exercises and the like. The latter, on the other hand, involves much longer texts, there are no time limits, questions or exercises. The purpose of the former is comprehension and strengthening of the knowledge base while that of the latter is consolidation. Neglect this dual approach, and the likelihood of failure looms large.
The Second Fact: The Reading Material
There are two general categories of reading material available to student of English: classroom material and self study material. The former constitutes 99% of what is available on the market while the latter is scarse. In the case of the former, there is a student’s book with texts and a selection of exercises, a teacher’s book with answer keys to the same and notes to the teacher concerning methods of further exploitation of the material and then of cource there is the teacher, an expert in the field, and all he/she brings to the lesson as a professional. Use this material for self study and the benefits derived will be far less than if it were covered in class under the watchful eye and with the careful guidance of a professional. What the student requires when no such guidance is available is self study material whose purpose is three fold: to teach, to explain and clarify and to test. The only intensive reading material mentioned in this post will involve self study material. One interesting point here is that classroom material is far more benefitial when covered in the right setting, in the right way while self study material can be used in class with equal measure of success; the only thing is that it leaves the teacher very little to do as it is self explanatory.
It is suggested that you make extensive reading and related writing in the form of book reports, reactions or summaries part of your regular study routine. Naturally, these are not, by any means, the only sites of their kind; there are many others. Access to the three sites listed below is free.
Short Stories and Novels
1. classicshorts.com : this is a wonderful website which is absolutely free and is very easy to navigate. It includes collections of short stories by some of the best known authors in the world.
2. pagebypagebooks.com: unlike the previous site, this one includes novels by famous writers as well.
3. americanliterature.com: this wonderful website provides access to both novels and short stories by American and foreign writers contrary to what the name suggests.
Newspapers, Magazines and News Websites
It is suggested that you make keeping up with the news and reading magazines that appeal to you part of your regular study routine. Writing about the news and the articles you read is a wonderful reading and writing activity. Naturally, the links provided below are just a few examples of what is available.
1. British Papers: theguardian.co.uk, theobserver.co.uk
2. American Papers: wsj.com, nytimes.com
3. News Channells: bbc.co.uk/news, cnn.com
4. Magazines: scientificamerican.com, nature.com,wired.com, theatlantic.com, psychologytoday.com, times.com, economist.com
Intensive Reading: Self Study Material
As previously indicated, self study reading material is very rare indeed, which is surprising considering how many people are trying to improve their reading skills in English. The rapid spread of online education and the current trend towards individual work via the internet will, most certainly, change these circumstances but for the present we are going to focus on my blog (the link to which is: http://theproproom.blogspot.com), which fits the bill admirably. It is suggested that you make intensive reading of the kind described part of your daily routine. It is also suggested that you never, ever skip the reading into writing activities. Lastly, always get a printout of the text and questions; never read on the computer. You will find that you make far more mistakes if you don’t work with a hard copy.
1. Level One (*) Reading Tasks: the reading tasks in this file are intermediate in level. They are suited to intermediate students at the beginning of an intensive course and pre intermediate students a month or so into the course. The reading passages the tasks are based on fall under various headings – science and technology, the environment, education, history and politics, psychology and the like – the complete list can be found in the file titled “Level two reading tasks by theme”. The tasks are based on original texts suited to this level and the answers to the questions will provide a summary of the text. It is suggested that you read the first question and then start reading the text. Otherwise, the text may seem too difficult and off putting. Remember; the purpose of the questions is to explain, clarify and test.
2. Level Two (**)Reading Tasks: the reading tasks in this file are upper intermediate in level and are suited to advanced students right at the start of the course and intermediate students soon after. Pre intermediate students should be able to tackle them half way through the first term. All that has been said for level one is also valid here.
3. Level Three (***) Reading Tasks: the reading tasks in this file are advanced in level and are suited to advanced students a month or so at the most into the course and intermediate students near the end of the first term at the earliest. Pre intermediate students in an intensive language course should be able to tackle these tasks a third of the way into the second term. All that has been said for level one is also valid here.
4. Level Four (****) Reading Activities: the reading tasks in this file are harder than level three as evidenced by the preponderance of politics, history and serious science texts. They are suited to advanced students a month into the second term and intermediate students in the second half of the second term of an intensive English course. Pre intermediate students should, ideally, be able to tackle them well into the second half of the second term. This is is also the level of reading sections on most English proficiency exams. All that has been said for level one is also valid here.
5. Level Five (*****) Reading Activities: the reading tasks in this file are more difficult than most English proficiency exams. The file is here to prove to students that a proficiency exam is a cutoff point and there is really much more learning to do.
Reading Activities that Resemble the Proficiency To Be Taken:
It is assumed, quite wrongly, that doing test after test is the best way to prepare for a reading test but this is a very common mistake. The purpose of a test is just that, to test, while the purpose during the period of preparation is to build the knowledge base and increase competence. Different purposes require different methods. A couple of trial runs to become familiar with the test shortly before the date is fine but not absolutely necessary. Research has shown that the effects of familiarity with the test on success rates drops as the level of the student increases; the maximum effect being in the vicinity of 10%. If you are proficient and you decide, on a whim, to take the IELTS the following day, you can walk in and take it and pass with flying colors. All this does not mean you should brush practice tests aside but don’t cling to them; just do one or two before the actual test if you wish. Instead, spend your time more profitably by following the advice provided in this post.
How to Tackle Vocabulary:
One unavoidable issue that always crops up while tackling a reading task is what to do about the new vocabulary. There is a simple rule of thumb:
1. Look up the key words in a monolingual dictionary
2. Guess the meaning of words whenever you can. For instance, you come across the word ‘loath’ and you guess that it means something like ‘dislike’; that is fine; you move on. Loath in fact means absolutely hate but that doesn’t matter; you are in the same ball park so no dictionaries.
3. There is a third group of words: those that are not essential in order to understand the sentence and are not key words either. You just leave them.
In short, consider reading like rock climbing and you will be fine. Remember: the forest comes first and then the trees; not the other way around.