English 101: How to turn yourself into a reader

Last week, I suggested that being a reader is one of the keys to success as a journalist.

More specifically, I was thinking of how reading can help people required to write in languages other than their mother tongue.

Today, I thought it might be useful to make some suggestions about how to approach your reading adventure, and what to read (note: many of these recommendations have resonance in the South African market, but with some thought, similar sources can be found in other regions of the world).

Start small, and on paper: Magazines, comics, graphic novels

If you find the prospect of an entire book daunting, start with something more manageable. My mantra is that as long as you are reading something, progress is being made. There is no need to start with Shakespeare when a magazine will do the job. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Get your hands on any copy of You magazine – it covers accessible topics in decent English. Share the cost among friends and pass the magazine around.
  2. If you can find (and afford) them, read comics or graphic novels. Second-hand bookstores are good sources of old comics.
  3. Read newspapers – anything will do!

You’ll note that everything I list here is on old-fashioned paper. It’s my experience that when we read on the screen, we scroll and skip and jump around. The point of reading to improve your skills in another language is to immerse yourself in it, and reading on paper is simply a better way to do that.

Try books in small chunks

You don’t have to read a whole book on one go. Try short stories, or books which are collections of columns. I’d start with Bill Bryson – who writes beautiful English and is funny.

These three books offer short chapters which can be read more or less separately:

Notes From A Small Island: Journey Through Britain – in this book, published in 1995, Bryson travels through Britain, noting its oddities with a keen and kind eye.

The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island -Bryson revisits his British trip.

Notes From A Big Country – Bryson, who was born in the United States, returns there after many years in Britain and compares the two countries in a series of columns.

[NOTE: The links above are affiliate links to the books on Amazon – which means if you end up buying any of them, I will be paid a very small amount of money. It won’t cost you anything, though.]

Move on to books

This is where specific recommendations are hard: there are so many books, and so many personal tastes. But there are places to start – these two lists contain some good suggestions:

31 books every South African should read

The University of Chicago’s recommended English as a second language reading list

Finally, read wherever you are

I am serious about this: Read breakfast cereal boxes, recipes on cans of beans, notices on boards in the supermarket.

The more you do this, the more your eyes will want to keep reading!


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Main photo: Seven Shooter on Unsplash

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