5-step guide: How to improve your English by reading simple books
Reading is one of the best ways to improve your English! In this study guide, we will explain how you can use simple novels to learn about English vocabulary, grammar and culture. Ready, bookworms? Let’s jump in!
If you want to become more fluent in English, you need to keep pushing yourself. Reading original English books is a great way to do this! Even if you are an intermediate English speaker, you can still use simple novels and books to make good progress. Let’s take a look at how reading can help you improve:
Real English: Modern novels show you real examples of how English is used today. Textbooks do not always do this because they are written in a simpler way for non-natives. Novels can also teach you how to show emotion, express ideas or tell a story in English. You can also use literature to find examples of realistic conversations between native speakers.
Vocabulary: Even if you speak English well, there is always more you can learn. A good novel will be simple and easy to understand, but it will also introduce you to new words. Reading books gives you the chance to learn vocabulary in the context of a story. This means you can see how words and phrases are connected in everyday conversation. Reading modern British or American novels will teach you all sorts of weird and wacky English words (like ‘wacky’, which means: ‘crazy’ or ‘eccentric’)!
If you cannot find a word or expression in a standard dictionary, then this could mean it is a slang term. Try using UrbanDictionary.com to find out the meaning.
Accuracy: Great authors are masters of the English language. Their writing uses perfect style and form. To improve your grammar and your written English, there is no better teacher than a good book! When you read books regularly, you begin to understand English more through passive learning.
Interaction: By reading a novel in English, you are interacting with the language. Many books have several layers of meaning and can be understood in different ways. When you develop your own thoughts and opinions on a story, you create a personal relationship with the language. Students often say that they feel different when reading a book in English, even if it has been translated from their own native language.
Reward: Reading a novel might seem like a lot of work, but it can be one of the most rewarding ways to improve your English. When you read a novel, you are using English to achieve a goal. In other words, you are reading and translating in order to understand and enjoy a story. When you use English as a practical tool in this way, you are one step closer to fluency.
2. How to improve your English by reading simple books
There are many different ways that you can use reading books in English to improve your language skills. However, it is important to find the books and methods that work best for you. Remember to choose novels that suit your level of English and personal interests. Reading should be interesting and fun. If you find it boring or difficult, then change the book! These 8 tips will help you get started:
Find a book that REALLY interests you There are millions of books out there, and when you start reading English literature it is important to choose one that you will really love. Openthebook.com is a website that suggests books for you to read. All you have to do is enter your preferences or keywords! You can also use Bookbrowse.com to read extracts (or samples) from current books and then choose which you like best.
Make sure the level is right for you You need to find a book that is not too difficult, but not too easy. First, try reading 2 or 3 pages. If there are more than 10 new words per page, then it may be best to choose a simpler book. Reading should not become a boring ‘dictionary exercise’. If you can understand the general meaning and just look up a few new words per page, then the book is probably a good choice for you.
Watch the movie! If reading an original novel in English feels a bit scary, try watching the film first. Many popular books now have film versions. These will give you a basic understanding of the story before you read the book itself. Watching movies is great practice too!
Most novels are now also available as audiobooks. If you find that reading takes too much time, then why not try listening to an audiobook as you drive to work or relax on the sofa? You can find free audiobooks on LibriVox.
Try dual language books Dual language books have the original English text on one page and the translation into your language on the other. This means that you can quickly reference your own language if you do not understand all of the English text. You can buy books of this kind in local shops or online, but the choice is always limited. Alternatively, you can buy the same book in English and in your language, and then compare the two. You can start with these 5 free bilingual novels.
Analyse the language in the bookAlways pay attention to how the writer uses words and constructions in English. Novels use both formal and informal language and are often filled with everyday English expressions. As you read, use a pencil to highlight any unfamiliar words and write them in a notebook. When you are speaking English, try to use the words and phrases that you have read in recent books. Remember to check words and phrases from older books as they may sound old-fashioned today.
Learn new vocabulary in context Original English books will contain words you do not know. Before you look them up in a dictionary, try to work out what you think they mean based on the context of the story. In many cases, you will be able to guess the meaning of the word without having to open your dictionary. However, when writing down new vocabulary, it is a good idea to double check.
Think about what you have read When you have finished your book, take a moment to reflect on what you have read. Were there any new words from the book that you especially liked? Have you written these down in your notebook? If you really enjoyed the book, then would you like to try another by the same writer or perhaps read about the author’s life on Wikipedia? Just because you have finished one book does not mean you have reached the end of the road! There is always more to discover…
Choose your next book! When you have finished your first novel, it is time to choose the next one! If you are feeling confident, you could try to find a more advanced book. Reading books by the same author (or from the same genre) can make life easier. Writers often use the same words and phrases in their books, and this can help you learn vocabulary through repetition.
Love reading in English? Why not create a book club to read and then discuss English novels with your friends? This can be done face-to-face or via Skype. Try to read one book per month and give each club member a choice!
3. Genres of English books (with examples)
Before you choose a book to read, it is a good idea to think about your favourite styles or genres. Whether you like science fiction or romance novels, there are thousands of English books out there for you. The table below gives some examples of books from different genres:
Science fiction (also called ‘sci-fi’)
Books about an ‘imagined future’. Often about space or other planets
1984 – George Orwell War of the Worlds – HG Wells
Includes things that are not real. For example: magic, or mythical creatures like dragons
Harry Potter – JK Rowling Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
This has two meanings: – A story about a hero who is faced with challenges – A book about love/relationships
King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table – Roger Lancelyn Green Jane Eyre – Emma Bronte The Notebook – Nicholas Sparks
‘Satire’ is a genre that uses humour to criticise the government or society
Animal Farm – George Orwell A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
A story that has been made to frighten you – a scary story!
Dracula – Bram Stoker The Shining – Stephen King
Murder mystery (also called ‘whodunit’, ‘detective novels’ or ‘crime fiction’
‘Murder mysteries’ are books about somebody who has been killed. The novel is spent trying to work out who the killer is – this will normally be revealed at the end
And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie The Hound of the Baskervilles – Arthur Conan Doyle
An action novel that aims to leave you in suspense. It comes from the English word “thrilling” – which means exciting
The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown
A book that is factual and informative, instead of telling an imaginary story. A non-fiction book can be about any topic. For example, historical accounts and biographies are non-fiction
Into the Wild – Jon Karkauer A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking Steve Jobs – Walter Isaacson
The Old Man and the Sea is the story of an old Cuban fisherman chasing the biggest catch of his life. All alone, and miles out to sea, he battles with the fish for several days. The book looks at many themes, like ‘man vs. nature’ and the idea of ‘masculinity’ (or being a ‘man’). It is the way this book deals with these themes that makes it one of the most famous and successful novels written in English.
When reading older books, you may find words or phrases that are not used today. Try a Google search to see if the phrase is still popular in modern English. Remember to look at the dates of the published web pages too.
Hemingway uses short, simple sentences to great effect. This means that the book is quite easy and quick to read, but that it is also powerful. Perhaps one tip to take from Ernest Hemingway’s writing is that simple is often best when using English. There are few better authors to teach English than Ernest Hemingway, and The Old Man and the Sea is one of his finest works.
Then he began to pity the great fish that he had hooked. He is wonderful and strange and who knows how old he is, he thought. […] He cannot know that it is only one man against him, nor that it is an old man. But what a great fish he is and what he will bring in the market if the flesh is good. He took the bait like a male and he pulls like a male and his fight has no panic in it. I wonder if he has any plans or if he is just as desperate as I am?
In this extract, Hemingway is ‘personifying’ the fish (giving it human qualities) and the fisherman is comparing it to himself.
Men are shown to be weak and small compared to nature throughout the novel and even in the title itself – The Old Man and the Sea. Despite man’s technological progress, he is no different to the fish as they both struggle to survive in the dangerous ocean.
Words related to fishing are used a lot in this book, which means you will learn some specific jargon related to this topic. In the extract, you can see the word ‘hooked’, which means to catch a fish on a hook. There is also lots of emotional language. For example, ‘pity’ means ‘to feel sorry’, and in this context ‘desperate’ means ‘hopeless’.
George Orwell has a special place in many British hearts. There is even a prize named after him: the Orwell Prize, which awards the best political writing across the world.
1984 is a ‘dystopian’ novel – which means it is based in an imaginary, unpleasant world. This is the opposite of a ‘utopia’, which is an imaginary perfect society. It was released in 1948 and looked forward to a future where the world is run by dictators and everybody is constantly being monitored. In the book, the main character, Winston, tries to fall in love and struggle against the government in a world where his every move is being watched.
Since it was released, 1984 has been seen as a classic – meaning people think it as one of the best books of all time because of its story and the way it deals with difficult themes. It even created a new word: ‘Orwellian’, which is used to describe things similar to the world described in the book.
Orwell also had several ideas in 1984 that are often used in political discussions in the UK. One of these is ‘doublethink’, which means to accept two opposite ideas at the same time. Another is ‘thought police’, which can be used when somebody punishes or judges someone because of what they think.
From where Winston stood it was just possible to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the three slogans of the Party: WAR IS PEACE FREEDOM IS SLAVERY IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
In this extract, Orwell uses ‘contradictions’. This means he has taken two opposite ideas and put them together. The Party slogans are all contradictions, and examples of ‘doublethink’. ‘War is peace’ means that by always being at war and having an enemy, the people will support their government. ‘Freedom is slavery’ means that, in the eyes of the government, independent men are certain to fail. ‘Ignorance is strength’ is the idea that if the public are ignorant of politics, the government can stay strong and in full control.
As you can see, 1984 deals with some quite heavy political themes – but this should not put you off. It is one of the most popular and entertaining books in the English language
George Orwell also wrote a list of rules on how to write well. This is used by native English speakers. Why not try using it to improve your writing in English?
Perhaps you have already read the Harry Potter books, or at least seen the films. These books are a must read for all English students who enjoy fantasy novels. There are seven books in the series, which get progressively longer and more advanced in their English. It is best to start with the first.
Harry Potter is a story about witches and wizards. All of the main characters go to Hogwarts, which is a school where they are taught how to use magic. The wizarding world of Harry Potter has its own animals, history, and even words! Some authors like to create ‘nonsense’ words – for example, Rowling uses the term ‘muggle’ to mean ‘someone who cannot use magic’.
Perhaps it had something to do with living in a dark cupboard, but Harry had always been small and skinny for his age. […] Harry had a thin face, knobbly knees, black hair and bright green eyes. He wore round glasses held together with a lot of scotch tape because of all the times Dudley had punched him on the nose. The only thing Harry liked about his own appearance was a very thin scar on his forehead that was shaped like a bolt of lightning.
In this extract, you can see Rowling’s easy-to-read but descriptive style. This detailed account of Harry Potter’s appearance is in the first book – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. You can see that these books are a goldmine for practical English words and phrases.
‘Skinny’ is another word for thin, but in a negative way (from the word ‘skin’). Calling someone ‘skinny’ means they are too thin, and this is seen as insulting. You can also say: ‘He’s all skin and bones’. Scotch tape is another word for sticky tape or Sellotape. ‘Knobbly knees’ is a term for someone who has legs so skinny that you can see their knee joints clearly sticking out. This term sounds funny in English, but it can be a little insulting. In the extract, Rowling is painting a picture of Harry as scruffy and lanky – meaning his appearance is messy and he is tall and thin.
YouTube has some great videos to help you learn English with popular books such as Harry Potter. The video below is an English lesson that uses the first book:
Nick Hornby is one of the most popular modern English authors. Many of his books are bestsellers that have also been made into popular movies – including About a Boy (the film). This is a funny story about an immature man who behaves like a boy and a serious young boy who behaves like a man. In many ways they are opposites, but they become friends and help each other to understand their own hearts.
The great thing about novels is that they teach you both formal and informal English. It is a good idea to read new books as well as old classics, as they will help you learn the modern language as it is used today.
Loving yourself and allowing yourself to be loved, was only worth the risk if the odds were in your favour, but they quite clearly weren’t. There were about seventy-nine squillion people in the world, and if you were very lucky, you would end up being loved by fifteen or twenty of them. So how smart did you have to be to work out that it just wasn’t worth the risk?
Hornby writes with a lot of energy and this makes his books exciting to read. In this extract, he shows the cynical way the main character sees the world – which means he does not trust people’s intentions.
About a Boy uses a lot of modern slang words and phrases. ‘Squillion’ is a slang term used to say that there are lots and lots of something. Saying there are ‘seventy-nine squillion people in the world’ is an example of ‘hyperbole’, or exaggeration. Hornby also says ‘if the odds were in your favour’. This is a phrase often used in England. If the odds are in your favour, it means something is likely to turn out well for you. It comes from the gambling term ‘odds’ (chance), which is a way to show how likely something is to happen.
F. Scott Fitzgerald is an example of how poetic you can be with the English language. Set in 1920s America, this novel looks at the ideas of love and the American Dream. It is one of the best-selling books ever written in English.
When F. Scott Fitzgerald died, the Great Gatsby had sold less than 25,000 copies. Upon receiving his last payment, the author said: ‘I am a forgotten man’. The book has since sold 25 million copies worldwide!
Although The Great Gatsby is harder to read than the other books mentioned here, you can learn many new words from it. Fitzgerald uses a wide range of vocabulary and images to bring out the beauty in the language. This book may be a little complicated in places, but the story is interesting and will keep you turning the pages!
This is a valley of ashes – a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdering air.
In this extract, you can see how poetic Fitzgerald’s writing can be. There is a 2013 film version of this book, which you may like to watch before you read it. YouTube comedy channel Thug Notes has a plot summary for The Great Gatsby (see below). As these videos use lots of slang words, you may need to press the ‘CC’ button to see the English subtitles.
5. Common writing techniques you should know
There are many ‘literary techniques’ that are used in novels. Although they are used in literature from all across the world, they have different names in different languages. Why not try using some of these techniques to bring your own English to life?
Personification is when you give human characteristics to something that is not human. This might be objects or animals.
Example in a novel: ‘Her heart was divided between concern for her sister, and resentment against all the others.’ (Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen)
In this example, Jane Austen is giving the character’s heart human features. This shows the emotion her worry is causing her.
‘Love is blind’. This is a common English saying, meaning that when you love someone, you do not see their faults.
‘Time waits for no one’. A philosophical way of telling someone to do something before they run out of time.
A metaphor is when you describe one thing as something else to create a more memorable description of it. This can be used all of the time in conversation.
Example in a novel: ‘It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.’ (Romeo and Juliet – William Shakespeare)
Romeo and Juliet is one of the most famous romance stories ever. In this line, Romeo is comparing Juliet to the rising sun to show how much he loves and worships her.
Examples in spoken English:
‘A heart of stone’. A way to describe someone who is unkind or cruel.
‘Apple of my eye’. Something that you love more than anything or anyone else.
‘Jumping for joy’. This means ‘really happy’.
A simile compares two things by saying item A is like item B. It is often confused with a metaphor. The difference is that you are not describing something as actually being something else. So, if you were to say ‘I am an ox’ that would be a metaphor. If you say ‘I am as strong as an ox’ or ‘I am strong, like an ox’ that would be a simile.
Example in a novel: ‘Her romantic mind was like tiny boxes, one within the other’ (Peter Pan – J.M. Barrie). This is a lovely simile, which shows the many layers of the human mind. It also shows how in her ‘romantic mind’ she is always discovering new feelings – every time she opens a box. With this quote, Barrie shows how a simile can be used to describe something beautifully.
Examples in everyday conversation:
‘Good as gold’. This is used to say somebody is behaving very well, or even perfectly. It is often used to describe good children at school.
‘Busy as a bee’. This is a way to say somebody is very busy, as bees are known to work hard. Both ‘busy as a bee’ and ‘good as gold’ are examples of ‘alliteration’, which is where words with the same starting letter are used together.
‘As snug as a bug in a rug’. People say this when they are comfortable in bed. It is also a good example of rhyming in the English language!
Hyperbole is when you exaggerate on purpose to show how important something is. ‘Exaggerate’ means to make something seem bigger, better or worse than it is in reality. Hyperbole is often used in native English conversations, but be careful not to overuse it!
Example in a novel: ‘People moved slowly then. There was no hurry then, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County’ (To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee)
In this example, the author is saying there is nothing to buy and nothing to see. Of course, this is an exaggeration: there are at least a few things to buy and see! The hyperbole here makes the scene appear desolate – which means empty and bleak.
Examples in everyday conversation:
‘Her brain is the size of a pea’. This is an insult. It means someone is very stupid or dim.
‘I could eat a horse’. This is a phrase used to say ‘I am very hungry’ – we do not actually eat horses in England!
‘I’ve told you a million times’. If you have told somebody something several times and they do not remember or understand, then this is what you say!
Personification, metaphor, simile and hyperbole are the most common ‘literary techniques’, but there are many others. Check out Literarydevices.com to see all of the techniques you can find in English books. As your skills develop, you can use these ‘decorations’ to bring your spoken and written English to life!