Skills: Reading – developing your English reading skills


We’ve looked at listening and writing skills before, and in this post, we’re going to look at the skill of reading and how to improve your understanding when reading in English.

Reading widely is vital to improving your vocabulary and also helps to develop all the other skills in English. You can recognise and therefore reinforce what you have learned when reading. Although it is important  to read as part of your studies; it is also important to read when you are not studying. In the same way that interacting as much as possible in English helps your listening and speaking skills, you should also read as much as possible. This does not have to always be “useful” or homework texts which you study intensely – you will get tired and bored and may give up if you focus too much. You should also read for pleasure and not worry about understanding every word. Being relaxed helps your mind to absorb what you read and develop language awareness.

Reading is something we often think of as sitting down with a book, as in the picture. Not everyone likes doing that (they can think of more exciting things to do, like sports maybe!) but actually the skill of reading also includes things like looking at bus timetables and finding the bus you need (to get to the sports match, perhaps?!)

This is because we read for different reasons. Finding the right reason to read can help to motivate you to read more in English. If you like motorbikes, then you could try reading a motorbike magazine in English instead of in your own language. This gives you the motivation to find new vocabulary and keeps you interested in the topic. If you like travelling, find out about the places you want to go to from an English-language website. All of these small things will add up to a lot!

Remember, it’s not always important to understand every word we read. Even when we’re reading in our own language, we sometimes don’t recognise a word and have to work out what it means. This is a very important skill, firstly because sometimes we just don’t have a dictionary available; and secondly, it breaks the flow of reading to stop at every unknown word. We all need to be able to allow the context and our own knowledge of the world to be able to infer meaning.

Types of reading

Reading is a receptive skill, like listening, which we have looked at in earlier blogs. Also like listening, we can read intensively or we can read extensively. A combination of both gives you the greatest benefit.

E-readers often have inbuilt dictionaries

a. Intensive reading is when we read and want to fully understand every aspect of what we are reading. This is the type of reading we do when studying or answering comprehension questions in class. It focuses on objectives such as understanding vocabulary and also looking at organizational patterns in a text.  We often do this in the classroom. Intensive reading is often difficult for your level to help you to develop strategies for dealing with unknown words, phrases or grammar. An intensive reading text should be fairly short, and also at the correct level.

b. Extensive reading is reading widely, but not worrying about understanding everything that we read. This type of reading builds our “passive” knowledge and helps us to develop language and cultural awareness. Extensive reading is simply reading as much as possible; and through practice, developing reading comprehension skills and the speed you read at. You should read for pleasure or for information, at a level which you are comfortable at (rather than one which is challenging).

Extensive reading is not generally done in class, but it is something you can do outside class to improve your reading skills. Extensive reading will also help you to build your word recognition. Word recognition  is when you don’t have to think about a word, but just see it as a whole. For example, when you read the word “the” you don’t need to think about the letters but just recognise it. Extensive reading helps you to build the number of words you recognise like this.

Combining both of these types of reading helps you to build your English knowledge from the bottom up (intensive reading) and from the top down (extensive reading).

Reading for exams

International English exams such as Cambridge First Certificate, Cambridge Advanced, IELTS, TOEIC etc. often require particular types of reading skills. In particular, you need to be able to skim a text and to scan a text. These are different ways of approaching a text to be able to find the answers that you need.

a. Skimming is the ability to read a text quickly and understand what the general meaning (gist) is. This gives you a mental “map” of the text, so you can quickly find the information required in the questions. A good method to practise skimming is to read as much of a text as you can in 60 seconds. Then in another minute, try to read a larger amount of the same text. If you repeat this regularly, you become accustomed to skimming over the old information in the text to familiarize yourself with the new information. Over time, this activity can greatly improve the speed that you read at.

There is a page where you can practise skimming here.

b. Scanning is searching a text for key words which help you to answer the question, but without reading the text for meaning. This is in contrast to skimming where you are trying to understand what the text is generally about, but when you scan it you are simply looking for words not meanings. To scan well, remember: don’t read from left to right because if you start reading from left to right, you automatically start to read for meaning rather than just scanning for individual words. Don’t start at the beginning because the word you are looking for could be anywhere in the text. A good way to approach scanning is to look at a point in the middle of the text and scan from there. This can be illustrated like this: Scanning diagram (Diagram from

You can also find advanced scanning practice here.

Of course, these skills are not only useful in exams but for everybody!

Some activities you can do to improve your reading skills:

  • Choose a reader at your level from the CEC library. Don’t choose anything above your level; but choose something you can read for pleasure!
  • Make sure that whenever you need information (a timetable or you need to look something up on Google) that you do it in English
  • Talk about what you read; or keep a journal. You could start a reading club either online or with your friends and post your opinion of a book you’ve read and whether you would recommend it for others and why.
  • Re-read texts from class, taking notes of vocabulary, colocations, and expressions you have learned from them.
  • Practice developing your reading speed and efficiency by setting a time limit and increasing the amount you try to read in that limit (see “skimming” above)
  • Look at  some of the links below for interesting reading activities online: has a large variety of reading texts for different interests and at different levels, with activities to help you develop your reading skills. includes text and MP3 files so you can listen as well as read. It has articles from Voice of America as well as a lots of signs which are useful for when you travel. has links to English quizzes, tests, exercises and puzzles to help you improve your reading skills. They range in difficulty from elementary up to advanced and contain a variety of activities and sometimes contain audio versions of the story for you to listen to.

ttp:// is aimed at teachers but has a lot of different texts and levels for you to look at and find something to interest you.

We hope you have enjoyed this blog and found it interesting! Please leave us a comment 🙂


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