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Enjoying a good book

Photo by Tom Hermans on Unsplash

Students always know they should read more to improve their English and so they tell me they are going to start reading books. “Not books”, I say, “articles. Short articles. Choose a topic you’re interested in and read about it in an article for 15 minutes a day.”

Why no books? Various reasons. Books are generally based on one story that may or may not interest you. If it doesn’t interest you, you might give up, and all that time and effort given to the first 43 pages is lost. Another disadvantage of books is that they contain lots of long descriptions. They are full of useless, uncommon adjectives that students painstakingly look up in the dictionary and then spend ages learning. When it takes 10 minutes to read the first page, you might easily be put off. Articles, I always felt, were a better option. Short, relevant to your interests, no unnecessarily decorative language. Definitely the way to go!

And so, taking my own advice, I began to read a newspaper article in German each morning over breakfast. Sometimes I understood everything; sometimes I understood nothing. Sometimes I guessed grammar points that turned out to be accurate. It was a beneficial activity, but it didn’t last long. I needed a storyline, and characters. And so I did the unthinkable and bought a book.

It turns out that all the negative expectations I had about reading a book in a foreign language (as a beginner) are indeed true! BUT it is also very rewarding. If you’re thinking of diving into English books but aren’t sure how to go about it, here are my tips:

Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash
1. Check out the library or a second-hand shop. There’s no point paying a lot for a book that you might not like. Since February I’ve returned about 4 unread or unfinished books to the library because I simply had no interest in them. (Can you imagine trying that in a shop? - Hello. I’d like to return this book. It’s too boring for me. Thanks.)

2. Accept the limitations of your current language abilities. Choosing a book about philosophy may not be the best place to start. Other books I would rule out are those written 200 years ago! (Even native speakers don’t always understand them!) When you decide to read your first book in English you will not be able to understand everything and large chunks of it will remain a mystery to you. Make your peace with that and read on. Which leads me to my next point:

3. Don’t choose a book that you’ve been waiting to read for ages. In fact, don’t choose any book that you are emotionally invested in! Reading a book in English will be slow and difficult at first and sometimes you’ll need to fill in the parts you don’t understand using your own imagination. Make sure you are happy to accept this or you will soon become frustrated.

4. Choose a book with a narrow spine! This is terrible advice from a teacher, but think of it this way: your first book is a trial run, so choose something relatively short. You can work your way up to books with 880 pages. Read the blurb on the back to see if you can more or less understand the gist of the story. Flick through the book and try to read sentences here and there. If you can’t understand anything, keep looking.

5. Put the dictionary away. Remember, you don’t have to understand everything. When you see the same words again and again, look them up. If you think a phrase is crucial for the story, look it up. Otherwise, forget it and keep reading. You’ll begin to get a sense of what’s important and what’s not. In the book I'm reading there are large sections of description that I barely understand, but I get the main idea.

In addition to the tips above, I would also add that it is a good idea to choose a book from or set in a culture similar to your own. You are going to struggle with the language so why struggle with new concepts too? And if you’re really anxious about understanding the text, choose a book you’ve already read in your own language. There won’t be any surprises, but you won’t wrestle with the storyline!

Article aid   It’s all about phrasal verbs today!

1. give up   quit / stop doing
2. look up   search in a dictionary
3. be put off   to lose interest, start to feel negative towards something
4. it turns out   the result in the end is
5. how to go about it   how to do it
6. check out   go to, try (the library, in this case)
7. rule out   exclude (the opposite of include)
8. fill in   complete, (add information to make the story complete)
9. flick through   look quickly at some pages in a book or magazine, but not read properly
10. put the dictionary away   put (and leave) the dictionary in the place where it’s usually stored

Bonus definitions
The ‘spine’ of the book is the hard bit on the side connecting the front and back cover. This is the part you usually see when books are stacked on a shelf. The ‘blurb’ is a short description of the book, usually found on the back cover.


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