Being a civil servant, you are in a unique position. On one hand, you need to improve your English ability. On the other, your schedule hardly permits you to attend English language classes. You need to find a way that will be flexible enough to fit in your schedule and yet be effective enough to be worthwhile. One way to improve your overall English ability that can fit into any schedule is reading.
You may have tried to make reading in English a part of your life before. You might have found that you couldn’t stick with it because you found it boring and difficult. You may even say it was impossible to follow the story because you had to stop so often to check vocabulary in a dictionary. If this was true of your experiences, you are not alone. That is, you are not alone in approaching reading in entirely the wrong way.
First, let me tell you clearly that reading should not be a vocabulary building exercise. People often choose a book with an abundance of new vocabulary with the best of intentions. They think that they can learn a lot from such a book. Most people in Taiwan will say that their vocabulary is too limited. That is undoubtedly a serious problem, but reading difficult books is not the way to fix it.
Instead, reading should address the problem of not knowing how to use the words you already know, which is a problem most non-native speakers aren’t nearly as aware of. When you read, pay attention to how words are used in sentences. Notice prepositions, gerunds, infinitives, etc. Notice how tenses are used. Notice how certain words are usually used together. For example, if you read, “The boy avoided walking down the street after dark,” you can see that a gerund comes after “avoid,” that “down” is used with “street,” and that dark can be used as a noun. Focusing on patterns will make you a better writer and speaker. But don’t focus so much on words and patterns that you destroy the fun of reading. If you do, you’ll never be able to succeed in making it a part of your life.
Reading must be enjoyable to be effective. To ensure that it is, make sure you choose a book that is appropriate to your level. You can determine if the book is suitable by opening it to a page and reading a paragraph or two. You should be able to easily understand what the paragraphs are about and know almost every word. If there are more than a few words you don’t know, the book is too difficult. Put it back and choose another.
Once you have chosen a book, resist using your dictionary when you read it. Dictionaries destroy the will to read. Reading becomes a pain if you use a dictionary too much. It will become work and will undermine your desire to read. Also, frequently using a dictionary hampers your ability to understand what you’re reading. Stopping to look up words can cause you to lose track of the story. When you do see a word that you don’t know, ask yourself if you really need to know it. One unknown word probably won’t hinder your understanding of a book. However if you feel the word is important, try to guess its meaning from context. If you can’t, then by all means consult your dictionary, but keep such consultations to a minimum.
While you must take great care to choose an appropriate level, you should feel free to read about any topics you like. Of course you should read books that are relevant to your life and interests, but don’t feel constrained to choosing only books about your job. Try to read a broad spectrum of books. Read about gardening, mechanics, investment, health, and so on. There are many great books written for learners of English across all genres and topics. You might even consider starting a book club with co-workers or a small library in your lunchroom.
Above all, remember that reading should be enjoyable. It will be enjoyable if it’s easy, and if it’s easy, it will be an effective way to improve your English ability.
（Written by the English Coordinator at the Language Training & Testing Center）