By David Recine
University students are constantly busy and always short on time. Add in reading in a foreign language and you might as well say, “Sayonara social life!”. However, there are a few tips to help you read faster in a foreign language, without losing comprehension. Even in English—one of the more difficult languages to learn—there are a few simple tips and tricks to help you glide more smoothly (and quickly!) through your assigned reading material.
Tip #1: Learn common academic vocabulary
The more words you know, the swifter you’ll be able to get through texts. Download a flashcard app or review certain lists (like the Victoria University of Wellingtom’s Academic Word List). Learn prepositions and their meanings, to eliminate the need to look up definitions every sentence or so; and understand irregular verb conjugations so you don’t get trip upped.
Tip #2: Read out loud… at first
OK, this tip may sound a little strange. After all, doesn’t it take longer to read something out loud? And isn’t reading out loud impractical, especially if you are in class or in the library?
In the long run, reading college texts out loud isn’t ideal. However, as you start to develop your university-level academic reading skills, reading aloud can be the first step toward reading faster.
It’s easier to understand written words if you can “hear” them in your head. This gives you a deeper sense of new English vocabulary; in addition to seeing a new word, you also hear the word in your own voice and practice pronouncing it. As you do this, you’ll find that you become a more fluent English reader. And with greater fluency comes greater speed. Once reading out loud has sufficiently boosted your reading skills and pace, you can read silently in English again.
Tip #3: Practice active reading
In active reading, you need to look for the greater meaning of a text. Make an effort to identify the most important keywords in the passage. Recognize the topic sentences and supporting details of each paragraph. Pay close attention to “signal words” that indicate a shift in topics or an introduction of a new idea. (Signal language may include words and phrases such as “although,” “on the other hand,” “this is because,” etc….)
Ask yourself the important questions about what you’re reading: Why was this text written? What is the purpose of this text? What are the goals of the writer? How does the author achieve these goals?
Active reading is something you probably do in your native language without thinking. But when you read in English, it can be easy to fall into more passive reading, where you simply look at the text word-by-word, sentence-by sentence. This less active approach causes you to waste time on unimportant words—and prevents you from searching for the passage’s true meaning. Don’t do this! Instead, read actively, selectively focusing on the most important information on the page. To target your active reading practice even further, take a TOEFL practice test to familiarize yourself with the type of texts common on the test (and, thus, in the English language!).
Tip # 4: Skim your texts
Sometimes you don’t need to give a school text a full, deep reading. Readings for class discussion can be skimmed lightly, because you’ll have a chance to explore the reading more completely in class. Skimming a text to get its main ideas is also a “better-than-nothing” solution when you’re pressed for time.
Think of skimming a faster, simpler version of active reading. When you skim a text, look just for the topic sentences of each paragraph and the supporting details that follow. Identify details quickly by focusing on “content words,” a passage’s nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. When you skim, you can skip most of the “grammar words” (determiners, pronouns, prepositions and so on).
Tip # 5: Scan your texts
If skimming is a faster version of active reading, then scanning is an even faster version of skimming. When you scan a passage, you are looking only for very specific information. This high-speed reading method is especially useful if you need to answer reading comprehension questions. To give an example, imagine that you’re reading a biology passage on the life cycle of frogs. If one of the questions asks about the diet of tadpoles (legless, fish-like baby frogs), you can scan the text for words like “young,” “tadpole,” “diet,” “eats,” “food,” and so on. It may not be necessary to read the entire text at all.
For nearly ten years, David Recine has been teaching ESL students ranging from Kindergarten tots to university grads. He is a test prep expert; writing articles for Magoosh, covering everything from tricky TOEFL vocabulary to complex TOEFL practice test problems. You can read more of David’s awesome blog posts on the Magoosh TOEFL Blog.