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:
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:
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
|Fantasy||Includes things that are not real. For example: magic, or mythical creatures like dragons||Harry Potter – JK Rowling|
Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
|Romance||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||‘Satire’ is a genre that uses humour to criticise the government or society||Animal Farm – George Orwell|
A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
|Horror||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
|Thriller||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
|Non-fiction||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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Examples in everyday conversation:
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 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:
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:
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!
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