Improving Your Reading Ability

Janusz Buda

In my eight years of English teaching in Japan, I guess I’ve heard every possible variation on the theme of ‘Why I am not good at English.’ Most of these excuses begin with “I’m good at reading English, but my spoken English is not very good because...” There usually follows a long list of woes and troubles, including Japan’s isolation, the education system, the structure of the Japanese brain and/or palate, lack of contact with foreigners, social embarrassment, cultural differences, and so on.

My own experience, however, shows that Japanese students are just as bad at reading English as they are at speaking it. The problem is, most of them are not aware of this. When asked if they have understood a piece of written English, they invariably answer ‘yes.’ Asked if there were any difficult words or phrases, or passages they could not fully understand, they confidently answer ‘no.’ But a few random questions about the content of the piece soon reveal that most of them have understood virtually nothing at all.

Many years ago, when I was studying Japanese at university, one of our teachers gave us the following piece of advice: If a passage of Japanese doesn’t seem to make sense, then in all probability your comprehension is at fault — it almost certainly made sense to the person who wrote it.

After years of mechanical word-for-word translation in schools and universities, most Japanese students I have met seem completely blind to the grotesque ungrammatical nonsense they produce when asked to translate English into Japanese. Little wonder then, that the meaning and import of most English they read can pass them by unnoticed.

Unless you take a much more critical attitude towards your own reading ability, most of the advice I shall try to give you will be of very little use.

How to Read

My advice on the best way to read English is ‘little and often.’ A few minutes every day is certainly much better than a few hours once a month.

As you read English, you are bound to come across many words you do not know. Some teachers suggest that you should not interrupt the flow of your reading by stopping and looking up unknown words. They say that you should read on, and try to catch the meaning of the passage by inference. Other teachers take exactly the opposite view; they say that the only way to understand English correctly and improve your vocabulary is to look up every word you are not sure about. My own advice lies between these two extremes. I tell my students not to bother looking up words if the general meaning is clear enough to them, but to pause and consult a dictionary if they find that the meaning of a passage has become vague and confused. Every piece of English has one or two key sentences, and I think that it is enough to make sure that you understand these.

Making a note of new words will also help you. Every writer has his or her own favorite vocabulary, and the words you look up in a dictionary will almost certainly appear again later on in that piece.

What to Read

Making time to read English for a few minutes every day requires a lot of self-discipline and motivation. It will help greatly if you choose to read something that is really interesting for you. A good idea is to read articles and books written about your favorite hobbies or sports. You probably already know much of the necessary vocabulary, and your knowledge of the subject will help you a lot in understanding the meaning of the piece. If you are guided in your choice of material by what you ‘should’ be reading, then you will soon become bored and disinterested. Do not make the mistake of thinking that the more difficult a book is, the more it will help your English.

If, after reading many articles and books about your favorite hobby or sport, you feel that you have made a lot of progress, and that it is time to try reading about some other subject, do not be discouraged if you find that you cannot understand much of the new material. Having mastered the vocabulary of one subject, now you must start again and learn the completely different vocabulary of another.

Another good idea for beginners is to read English-language newspapers. I advise my students to first read the news in a Japanese newspaper, and then try to read the same news story written in an English newspaper. Your prior knowledge of what has happened will help you to guess correctly the meaning of many new words without having to look them up in a dictionary.

Understanding Words

Strange as it may seem, I think that one of the biggest reasons why many Japanese cannot read English well is that they do not understand the meaning of words. Let me explain this a little more clearly.

Although Japanese students of English often have very large English vocabularies, most of them only know one Japanese equivalent for each English word. Perhaps this is because of the sheer difficulty of memorizing so many words in school. Although English words (just like Japanese words) have many different meanings depending on context, most Japanese students invariably translate them in exactly the same way. For example, faced with ‘I’ll be right behind you,’ most Japanese will understand it as ‘I’ll be behind you on the right.’ Even when students look up words in dictionaries, this bad habit persists. Most students never look further than the first meaning of a word, even if that meaning makes nonsense of the whole sentence. In one school text-book I read a few years ago, the Japanese annotator explained the meaning of ‘Edwardian chair’ by giving a long and detailed description of the life and times of King Edward I of England (1239–1307). The annotator obviously did not know, or failed to notice, that there have been no less than eight kings of England named Edward. It clearly did not strike him as strange that an English family should be using furniture almost seven hundred years old in their living room. This kind of careless and indiscriminate approach makes nonsense of reading English. Always remember that an English word may have several meanings, and try to decide for yourself which one of these fits best into the context of the sentence and paragraph you are reading.

Don’t Get Discouraged

My last piece of advice concerns progress. Acquiring a new language is not an easy process, and improvement does not come smoothly and steadily. Progress in learning English (or any language) comes in fits and starts, and there are times when no amount of study seems to improve your ability. Don’t get discouraged. Don’t think that it’s your own lack of linguistic talent—it happens to everybody learning a foreign language. Even fluent professionals such as translators and interpreters surely experienced times when they felt like giving up. I have seen so many promising and able students make a good start, and then give up after only a few months of study. Most of them became discouraged when they could not see any signs of improvement in their English ability. Sometimes, however, it’s only when you look back that you can see how far you have come, and how much progress you have made.

Please remember—it took you more than twelve years of day-and-night study to become fluent in Japanese. And you had the advantage of being in a perfect environment for that study, surrounded by Japanese speakers, Japanese newspapers, Japanese books, Japanese television, and so on. Don’t expect to master English in only a few weeks, and don’t waste time looking for ‘revolutionary’ methods that will help you to do so.

If ever you feel in need of encouragement, why don’t you try reading some of the many books in which Japanese English-language experts have described how they mastered English. In addition to picking up many useful tips, I think that reading about all the problems and difficulties they had will give you a much more positive and optimistic attitude towards your own study of English.

Source: Eigo o tsukau No. 4: Communicative English, Tokyo: Gloview, 1984