3 Ways to Decide What English Book to Read

Bookmark in front of bookshelf
One of my bookmarks

Reading time: 4 minutes

Let’s say you want to read a book in English. How can you know which one is right for you? 

I started reading books in English in 2011. At the time, I was an intermediate learner living in London and used to go to the local library to borrow books for native-English teenagers. 

Books for adults were still too difficult for my level and books for children, hmm…no, thank you.

There was a problem though: even books for teenagers were too hard for me. Too many words I didn’t know, too much complex grammar and the stories didn’t connect with me, so I never finished one.

I wanted to read books but didn’t really know which ones to read. If you’re feeling frustrated like I used to feel back then, here are three tips for you.

1.Follow the 5-finger rule

Research into second language acquisition tells us that if you want to enjoy what you’re reading, you should be familiar with around 98% of the words in the text. Less than that, reading might become a struggle.

So how can you know what percentage of the vocabulary contained in a book you’re already familiar with? 

You can’t. 

But the Extensive Reading Foundation developed some useful guidelines for you. 

Have a look.

5-finger rule

Pretty clear, isn’t it? 

So, open a book you’re interested in reading and do this quick test to find out if it’s suitable for you. Then decide if you’re going to read it or not. 

2.Take it easy: read graded readers

I wish I’d read more graded readers during my English learning journey. They’re amazing and I think you should read them.

Graded readers are simplified books written for learners. They come in different levels, from beginner to advanced, and you’ll find novels as well as non-fiction. 

The language in these books has been graded to help you understand and enjoy the reading, and the vocabulary has been carefully chosen so, depending on the level, you’ll meet the most frequent words, not words that are hardly ever used.  

Also, the vocabulary in well-designed graded readers keeps repeating throughout the book, so you’re more likely to meet the same words multiple times. This helps you expand your vocabulary. 

Choose one at your level, quickly check it out using the 5-finger rule and, if it looks good, start reading it. 

3.Challenge yourself: read authentic books 

In 2012 I started reading an authentic book in English called ‘The Story of Stuff’. It was hard. It was full of words I didn’t know and it took me ages to get through it. It was a book that a teacher wouldn’t have recommended.  

But I didn’t really care if I couldn’t understand all the details. Getting the main points was enough for me.

I encourage you to do the same. 

Read a real book. Forget about the 5-finger rule and graded readers. Read an authentic book written for a native speaking audience. 

Don’t expect to understand everything. Be ready to struggle. Allow confusion. 

If you manage to enjoy the reading, keep going. If not, stop and choose something more simple without feeling guilty. 

In the next post, I’ll share some different approaches on how to deal with unfamiliar vocabulary when reading, so don’t miss it!

Got any comments, thoughts or questions about this article? Let me know in the box below. And if this post was useful, please share it with a friend 🙂 

Fabio Cerpelloni is an English teacher and podcaster who helps adult learners develop their language skills through personal stories and book discussions. You can join his private email list by clicking on his glass of beer in the photo.

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