ESOL reading strategies
This section will talk about strategies for effectively reading academic texts in English. These are intended as additional notes for ESOL students to those given in the reading section.
Before discussing these strategies it is important to outline some of the pitfalls of reading and translating from texts written in your own language.
The Dangers of Translating
- Avoid reading texts written in your own language unless you are having a lot of difficulty understanding English texts on your topic. Reading from English texts will not only improve your English, it will also help avoid poor transcribing and paraphrasing.
- Translating is a very difficult skill and can be very time-consuming. However, if you must translate, avoid translating word by word. Rather, translate ideas in context (by reading the words and sentences around it that make the meaning clear).
- There are many different meanings and uses for the same word in English. Consider the word ‘light’. In a good monolingual (English-English) dictionary you may find a whole page dedicated to illustrating the different meanings and uses of the word ‘light’. The following are only a few examples:
- “Yes, I enjoyed the movie. It was a bit of light entertainment.” (Amusing, not serious)
- “He shed some light on the topic.” (Clarified)
- “The truth about the new CEO has come to light.” (Emerged)
- “We leave at first light.” (Daybreak)
- “I bought some light garden furniture.” (Lightweight)
- “He felt the light touch of her hand.” (Delicate)
- Beware of false friends. These are words that look very similar to a word in your own language. For example, the Finnish word ‘kaniini’ (rabbit) looks like the English word ‘canine’ (dog); the German word ‘konsequent’ (consistently) looks like the English word ‘consequently’; and the Spanish word ‘decepcion’ (disappointment) looks like the English word ‘deception’ (Lowes, Peters, & Turner, 2004, p. 179).
- There are many varieties of English. English is so geographically widespread that many different varieties have developed over time. In addition to British, American, and New Zealand English, there is Australian English, Singaporean English, West Indian English, and Indian English, to name a few.
- Cultural Differences. These are the unique ways we communicate and express ourselves in our own cultures. Sometimes we cannot translate these from out culture to another culture. We need to be aware of this so we do not attempt to translate sentences that cannot be translated. For example, we cannot translate the sentence, “The aeroplane soared into the sky like a bird” into Hopi Indian because in their language there is only one word for anything that flies into the sky (Lowes et al., 2004, p. 180). Cultural differences are often illustrated in the way we use metaphors or idioms. For example, “You are the apple of your father's eye” or “He is a chip off the old block” could also be very confusing because they cannot be read literally. “You are the apple of your father's eye” means you are very important to your father. “A chip off the old block” is a child who is the likeness of its parent. However, do not despair, the meanings of common expressions such as these can be found in a good monolingual English dictionary or an idiom dictionary.
Strategies for reading in English
- Avoid reading the text word by word. Read paragraph by paragraph instead. Learn to understand the meanings of words through context. The worst thing you can do is to look up every difficult word in your dictionary. This will make reading and understanding very difficult, very slow, and very frustrating.
- Make reading notes in your own words. After you have read the whole paragraph, write one or two sentences in your own words summing up the main idea of the paragraph and ask questions to yourself about the content.
- Start with easy texts and move onto more difficult ones when your understanding of the language and the topic improves. Find authors with clear and simple writing styles and text layout. If a topic is new to you, you may be able to find English high-school texts to give you a very basic understanding to develop from. If you have started the topic at 200 level, seek a 100 level ‘Introduction to…’ text.
- Find a specialist dictionary for your area of study, for example, an economics or a social policy dictionary. Use specialist dictionaries only for the words that you often read or hear in your course.
- Keep a vocabulary notebook of these topic-specific words and of other general vocabulary you read or hear repeatedly.
- Read with your friends. Initially, form a reading group with other students whose first language is not English. When your English improves, reading with native English speakers is a good idea. Sharing knowledge and questioning the content and vocabulary of new texts in your course improves your reading, your vocabulary, and your content knowledge. Reading with friends also makes reading more enjoyable, and improves your ability to think critically.
- Read regularly. Read any English books you find enjoyable in between your academic reading. Again, start with easier texts and work your way up as your reading skills improve.
References and further reading
Burns, T., & Sinfield, S. (2012). Essential study skills: The complete guide to success at university (3rd ed.). Sage. [Massey Library link]
Fairbairn, G., & Fairbairn, S. (2001). Reading at university: A guide for students. Open University press. [Massey Library link]
Glendinning, E., & Holmstrom, B. (2004). Study reading: A course in reading skills for academic purposes (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press. [Massey Library link]
Levin, P. (2004). Write great essays! A guide to reading and essay writing for undergraduates and taught postgraduates. Open University Press. [Massey Library link]
Lowes, R., Peters, H., & Turner, M. (2004). The international student's guide: Studying English at university. Sage. [Massey Library link]
Wallace, M. J. (2004). Study skills in English: A course in reading skills for academic purposes (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press. [Massey Library link]