Reading in any language is very important to improving your overall ability to communicate in that language. However, it is especially important to read in your native language to help you to improve in key areas such as vocabulary, spelling, grammar and writing.
A very important language skill, reading can additionally expose you to a new variety of words, widening your vocabulary and your understanding of a broader range of materials.
Reading is classed as a basic skill therefore reading comprehension is first taught to us as young children. During these early developmental stages, a child is getting to grips with word recognition, a skill that is absolutely vital to being able to decode words and phrases written down or read out to them.
Naturally, children are encouraged to express themselves with speech before acquiring writing skills. Yet fluency in language is just one of the building blocks required on the way to effective reading.
The first texts children are introduced to are often stories, nursery rhymes or folk and fairy tales and the reason for this is that they feed the youngsters’ rapidly developing imaginations. Stories play a vital role in their growth as they additionally help them to understand feelings, how to cope with them and how to express them using language.
The first texts we come across as children are fairy tales or folk stories. Photo credit: Internet Archive Book Images via Visual Hunt
Although many adults would say that they are able to read, there is a big difference between being a basic or ‘passive’ reader and being able to call oneself a skilled or ‘active’ reader. Passive readers may simply read the words on a page without interacting with the text on any level.
Active readers, however, don’t just read a text, they connect to the text in an intellectual and imaginative way, using strategies to extract information from the formulation of words and interpret the story visually. This heightened attention to detail in turn makes the reading experience more enjoyable and on the whole more beneficial.
Whether you are already a keen reader looking to improve your reading skills or you are a novice seeking tips to help you to better engage with the written word, there are many ways in which you can become a more active reader. English lessons with a particular focus on reading can improve the speed at which you currently read and can offer you tips on how to further enhance your reading skills whilst presenting you with some of the best and most inspiring texts to tackle along the way.
As part of their Teaching English series, the British Council recommends a series of steps be taken when teaching beginners to read. These different stages are designed to help learners explore different ways of developing skills.
Firstly, teachers are advised to encourage their students to read and write, motivating them by clarifying what they could ultimately take away from being a skilled reader. If you as a teacher are able to convey your passion for reading, then your pupils are more likely to approach reading with positivity and enthusiasm.
An important stage in the process is to help learners prepare to read. This means introducing them to a variety of strategies to be aware of and to apply before and while they read texts. It is also extremely important to change their attitude towards reading – the reason that we read has a big effect on how we read.
Reading is often taught alongside writing, as the two skills are very closely linked for obvious reasons. Getting learners to face writing tasks and learn how to follow processes (like first of all writing drafts) can change the way they think about how they read and write, while helping them to improve their comprehension of written communication.
Finally, introducing learners to a wide range of genres and writing styles can help as they practice their reading, as it will let them see that different types of texts engage with their audiences in alternate ways. For example, the experience of reading instructions is very different to that of reading a romance novel.
The first step to becoming a fast reader is far from scientific. Slow readers are usually those who are easily distracted and therefore find it hard to focus on the task at hand. These day dreamers should practice reading in a space that is calming and comfortable to them, whether this be in a quiet room or in the middle of a loud and busy shopping mall. Learning to understand your most productive surroundings can help as you set about working on your reading speed.
Reading fast can have many benefits, but don’t feel pressured into reading so quickly that your comprehension rate is lowered. After all, what is the point in being a fast reader if you take nothing absolutely nothing in? A skilled reader is called that for a reason!
Becoming a more skilled reader is possible. The first thing you should do, however, is find out what is an acceptable speed of writing for your purpose (for example someone working as a researcher might be required to have a faster speed than someone who is just reading for pleasure) and then time yourself to see what goals you need to set yourself.
To work out your ‘words-per-minute’, you should set a timer for one minute exactly and then read at your fastest pace without compromising the comprehension of your text. Repeat the task as many times as you like to find your average reading speed. Once you have determined your ‘wpm’ rate and are happy with it, you can use this on job applications to show prospective employers the speed at which you can read.
Learning speed reading is all about practice – you must use your skills on a regular basis to become a more proficient reader.
If you consider, for example, how long it took you to master the ability to read as a child then you must understand that improving this skill will also take time.
If you wish to learn speed reading, you should start off with basic texts, as anything too challenging will only slow you down. Many study programmes claim that you can increase your reading speed by training your reflexes, so doing regular brain exercises could help your mind to be sharper when it comes to focusing on a reading project.
As is no big surprise to us in this technologically-advanced era, there are apps available for download which claim to train you to read faster. Spreeder, for example, is an app that has been designed to save you time in the long run and boasts being able to make you read up to 3x faster thanks to techniques taken from the world’s most respected speed reading trainers and record-holders. Apps like Spreeder, some of which are free to download via the Apple Store whilst others incur a charge, are tools that are especially popular with students looking for ways to make their studying and researching methods more effective.
If you do not currently make a habit of reading regularly, you could be missing out on some very important benefits.
Not only is reading hugely calming and a great source of free entertainment, it is a very important process in acquiring knowledge. Therefore daily reading can feed your brain with more information and widen your understanding of various topics. Furthermore, the more exposure you have to a range of texts, the wider your own word bank will become.
Reading is not all about gaining new skills, however. Scientists have proven that staying mentally stimulated through tasks like reading and writing can slow down the progress of, or even eliminate, mental disorders linked to old age such as Alzheimer’s and Dementia.
Just like any muscle in your body, your brain needs to stay active to remain powerful.
This also applies to your memory – the more you read, the better your ability to retain information.
In addition to the mental health benefits, reading can keep your stress levels down by transporting you away from everyday life, leaving any troubles behind you (at least for the duration of the activity!). Finding a source of escape can have desirable long-term effects too as it helps you to be rational and put things into perspective.
It is important to know about what reading can do for you on an intellectual level too. Modern distractions like television, emails and social media mean that we have much lower levels of productivity and concentration than before. Reading helps you to focus all of your attention on one story or account and allows you to absorb all of the fine details.
Finally, regular reading helps you to develop better analytical skills and improves your critical thinking. These skills all impact on your ability to interpret texts on a higher level and, in turn, make you better at communicating both in writing and by speech.
With the advancement of technology and the increasingly popular Kindle tablets, children are much less likely to see adults reading books. That is why it is important to allow your children to see you reading to encourage them to read more.
You might like to fill a bookcase with your favourite novels, take a pile of books away with you on holiday or keep your favourite story by your bed – either way it is recommended to get your children used to seeing books in their environment.
At one time, children would have been exposed to printed manuals, magazines and books around the house yet nowadays much of this information has been made digital. Quite surprisingly, some children’s books are even available to purchase in eBook form only!
The likely reason for this is that children’s book authors find the market so competitive that they are forced to self publish and therefore wind up using platforms like Amazon’s KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing). However, if the texts become popular enough with online audiences then they are more often than not snapped up by the children’s books publishing giants and printed alongside illustrations by successful artists.
Thankfully, the tradition of buying little ones physical books to read and touch is sill going strong, with many children’s rooms or nurseries containing storage space for books. Publishing houses are also embracing the sensory benefits that these can bring. Take, for example, the collection of ‘That’s not my…’ books published by Usborne.
These short and simple texts aimed at very young children offer bright, colourful illustrations and a variety of textures to feel as they turn each page. The broad range of subjects covered also means that there is a theme to suit every child.
Understanding what children are interested in is very important to encouraging them to read more. For instance, if your child is mad about tractors, there is a strong chance that you will be able get them excited about reading a story involving a farmer.
Similarly, it is vital to understand what level of comprehension the child has. By giving a child a book to read that is too advanced for their age group or comprehension level, they might be put off reading tasks in future as they could see it as too much of a challenge. Keep reading fun with books containing lots of images to ensure that they continue to be inspired and their creativity and imagination continually stimulated by reading tasks.
Furthermore, using interactive resources can be a good way of getting young children to get more involved in reading activities. Materials that offer images to colour in, activities to play or puzzles to solve can help the child to better engage with the content and begin to develop the skill of being able to interpret a story.
The chances are, if you have a teenager, that they find reading boring and perhaps even see it as something to be embarrassed about enjoying. Regardless of whether reading is their ‘thing’, you should always encourage them to keep on reading as this will benefit them greatly when it comes to their education.
Bike magazines, guides on fishing and books about horses are just some examples of the types of literature you could present to a child uninspired by reading to get them more excited about the activity.
Nevertheless, some children might have embraced the fulfilment that they get from reading a piece of writing and might be keen to expand their reading. Although fiction and non-fiction books written by adults are just as beneficial, teenagers might prefer the idea of reading stories written by authors not much older themselves. Not only might they find it easier to relate to the topics and themes, they might also be inspired to express themselves in writing and tell their own stories.
Those who have attended school in the UK will have been exposed to some of the literary classics of our world, but often studying books as part of an academic course can either go one way or the other in making you love or hate a novel! The Oxford Royale Academy has compiled a list of essential English novels that everybody should read, which includes:
‘Wuthering Heights’ by Emily Bronte
‘Middlemarch’ by George Elliott
‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ by George Orwell
‘The Lord of the Rings’ by J. R. R. Tolkein
‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy by Philip Pullman
‘Jane Eyre’ by Charlotte Bronte
‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens
‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ by Thomas Hardy
All of Jane Austen’s novels
But what is missing from this compact list? When we consider that our country has been producing literary works of significance since at least the 15th century (with Chaucer and Shakespeare high on the list), and is continuing to publish great works today, it would seem that many more could easily be added.
When we think of classic, we think of old or vintage which is why so many people come up with works from the past when faced with the question of the best English Literature classics. Moreover, to be described as classic, a text should have stood the test of time and continued to inspire readers throughout the ages.
While I agree with the choices made by the Oxford Royale Academy, I would nonetheless add one or two key novels that I feel have helped to shape English Literature and have genuinely proved their power over influencing generations after generations.
The first is ‘The Great Gatsby’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald. This novel written in 1925 can only be described as a timeless classic. Despite focusing on society of that time, Fitzgerald’s novel is as relevant today as it was nearly a century ago as the themes are universal.
With several adaptions having been produced after the author’s death (in fact, he died thinking he was a failure as ‘The Great Gatsby’ was yet to have its day), the success of the most recent Hollywood movie by Baz Luhrmann only goes to show that Fitzgerald’s characterisation, plot and themes depicted a wonderful insight into the roaring 20s, a period that many of us are so fascinated by to this day.
Finally, I would encourage any reader to pick up an anthology of William Shakespeare’s plays and to read at least one of them. Seen as one of the greatest writers of all time, there is no denying that Shakespeare produced a number of classics because his works are still studied in every academic English Literature course taught across the world.
His interesting characters, his use of language and his modern plots are just some of the reasons why his literary works are still so popular today.
If you are unsure if poetry is an area of literature which appeals to you, I would recommend keeping an open mind because there is such a vast selection of poetry available to suit all tastes.
Reading poetry was once associated with groups of creative minds reading works by others with the same special powers of expression, like an elite club. Yet, you do not need to be a lyricist yourself to enjoy a piece of rhyming literature (remember, however, that not all poems rhyme!).
Students studying English Literature at A Level (whether with AQA, OCR, Edexcel or another examination board) will no doubt be required to study poems by established poets like Carol Ann Duffy, Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, John Clare, Seamus Heaney, and William Blake, among many others.
Although great examples of poetry from different times and cultures, these texts may not inspire all. At least, not without the help of a passionate and clever teacher.
Being taught ways to read and interpret poems is vital in helping you to approach the texts receptively. For example, a teacher once gave my peers and I at college a poem to read and asked us to each identify what we thought the poem was about. The poem read as follows:
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
Naturally, those who are not familiar with this poem (as we were not) will come up with themes such as suicide, depression and despair. Yet, on revealing the title of the poem, just like that we realised that our teacher had taught us a valuable lesson in understanding the power of words – the poem is called ‘The Eagle’, written by Alfred Lord Tennyson, and was in fact intended to be a positive poem about freedom. Even so, I still like to think of the poem in the way that I understood it at the start, as that was my initial interpretation.
Being inspired by poetry is not always a direct correlation with the content presented, it is about how we interpret the given story and apply it to our own understanding of the world. Everyone can relate to poetry in some way because, ultimately, poems are written by humans like ourselves and are broadly focused on themes that are ever-present in today’s society like romance, friendship, deceit and many more.