Don't Understand Your Book in English? 7 Strategies to Try Today.

When you don’t understand your book in English, it could come back to bite you.  But not the way you think.

Reading in English is like traveling to a strange land.  

Fantastic. . .Yes!  

Uncomfortable. . .Yes!!

There will be times when you really notice the discomfort,

  • When you don’t understand enough.
  • When you get tired after reading for just a short time.
  • When you wonder if you’ll ever be able to read in English like you do in your native language. 


On days when reading is hard remember:

  • Just read! Read for a short period--read something easier if you have to.  What really matters is the habit--That you read every day.  
  • You are still improving.  Maybe you’re improving even more than when reading feels easy!
  • Because you are reading now, you will be a different reader in one month, in six months--even if you just read for 10 minutes today.


Also, remember to watch out for the tiger!

That thing I just said: Reading in English is like visiting a strange land?

Yeah, a strange land with a tiger sneaking around.

The tiger is in those parts of the story you don’t ‘get.’  The ones you can’t understand. He’s in there--waiting for you!

Sooner or later you’ll run into into that tiger.  And you’ll have to stare him down.  

You won’t tame the tiger. You won’t make him go away.  

But you’ll look into his wild, yellow eyes and you’ll tell him,  “I know you’re here to stay. . .but so am I.”  


How will YOU stare down the tiger?

You know what surprises me?  

The difference between the way two people--with the same ability go about staring down that tiger. How they handle the unknown.

You could have two people wandering around that strange land that is their book.  Both of them will meet that tiger in there--the paragraphs, the pages they don’t quite understand.

Let's call them Josephine and Sylvie.  Let's see how they handle the parts of the book they don't understand.

Maybe you'll see yourself in one of these examples. . .


Josephine is having a great time.

This book is such an adventure!  She is thrilled at all the parts of the story she actually understands.

When she meets the tiger, she says,

“Hey, you must be that tiger everyone told me about!  Come here and take a selfie with me. My friends are not going to believe this. . .”  

Josephine takes the tiger’s silent glare for a “Yes!” She digs around in her fanny pack and finds her phone. The tiger snarls for a selfie and the two go their separate ways.  

Josephine and the tiger have an understanding.


Sylvie is feeling miserable.

That tiger is lurking around each plot twist, behind each word she doesn’t understand.  She’s not having any fun.

She’s focusing too much on the tiger, giving him too much importance.  And he won’t leave her alone!  Seriously, I think he’s following her just for laughs. 


Reading in English--sometimes it’s all in your head.

Sometimes we focus too much on what we don’t understand (that unavoidable tiger lurking about).  We take that tiger too seriously.  We take ourselves too seriously.

That’s the big difference between Sylvie and Josephine in the examples above. Both are equally good readers, both are on the same journey.  

Both are reading every day and will improve.  But one is having a lot more fun.

I’m telling you this because, as a teacher, I’ve seen Josephine and Sylvie again and again.  

And because, as a reader of foreign languages, I’m Sylvie.  So I know what it’s like.  

You may find yourself in Sylvie’s situation--losing sight of the strange and wonderful land that is your book and focusing too much on the tiger.  If so, be kind to yourself. And act.


Stare down the unknown and devour books in English: 7 Strategies:


Looking for even more tips for reading books in English? Download your free guide.

Looking for even more tips for reading books in English? Download your free guide.

One: We’re having fun here!  

Really.  Have fun if you want to keep reading and if you want to keep improving.  Having fun allows you to take a selfie with the tiger. . .


Two: Remind yourself, the pressure is off.  

You just read a whole paragraph and you realize you didn’t understand--at all! That tiger just appeared out of nowhere. What’s going to happen to you?

Nothing.  You can completely misunderstand pieces of a story and have that tiger following you around for days, and nothing bad will happen.  

In fact, as long as you understand the basic plot--you will still be improving. 

Taking the pressure off and keeping it off leave you free to experiment, to try out the language, to make guesses.  

It's the perfect state of mind for understanding your book better. 

It's also the perfect state of mind for learning more English from your book.


Three: Take charge--maybe today is more of a kitten day than a tiger day.  

Not up for tigers today?  That’s why having several books on hand is a great idea.

If you’re sick, tired or just on a beach vacation, maybe you want to go back to easier reading.


Four: Use a translation, or watch the movie!  

Sometimes just knowing what the story is about can really, really help you understand some of the details.  

If a book is giving you grief, try reading it in your native language at the same time or first.  

Or watch the movie in a way that you understand and enjoy--whether that means with subtitles or just with the soundtrack in a language you understand.


Five: Focus on what you understand.

Learn to ignore that tiger a little bit.  He doesn't deserve your constant attention.

Pay close attention to what you know, words you know, sentences you understand.  Sometimes what you do understand is enough to piece together the story.

And finding the meaning based on what you know is a great way to get your brain used to learning and understanding new words in English.


Six: Ask a friend.

When I first started reading French literature back in my days at University, what do you think we all did when we had no idea what was going on in a story?  

We called each other up and talked about what we understood.  

Again, sometimes all that’s really missing between enjoying a story and feeling like you’re being stalked by a tiger is a quick chat with a friend to go over the basics.

Need a discussion group? Try the Vagabond English Book Club.


Seven: Read it three times!

If you’re stuck on a part of your book and you know you need to understand it, one of my favorite techniques is to read that part three times.  Here’s how:

  • Read over once and pay attention to what you do understand. What words do you know? Are there any keys that can help you tell what is happening?

  • Read over the second time and underline words or expressions that you don’t understand--AND that seem to be key to understanding.  Remember, not every word matters. Then look up your underlined words in a dictionary.  

  • Re-read the passage/story/chapter a third time and see how it all starts to make more sense!

For a more about three-part reading, sign up for your free guidebook.


If all else fails, You're allowed to stop reading a book.

Just. Like. That. You can put it down and pick it up in a month, two months, six months.  

Or you can give it as a gift to someone you don’t like very much.

But don't forget to grab another book!

What are your favorite ways to understand what you read in English?  

  • How much does it bother you when you don’t understand part of a book in English?
  • What are your favorite techniques for understanding more?
  • What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out reading in English?
  • What questions do you have?

Leave your notes in the comments below or head over to the Vagabond English Book Club.  

And, of course, if you're just starting out and you want 5 quick ways to improve your reading in English right away, click the button below and download the free guide.