Books can be a useful but also challenging tool to help learn English. They’re ultimately targeted at native English speakers and can use rich, complex literary structures to create a pleasant reading experience for the reader. This can make them difficult to use when wanting to learn English.
When my students want to use books in English, I often advise choosing a title you’ve already read in your own native language or seen the film for. This can help with the context of the story so you can focus on the ins and outs of the language instead.
I also recommend choosing short stories as it can be demotivating to get stuck regularly when reading a long book. When it comes to completing reading activities, break the book down into chapters or, if the chapters are too long, a few pages, to really hone in on the skills you’d like to improve. I’d also advise sticking to novels or simple life stories and avoid more complex writings, such as poetry, which have multiple layers of meaning and can often feel alien to English learners.
Another useful form of book is parallel reading. I’ve used these myself when learning Spanish and are a really useful tool for immediate understanding and word translation. The short story is written in English on one page with your own language on the opposite page.
Once you’ve chosen the type of book you’d like to read, it’s important to know your purpose of reading. Below, I’ll discuss different activities you could do depending on your skill focus.
Improving Reading Skills
In order to improve your reading and comprehension skills, it’s important to focus on the content of the story. Read through the chapter/your selected pages to try and understand what the plot is. Don’t focus on vocabulary you don’t know, focus on the context of the writing. To test your understanding, write or say out loud a summary of what happened in these pages.
Improving Speaking Skills
Speaking is a two-part process. The first part is mental, whereby the brain selects the words and grammar structures. The second part is physical, converting those structures into sound with the mouth. We can easily complete grammar and vocabulary activities to improve the first part but we can use books to help us with the second. In books, the content has already been created perfectly for you, you just need to read it out loud. Try to focus on your sentence stress, intonation and linking to sound as fluent as possible when reading. You can always find an audio version of the book to hear the way a native speaker reads out loud.
Most books provide a great opportunity to boost vocabulary, especially rich novels with detailed descriptions. Highlight key words you don’t know, find their translations or definitions, learn how to use them correctly in sentences then write your own phrases using these keywords correctly. It’s important to try and activate this vocabulary by inserting it into your own everyday English conversation too.
Improving Grammar Skills
Descriptive writing, such as novels, provides interesting writing. After all, they’re written by experts in language. Authors tend to use a range of tenses, grammar styles and word order. Read short sentences and take some time to analyse them. Ask yourself “what form is being used here?”, “what tense is being used here?”. Analyse each sentence in depth.
As you can see, books are extremely useful tools when used to truly test and improve your English skills. Unfortunately, simply reading a book in English for fun without any language activity does very little to improve your level but simply exposes you to the language. Choose the text that suits you, choose the activity you’d like to try then you’re good to go.