Why are reading and writing in English so difficult for foreign language learners? The English language originates from dozens of languages such as Latin, French, German, and Greek. The diversity of English words and variations of nuances and sentence structure is nearly infinite. Here are some simple tips to help you begin improving your reading comprehension and writing.
Choosing a Reading Passage
Choose an article or story that interests you. It's best to read about something related to your work or college major. Be sure you have a general understanding about the topic before you begin reading.
Skim the passage for unfamiliar vocabulary. You want to be sure there are some new words to learn, but that you are also capable of understanding the majority of the passage. Try to choose a passage of moderate length with an informative, logical structure.
Read the entire passage for a general understanding. What is the article discussing? Is the author's tone of voice informative, excited, angry…? You may then go back and focus on understanding one paragraph at a time.
Go back and break apart a paragraph into individual sentences. Can you understand the main meaning of the sentence? If so, then you will be able to understand what the new vocabulary word(s) are referring to based upon context.
Unfamiliar words may seem intimidating, but actually you are very capable of figuring out the meaning of the words all by yourself. Once you believe you know what the word means, you can then try to find the same vocabulary word used in the same way in another sentence. Does it seem to refer to the same concept? Check your answer by asking an English tutor or looking up the definition in a dictionary.
Note: Avoid reading articles pertaining to abstract topics until you feel comfortable reading daily news articles. Also, articles that use too many idioms may become very frustrating for a foreign reader to understand.
Writing an Entry
Being able to express your thoughts and ideas in English are just as important a skill as understanding what you are reading. Students often feel writing to be an impossible task because the English language has too many grammatical rules and ways of expression; however, writing is a skill that can definitely be achieved over time.
Have a plan before beginning your essay. Write down ideas you have about a particular topic. Is your essay an argument or opinion?
- The first paragraph of an article is an introduction about the topic you plan to discuss.
- All following paragraphs are the body of your essay. These paragraphs will relate to the main idea of your article. Only begin a new paragraph when you wish to begin the next idea.
- The closing paragraph is usually the solution or conclusion to your discussion.
Write a topic sentence for each of your paragraphs so the reader knows what the main idea of each paragraph is. The body sentences will pertain to your topic sentence. The last sentence of the paragraph should conclude what you just wrote about while leading into the next topic. Transition sentences are quite tricky to master; this is why you should have a plan as to what order you will discuss your ideas.
It is common for foreigners to write many sentences, but sometimes they are just too short. Combine these sentences by adding a conjunction such as “but, and, or, because, etc.”
Your boss or college professor would much rather you write quality instead of quantity. Although it is good to combine short sentences to make them longer, don't ramble. In other words, don't just write a bunch of extra words to meet the required word count. Instead, write a detailed response with better word choice.
Because it is difficult for foreigners to express their ideas, they often write the same idea repeatedly in multiple ways. Avoid writing the same ideas over and over, because it becomes boring for the reader.
Capitalization, spacing, and commas are commonly misused.
Capitalize the first letter of every sentence and when using proper nouns.
- Incorrect: while she was in chicago, she went to lincoln park to walk her dog named rocky.
- Correct: While she was in Chicago, she went to Lincoln park to walk her dog named Rocky.
Spacing is often wrong when I am reading italki users’ notebook entries. Be sure to leave a space between each word, after a comma, and after the period at the end of a sentence.
- Incorrect: He went shopping for bread,milk,and eggs.He really needed breakfast food.
- Correct: He went shopping for bread, milk, and eggs. He really need breakfast food.
Use commas when separating items in a list.
- Incorrect: My classmates Sarah John and Mary came over to my house after school.
- Correct: My classmates Sarah, John, and Mary came over to my house after school.
It looks like Sarah's last name is John if a comma is NOT added.
Don't forget to check for misspelled words and correct use of periods, quotes, parentheses, and exclamation marks. Please see other italki teacher articles for grammar tips.
Note: Watch out for verb tenses when writing your articles!
Although reading and writing in English are very challenging tasks, each and every one of you is capable of learning these skills. When reading, keep your eyes moving ahead on the page to grasp the main idea of the article. Do not become fixated on one word or phrase, otherwise it will cause your reading fluency to lag. Break down the passage into parts when you are confused.
No matter what topic you are writing about, organize your thoughts and ideas before beginning. Once you finish, go back through the essay and read it aloud to see if it sounds fluent. You want your writing to flow from one idea to another. Double-check your spelling and punctuation. If you keep working to improve your reading and writing skills, you will soon look back and see the substantial progress you have made!
Hero image by Pedro Ribeiro Simões on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)