A few tips on choosing sources of input
- Choose fun content. The most important thing is to choose content that you care about. It has to be so good that you can’t stop reading, listening or watching. It does not have to be intellectual, it does not have to improve your knowledge of science or history. Don’t feel guilty about reading comics, magazines, detective stories, romance novels, blogs, etc. (related article by Stephen Krashen)
- Get “i+1” input. If your current English level is i, you should choose content that is one level above, but not more. You want to learn something, but you don’t want to come across a new word or grammar structure 3 times in each sentence. There’s a simple rule here: if you’re not enjoying the content, switch to an easier one.
Focus on contemporary English. If you want to use contemporary, natural English, you have to learn contemporary, natural phrases. Not all texts contain such phrases. Many books contain literary phrases that are simply not used by normal educated native speakers, for example:
“Wherever he came a madness filled our foes, but fear fell on our boldest, so that horse and man gave way and fled” — Lord of the Rings
In addition, older books (e.g. Pride and Prejudice) contain obsolete words and grammar. Therefore, if you are choosing from among several fun, “i+1” texts, you should choose those written in a simpler, more contemporary style. Thrillers (e.g. Jurassic Park, The Da Vinci Code) often contain lots of dialogue in natural spoken English. Forums and blogs are even better, because they are often written in a conversational style (people writing the way they speak). Among spoken content, movies set in the present day will contain more useful vocabulary than movies set in the 16th century. Of course, if you really want to read Lord of the Rings, do it. The most important thing is to have fun!
- Read and listen to the kinds of sentences that you want to produce yourself. Want to learn to talk about computers in English? Read a computer forum or a technology blog. Want to write scientific papers? Read scientific papers. Want to write business letters in English? Read business letters. Want to learn conversational English? Watch talk shows and listen to podcasts. (As you read/watch/listen, stop and notice useful phrases. If you use spaced-repetition software, add them to your collection.)
If you want to make things easier and more fun, stick to familiar content: read texts by the same author; follow the same website, podcast, blog, TV show, etc. Each author, each subject and each publication has their own language. For example, after you read a book by Kurt Vonnegut, it’s easier to read another book by Vonnegut because you’ve gotten used to his writing style. After you watch a few episodes of South Park, it’s easier to understand the characters in the show because you get used to their accents, learn their names, etc.
If you are a beginner, jumping between different types of content can be frustrating because you always have to get used to new words, new grammatical structures and new accents. You may feel like you are always having difficulty with your English. Sticking to familiar content gives you a chance to enjoy your progress, which can be quite motivating.
- Watch and listen to episodic content. (Episodic content is content which has many episodes, e.g. TV series and podcasts.) It is not always easy to find new sources of input. Episodic content is great because it gives you a constant supply of input. Rather than wonder “What movie am I going to watch today?”, you can just watch the next episode of your favorite show and get your dose of English. (Check out my list of awesome episodic content — both video and audio.)