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How To Read a Book in English

English book
The Story of Stuff

Reading time: 4 minutes

You’re reading a book in English and come across a word or expression you don’t know.

What do you do? Do you stop and check it in a dictionary or do you ignore it?

Here are three approaches I’ve adopted for many years.

1. Check everything

Did you see the photo at the top of this page?

That’s ‘The Story of Stuff’ by Annie Leonard, a book I was reading in 2012 when I was an upper-intermediate learner of English.

See those highlighted words in yellow? They’re the words I didn’t know back then. I underlined them while reading and then I checked them in a dictionary. Sometimes immediately, other times later, after my reading session. 

Crazy, but I would look up every single unfamiliar word I came across.


I think you should do the same, especially if you want to grow your vocabulary because you can’t grow your vocabulary if you keep ignoring unfamiliar vocabulary. 

In the past, explorers discovered new lands by venturing into uncharted territories. Hard work. But this allowed them to expand their knowledge of the world. 

So next time you’re reading a book, be the most curious and ambitious explorer of all. Make sure you have a pencil or a highlighter in your hand and mark every single unknown word you encounter.

Then look them up. Leave no room for uncertainty.

 Aim at 100% comprehension.

2. Check something

Not every word is worth checking. Some words are much more important than others. 

How do you know which ones you should check? 

As a rule of thumb, unknown words and expressions worth checking are those that:

  • you’ve often seen or heard but you’re never really sure what they mean.
  • you find interesting for whatever reason.
  • look similar to words in your first language.
  • look similar to words you already know.
  • you can’t guess what they mean and so they prevent you from understanding the text.
  • you thought you knew, but now you’re not sure because they’re in a different context.

You don’t have to check every single unfamiliar word. 

Be selective. Don’t overwhelm yourself.

3. Check nothing

Reading for pleasure is already a highly effective learning activity. It helps you consolidate and reinforce grammar, sentence structure, text organisation, word order, vocabulary and spelling.

In his book ‘On Writing’, Stephen King said, 

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.” 

Reading — a lot! — is one of the best ways to improve your writing too.

So, if you’ve decided to read a book in English, forget you’re an English learner. You’re already doing enough by reading a book. Focus all your mental energy on the story, not the unfamiliar words you come across.

If there are too many of them and you’re really struggling to make sense of what you’re reading, maybe that book isn’t for you and you should probably leave it for now. 

But don’t waste your attention to check words and definitions. 

Alright then, which of these three approaches is the best? 

No. It’s not the first one.

Sorry, not even the second one.

Number 3? No.

I believe the best approach is a combination of all three. Balance them and you’ll be alright. 

This, at least, has worked for me.

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