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How to get the most out of English texts

by Tomasz P. Szynalski

Reading for content

Normally, when reading a text, people use a strategy that I call “reading for content”. The goal of this strategy is to get the main idea of the text as quickly as possible and with as little effort as possible. To accomplish this goal, your brain will try to read as few words as possible and spend only a fraction of a second on each word.

For example, when reading the following passage, you don’t really see it like this:

Once when I was six years old I saw a magnificent picture in a book, called True Stories from Nature, about the primeval forest. It was a picture of a boa constrictor in the act of swallowing an animal. Here is a copy of the drawing. In the book it said: “Boa constrictors swallow their prey whole, without chewing it. After that they are not able to move, and they sleep through the six months that they need for digestion.”

I pondered deeply, then, over the adventures of the jungle. And after some work with a colored pencil I succeeded in making my first drawing.

To your brain, it looks more or less like this:

Once when I was six years old I saw a magnificent picture in a book, called True Stories from Nature, about the primeval forest. It was a picture of a boa constrictor in the act of swallowing an animal. Here is a copy of the drawing. In the book it said: “Boa constrictors swallow their prey whole, without chewing it. After that they are not able to move, and they sleep through the six months that they need for digestion.”

I pondered deeply, then, over the adventures of the jungle. And after some work with a colored pencil I succeeded in making my first drawing.

Here are some characteristics of “reading for content”:

  • Not seeing “grammar words” like a, the, in, of, through, that. The eye only stops at content words (main nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs).
  • Not seeing word forms: Was it look or looked? Has looked or had looked?
  • Not noticing the exact spelling. It is well known that the brain recognizes whole words — it does not analyze them letter by letter. Native speakers see the word piece all the time, but many of them still misspell it as peice, because the two spellings have similar shapes.
  • Ignoring difficult words that are not essential to understanding the meaning (here: primeval, constrictor). Who has the time to use a dictionary?

An extreme example of “word blindness” is the rather well-known puzzle where you’re asked to count how many times the letter F occurs in the following passage:

FINISHED FILES ARE THE RESULT OF YEARS OF SCIENTIFIC STUDY COMBINED WITH THE EXPERIENCE OF YEARS.

Click here for answer:

Reading for content is a great, time-saving way to extract information from written content. The problem is that you may not need grammar words to understand a text, but you do need them to produce a text. If you skip over grammar words while reading, you may have difficulty using them correctly in your own sentences.

For example, here is a sentence from the opening paragraph of this article. Most learners (except those who are proficient in English grammar or extremely observant) will probably find it difficult to fill in the blanks:

To accomplish this goal, your brain will try to read as ___ words as possible and spend only a fraction of ___ second ___ each word.

The above explains why some learners can read a 300-page book and still have problems with relatively basic grammar. It also explains why articles and prepositions are among the hardest aspects of English to learn. The conclusion for the English learner is that if you want to improve your production (output) skills, you may have to train yourself to notice grammar words.

Here’s an illuminating passage posted by Maya l’abeille at the Antimoon Forum:

I believe that seeing correct and typical English sentences helps a lot to learn how to use English properly. It is also important to read and read again every structure that is new to you, so that you can remember them. If you only read the book without taking any pause to think carefully about the “new” sentences, you will hardly remember any of them.

I’ve read all Harry Potter books straight myself, and when I opened them again, I realised I had viewed loads and loads of useful structures whithout remembering them — which was such a shame! I’m reading The Full Monty (Penguin Readers collection) using the “pause and think” method at present. Now after a few days of daily reading, when I take a look at an English text, many structures are familiar to me — “hey, I remember reading this one in The Full Monty!”.

Therefore, I believe this method is efficient and I would advise it to all learners.

Sometimes, we don’t realise how wealthy a single book can be — loads to learn just in one of them.

Pause and think

I agree with Maya about the “pause and think” method. Here’s the process that I recommend for dealing with sentences in texts:

  1. Stop at interesting (not obvious) things: a new word, how a word was used, a grammatical structure, a preposition, an article, a conjunction, the order of words, etc. For example, spend a while to think about the fact that the sentence contains the preposition at, and not on. Perhaps the sentence uses the present perfect tense where you would have expected the past simple. Perhaps the word order is different than in your first language.
  2. If the sentence contains a useful phrase, ask yourself: Could you produce a similar phrase yourself? Would you use the right tenses, articles and prepositions? Would you use the right word order? If you’re not sure, read the phrase again. Practice saying it (or a similar phrase) aloud or in your mind. The idea is to program your brain with it.
  3. If necessary, or if you feel like it, use your dictionary to find definitions of words in the sentence and get more example sentences. This will help enrich your “feel” of the word.
  4. If you use an SRS, consider adding the phrase to your collection (e.g. as a sentence item) to make sure it will stay in your memory. Of course, only useful phrases should be added.

Important notes

  • You don’t have to use “pause and think” all the time. Reading in this mode can be quite exhausting, so don’t do it when you’re tired after a long reading session.
  • Don’t try to focus on every phrase.
    • Some phrases are not useful. Some characters in books and movies use very colorful, but rare expressions (e.g. “This girl’s family has got you by the short ones”). Novels often contain literary language which is not useful for building your own sentences (e.g. “A matted depression across mustache and beard showed where a stillsuit tube had marked out its path from nose to catchpockets”).
    • Some phrases are just too advanced for you. Try to focus on things that are within your reach, i.e. one level above your current level. If you’re still struggling with the present perfect tense, don’t waste your attention on sentences like “I don’t know what it is that the officer said he had seen me do”. (If you keep seeing advanced sentences, you should probably switch to an easier text.)
  • The “pause and think” technique will not always make you remember the exact way to say something. But perhaps you’ll remember that this particular type of sentence is problematic in English. If you remember that, it will at least make you stop before you write that sentence, and look it up instead of making a careless mistake.
  • You don’t have to think about why something was phrased in a particular way. The goal is to focus your attention, not come up with grammar rules. (Though if you like to think about grammar rules, you can do it.)
  • If you don’t like to stop reading (to look up a word in your dictionary or add a phrase to an SRS), you can write down all the interesting sentences, or you can underline them in the book with a pencil. This way, you can handle these sentences later.

An example

Let me now give you a short demonstration of the “pause and think” method. Here are two English sentences and examples of thoughts that you should get when reading them:

Former President Jimmy Carter will visit Venezuela next week to mediate talks between the government and its opposition, which have been locked in a power struggle since a failed coup.
  • “Former President” — not “The former President”, so I guess we say “President Carter” and not “The President Carter”, even though we say “The President will do something” when we don’t mention his name.
  • “to mediate talks” — not “to mediate in the talks” or something like that. I wonder if that would be OK, too...
  • “power struggle” — I think I’ve seen this phrase before.
  • “since a failed coup” — so I can say “He’s been paralyzed since an accident” (preposition use), not only “He’s been paralyzed since an accident happened” (conjunction use).
  • “since a failed coup” — not “since the failed coup”. The author does not assume we know about the coup.
  • “coup” — hey, I know this is pronounced /ku:/!
Jennifer McCoy, of the Atlanta-based Carter Center, told reporters Saturday that Carter may be able to help break the political deadlock when he visits beginning July 6.
  • “Jennifer McCoy of the Carter Center” — not “Jennifer McCoy from the Carter Center” (in Polish I would say from). So we’d say “John Brown of IBM”, for example.
  • “Atlanta-based” — another way of saying “based in Atlanta”. Guess I could say I’m a “Wroclaw-based webmaster”.
  • “told reporters Saturday” not “on Saturday” — seems we can skip the “on” sometimes. “I met her Friday” would probably work as well as “I met her on Friday”.
  • “told that Carter may be able” — not “told that Carter might be able” — lack of reported (indirect) speech. And my English teacher taught me to say things like “She said she might stay” (not “She said she may stay”).
  • “to help break the deadlock” — It looks like help can be used without an object (it does not say “to help Venezuelans break the deadlock”), and without to (it does not say “help to break the deadlock”). This is different from some other verbs like force (we cannot say “The President will force break the deadlock”, we must say “The President will force Venezuelans to break the deadlock.”).
  • “when he visits” — not “when he will visit”, even though it will be in the future. I don’t think I have ever seen will used in such a sentence.
  • “to visit beginning July 6” — interesting structure — I would say “to visit on July 6”, but here beginning replaces on. This may be the first time that I’ve seen this phrase. It may be some sort of news jargon.

Further reading