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How to get the most out of English texts


by Tomasz P. Szynalski

Reading for content


Normally, when reading a text, people use a strategy that I call "reading for content". The goal of this
strategy is to get the main idea of the text as quickly as possible and with as little effort as possible.
To accomplish this goal, your brain will try to read as few words as possible and spend only a
fraction of a second on each word.
For example, when reading the following passage, you don't really see it like this:
Once when I was six years old I saw a magnificent picture in a book, called True Stories from
Nature, about the primeval forest. It was a picture of a boa constrictor in the act of swallowing an
animal. Here is a copy of the drawing. In the book it said: "Boa constrictors swallow their prey
whole, without chewing it. After that they are not able to move, and they sleep through the six
months that they need for digestion."
I pondered deeply, then, over the adventures of the jungle. And after some work with a colored
pencil I succeeded in making my first drawing.
To your brain, it looks more or less like this:
Once when I was six years old I saw a magnificent picture in a book, called True Stories from
Nature, about the primeval forest. It was a picture of a boa constrictor in the act of swallowing an
animal. Here is a copy of the drawing. In the book it said: "Boa constrictors swallow their prey
whole, without chewing it. After that they are not able to move, and they sleep through the six
months that they need for digestion."
I pondered deeply, then, over the adventures of the jungle. And after some work with a colored
pencil I succeeded in making my first drawing.
Here are some characteristics of "reading for content":

Not seeing "grammar words" like a, the, in, of, through, that. The eye only stops at content
words (main nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs).
Not seeing word forms: Was it look or looked? Has looked or had looked?
Not noticing the exact spelling. It is well known that the brain recognizes whole words it
does not analyze them letter by letter. Native speakers see the word piece all the time, but
many of them still misspell it as peice, because the two spellings have similar shapes.
Ignoring difficult words that are not essential to understanding the meaning (here: primeval,
constrictor). Who has the time to use a dictionary?

An extreme example of "word blindness" is the rather well-known puzzle where you're asked to
count how many times the letter F occurs in the following passage:
FINISHED FILES ARE THE RESULT OF YEARS OF SCIENTIFIC STUDY COMBINED WITH
THE EXPERIENCE OF YEARS.
Click here for answer:
Reading for content is a great, time-saving way to extract information from written content. The
problem is that you may not need grammar words to understand a text, but you do need them to
produce a text. If you skip over grammar words while reading, you may have difficulty using them
correctly in your own sentences.
For example, here is a sentence from the opening paragraph of this article. Most learners (except
those who are proficient in English grammar or extremely observant) will probably find it difficult to
fill in the blanks:
To accomplish this goal, your brain will try to read as ___ words as possible and spend only a
fraction of ___ second ___ each word.
The above explains why some learners can read a 300-page book and still have problems with
relatively basic grammar. It also explains why articles and prepositions are among the hardest
aspects of English to learn. The conclusion for the English learner is that if you want to improve
your production (output) skills, you may have to train yourself to notice grammar words.
Here's an illuminating passage posted by Maya l'abeille at the Antimoon Forum:
I believe that seeing correct and typical English sentences helps a lot to learn how to use English
properly. It is also important to read and read again every structure that is new to you, so that you
can remember them. If you only read the book without taking any pause to think carefully about the
"new" sentences, you will hardly remember any of them.
I've read all Harry Potter books straight myself, and when I opened them again, I realised I had
viewed loads and loads of useful structures whithout remembering them - which was such a shame!
I'm reading The Full Monty (Penguin Readers collection) using the "pause and think" method at
present. Now after a few days of daily reading, when I take a look at an English text, many structures
are familiar to me - "hey, I remember reading this one in The Full Monty!".
Therefore, I believe this method is efficient and I would advise it to all learners.
Sometimes, we don't realise how wealthy a single book can be - loads to learn just in one of them.

Pause and think


I agree with Maya about the "pause and think" method. Here's the process that I recommend for
dealing with sentences in texts:

1. Stop at interesting (not obvious) things: a new word, how a word was used, a grammatical
structure, a preposition, an article, a conjunction, the order of words, etc. For example, spend
a while to think about the fact that the sentence contains the preposition at, and not on.
Perhaps the sentence uses the present perfect tense where you would have expected the past
simple. Perhaps the word order is different than in your first language.
2. If the sentence contains a useful phrase, ask yourself: Could you produce a similar phrase
yourself? Would you use the right tenses, articles and prepositions? Would you use the right
word order? If you're not sure, read the phrase again. Practice saying it (or a similar phrase)
aloud or in your mind. The idea is to program your brain with it.
3. If necessary, or if you feel like it, use your dictionary to find definitions of words in the
sentence and get more example sentences. This will help enrich your "feel" of the word.
4. If you use SuperMemo, consider adding the phrase to your collection (e.g. as a sentence item)
to make sure it will stay in your memory. Of course, only useful phrases should be added.

Important notes

You don't have to use "pause and think" all the time. Reading in this mode can be quite
exhausting, so don't do it when you're tired after a long reading session.
Don't try to focus on every phrase.
o Some phrases are not useful. Some characters in books and movies use very colorful,
but rare expressions (e.g. "This girls family has got you by the short ones"). Novels
often contain literary language which is not useful for building your own sentences
(e.g. "A matted depression across mustache and beard showed where a stillsuit tube
had marked out its path from nose to catchpockets").
o Some phrases are just too advanced for you. Try to focus on things that are within
your reach, i.e. one level above your current level. If you're still struggling with the
present perfect tense, don't waste your attention on sentences like "I don't know what
it is that the officer said he had seen me do". (If you keep seeing advanced sentences,
you should probably switch to an easier text.)
The "pause and think" technique will not always make you remember the exact way to say
something. But perhaps you'll remember that this particular type of sentence is problematic
in English. If you remember that, it will at least make you stop before you write that
sentence, and look it up instead of making a careless mistake.
You don't have to think about why something was phrased in a particular way. The goal is to
focus your attention, not come up with grammar rules. (Though if you like to think about
grammar rules, you can do it.)
If you don't like to stop reading (to look up a word in your dictionary or add a phrase to
SuperMemo), you can write down all the interesting sentences, or you can underline them in
the book with a pencil. This way, you can handle these sentences later.

An example
I'll now give you a short demonstration of the "pause and think" method. Here are two English
sentences and examples of thoughts that you should get when reading them:

Former President Jimmy Carter will visit Venezuela next week to mediate talks between the
government and its opposition, which have been locked in a power struggle since a failed coup.
"Former President" not "The former President", so I guess we say "President Carter" and
not "The President Carter", even though we say "The President will do something" when we
don't mention his name.
"to mediate talks" not "to mediate in the talks" or something like that. I wonder if that
would be OK, too...
"power struggle" I think I've seen this phrase before.
"since a failed coup" so I can say "He's been paralyzed since an accident" (preposition
use), not only "He's been paralyzed since an accident happened" (conjunction use).
"since a failed coup" not "since the failed coup". The author does not assume we know
about the coup.
"coup" hey, I know this is pronounced /ku:/!
Jennifer McCoy, of the Atlanta-based Carter Center, told reporters Saturday that Carter may be able
to help break the political deadlock when he visits beginning July 6.
"Jennifer McCoy of the Carter Center" not "Jennifer McCoy from the Carter Center" (in
Polish I would say from). So we'd say "John Brown of IBM", for example.
"Atlanta-based" another way of saying "based in Atlanta". Guess I could say I'm a
"Wroclaw-based webmaster".
"told reporters Saturday" not "on Saturday" seems we can skip the "on" sometimes. "I met
her Friday" would probably work as well as "I met her on Friday".
"told that Carter may be able" not "told that Carter might be able" lack of reported
(indirect) speech. And my English teacher taught me to say things like "She said she might
stay" (not "She said she may stay").
"to help break the deadlock" It looks like help can be used without an object (it does not
say "to help Venezuelans break the deadlock"), and without to (it does not say "help to break
the deadlock"). This is different from some other verbs like force (we cannot say "The
President will force break the deadlock", we must say "The President will force Venezuelans
to break the deadlock.").
"when he visits" not "when he will visit", even though it will be in the future. I don't think
I have ever seen will used in such a sentence.
"to visit beginning July 6" interesting structure I would say "to visit on July 6", but
here beginning replaces on. This may be the first time that I've seen this phrase. It may be
some sort of news jargon.

Tomasz P. Szynalski

zoom in

Pronunciation samples
You can listen to sample recordings (in mp3 format) of me reading aloud in English. Each file is
about 100 KB in size.

Who are you?


My full name is Tomasz P. Szynalski, but you can call me Tom. I live in Wroclaw, Poland. I have
earned a Master's Degree in business administration at the Wroclaw University of Technology. Since
1998, I have worked mainly as an English-Polish translator, sometimes also as an English teacher,
web designer and programmer. In 2000, I started this website, together with Michal Ryszard Wojcik.
I also made TypeIt, an online tool for typing foreign characters (and phonetic symbols) easily.

How did you learn English?


1. The beginnings
I started learning English when I was 6 years old. For 8 years I learned English the way everybody
does by going to English classes. It was awfully ineffective. I did everything that the teachers told
me to do: I took notes, I did the homework assignments, everything. But I didn't get any results. At
least, no impressive results. I was always one of the best students in class still, reading English
texts took me a long time, I made lots of mistakes when writing, my pronunciation was bad, and I
could only speak English very slowly. Eight years of sacrifices, and these were the results...

Adventure games like Monkey Island 2 were my only source of input in elementary school. I had to
understand at least some English to progress in the game.
Things got a little better because of... computer games. When my father finally bought me my first
PC in 1991, I started playing lots of adventure games. I especially loved LucasArts games, such as
the Indiana Jones, Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle. While playing these games, I would read

a lot of English sentences, and after some time I gained a little "grammar intuition". When I did well
in a local English contest for 14-year-olds, I realized that adventure games had taught me more than
English classes. You see, after so many hours of reading the dialogues, I would sometimes "feel" the
right answers in grammar tests, while other students had to recall grammar rules. But my English
was still pretty bad.

2. I get motivated and learn to learn on my own


I would love to tell you that I started to learn English seriously because I wanted to improve myself,
communicate with the world, or even get good grades and a well-paying job. In the beginning, my
motivation was far more evil: it was my competitive spirit.
In 1993, I got into the best high school in Wroclaw. It was a special program with a lot of English
classes and certain classes (like math and physics) taught in English. I owe a lot to the people I met
there, both students and teachers. My first two years in high school were very important for my
English. At first, I thought I would do well without any serious effort. After all, I had gotten the
highest score in class on the initial placement test and, until then, had been the top student in every
English class that I had attended.
But then I noticed that there were two other guys Wojtek Dzierzanowski and Michal Ryszard
Wojcik (who later became my partner at Antimoon) who were quite impressive. Wojtek had great
American pronunciation and Michal's English seemed completely free of errors. What's more, every
time I heard them speak, they seemed to have a bigger vocabulary.
I was not a friendly admirer of their progress. In fact, I hated what was happening. I hated the
possibility that another student could be better at English than me. I had been attending English
lessons since I was 6 years old, dammit, and I was not going to let someone get the upper hand on
me. It was clear to me that I needed to put in some serious work, or else I would be left behind.

The Oxford Pocket Learner's Dictionary my first English-English dictionary.


I began to pay more attention to the advice of my English teacher, Mr Janusz Laskosz. I bought a
proper English-English dictionary and learned to read the phonetic transcriptions in it. At home, I
started to practice pronouncing English words, taking care to capture the difference between similar
words like full and fool. I was getting better and better at pronouncing English vowels like (the
vowel in cat) and (the first sound in away, also known as schwa).
Despite the fact that British pronunciation is the de facto standard in Polish schools, Wojtek, Michal
and I all decided to study American pronunciation. It was fun to go against the grain and American
English offered a better choice of interesting content, such as TV shows and movies. I started
listening to recordings (such as the Shaggy Dog Stories that we got from Mr Laskosz) and imitating
the phrases I would hear. Every day, after school, I watched American TV (e.g. CNN International,
Cartoon Network). As a result, I was getting better and better at understanding spoken English. I was
also picking up some words and phrases that I could use in my own sentences.
Our high school was unusual in that it had a few American teachers. I decided to take advantage of
this opportunity as much as I could. I would come up to them between classes and start conversation
about everyday things. Sometimes, when there was poor discipline in class, I would spend the entire
45 minutes talking to the teacher, while my classmates talked to each other. When I spoke, I made
sure to use simple grammar to avoid mistakes.
After 2 or 3 months of this, I was no longer afraid to open my mouth. Sure, I often had problems
finding the right word, I never used conditionals, the past perfect tense or as if clauses, and my

writing skills were unacceptable (writing requires a much better vocabulary than speaking). But I
could usually express my basic meaning with few mistakes and pretty good pronunciation, even if I
sounded like a little kid.
It was at this time that my motivations began to change. The feeling of competition was still there,
but now I was also motivated because I was enjoying my own progress and the possibilities that it
had opened for me. It is so much fun to pronounce a word just like an American, to use a newly
learned phrase, or to watch TV in a foreign language and understand it!

3. I boost my English with reading and SuperMemo


One of my most important moments in high school was when I overheard Wojtek and Michal talking
about a computer program that they used to learn English words. The program was called
SuperMemo. "I knew they had some sort of trick for memorizing vocabulary", I thought. "That's
why they are always full of advanced words like appalled and streamline!" Naturally, I got very
interested in their "secret weapon". But my motivation was too small. If you wanted to use
SuperMemo, you had to spend a lot of time copying words, phonetic transcriptions and example
sentences from the dictionary into your computer. I gave the program a try, but I could never get
down to using it seriously.

First page from The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton, one of the first books I've read in
English.
During the summer vacation of 1994, I started reading books in English, mostly thrillers and sci-fi
novels. This was largely because of the encouragement of Mr Laskosz and the example of Michal
and Wojtek. It was an exciting new experience for me. A year before, I didn't even realize that I a
fresh high school student could read actual English literature in the original like somebody from
the US or Britain. And now here I was, reading novels in English and enjoying them, to the disbelief
of my parents!
I quickly found out that written English was completely different from the English I would hear on
TV or from native speakers. Authors would write things like "he would be forced to wipe them
frequently using a stubby gloved finger" or "the final scurrying about had reached an almost
unbearable frenzy". I would encounter a lot of new words, and I had terrible problems memorizing
them. I often had to look up the same word many times, which irritated me. I realized I needed a way
to remember all this vocabulary.

I spent thousands of hours in front of this screen. You can see I even made a DOS text-mode font
with phonetic symbols.
In February 1995, I finally started my first SuperMemo collection with English vocabulary. It was a
breakthrough for me. I started adding lots of words from the books that I read. Every day, I would
come back from school, and then sit for an hour or two and add new words to my collection.
SuperMemo worked so well that, when I added 30 new words, I knew I would remember those 30
words in a month. It was like glue everything stuck in my memory! I was memorizing lots of new
things and almost never forgetting any of them, so my knowledge was always growing and never
shrinking. After two years, my collection had 3,000 English words with pronunciations and example
sentences. (More about my 9-year experience with SuperMemo)
Because of all the reading and SuperMemo, my vocabulary was no longer my weakness it was
my strength. It became very hard for my teachers (non-native English speakers) to surprise me with
a new word. My classmates would often ask English questions of me or Michal, because they knew

they would get a better answer from us than from the teacher. I even noticed some of my teachers
were getting jealous!

4. I achieve writing and speaking fluency


In late 1995, I got on the Internet. Two or three times a week, after my classes, I would go to a small
computer lab at the chemistry department of the local university to surf the Net. I got my own e-mail
account and started writing e-mail in English. I loved to build error-free English sentences,
especially with advanced vocabulary and grammar structures. However, in those early days of the
Internet, my choices were limited. Almost none of my friends had e-mail accounts. Only two years
later, when dial-up access became widely available in Poland, did I persuade Michal to get online
and we started to write to each other in English.
Around 1997, Michal and I decided to use only English to communicate. We must have spent
thousands of hours talking to each other in English between school classes, attracting the puzzled
looks of teachers and classmates. Speaking in English quickly became so natural that we forgot what
it was like to speak Polish to each other. The decision to switch to English required some courage,
but it was just what I needed at the time. I already had good vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation.
What I needed was fluency the ability to speak English on any topic, without hesitation.
And it worked. In 1998, I took part in a prestigious, nationwide English competition for high school
students. I was 7th in the country, out of 25,000 participants. Two years later, I easily got first place
in a smaller contest for students of technical universities.

How is your English today?


Today, English is no longer the focus of my attention. It is more like an everyday tool, like a "second
native language". Over 90% of my e-mail is written in English. I regularly visit 15-20 websites in
English and only a few websites in Polish. I rarely have to use a dictionary and when I speak, I
sound very much like an American. (Sometimes even Americans can't tell the difference.)

What has English given you?

With English, I can learn more about anything I'm interested in. I can read technical articles
on programming. I can listen to video lectures by great thinkers. I can watch documentaries
on photography. I can find better information about fixing my computer, my health problems,
where to go on vacation, which products to buy, etc. It's ridiculous how limited the Internet is
for someone who doesn't understand English.
I translated C Primer Plus, a very good book on the C programming language.
I can write for the whole world, not just the people in my country. My articles and forum
posts can be helpful to the whole global community.
I can communicate with virtually all educated people in the world. I have corresponded with
world-class experts in science, philosophy and technical fields like software development.

I get excellent entertainment that is unavailable or hard to get in Polish e.g. Futurama,
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Office, Northern Exposure, funny clips on YouTube,
websites like Reddit and The Onion, etc. I often wonder how much great stuff many of my
Polish friends are missing.
I have more fun watching movies and playing computer games. Translations are often
unavailable, shortened (for time/space reasons) or incorrect. I see poor translations all the
time, even on professionally produced DVDs. Whenever I'm forced to watch a movie in the
Polish version, I know I am missing 5-10% of the content.
I can go to any English-speaking country and communicate easily. During my trips to
England and America I've been taken for a native speaker many times. It felt great!
I make money with English. When I graduated from high school, I translated two computer
books (Using Windows 98 and C Primer Plus) from English into Polish. Today, I run my own
Polish translation business.

Marta Wlodarczak
Who are you?
My name is Marta Wlodarczak. I'm 22 and I study at the Academy of Fine Arts and the Teachers
Training College (English Section) in Wroclaw, Poland.

How did you learn English?


I started to learn English when I was in elementary school. Together with my two friends, I had
English classes with a private teacher. I lacked motivation and I learnt very little so after a year all I
knew was a couple of English words and several basic expressions. This stage was insignificant and
could just as well have not happened at all.
I began to learn English in earnest when I went to high school. I was in the same class with Tom and
Michal (webmasters at Antimoon) but we were in different groups. I was in a group for students who
were to learn English from scratch, and they were in a group for those who already knew some
English. On entering the new school I promised myself to learn hard, so I was making fast progress.
My teacher noticed that my English was improving rapidly and he told me to join the group for the
advanced learners. This was the worst thing that could have happened to me. I was separated from
my best friend, who stayed in the beginner group, and I had to find my place in the new group,
which is always difficult. Besides, my new teacher, who was Irish, didn't speak Polish so I couldn't
understand her and I never knew what I was supposed to do. I was completely at a loss, I was
stressed and discouraged and, needless to say, my English didn't improve at all. As a result, at the
end of that year I was sent back to the group for beginners.
My stay with the advanced group made me realize what kind of learning strategies I should use in
the future. I discovered that I cannot pick up a new language directly from foreigners and that I

should learn more consciously, preferably with non-native teachers, who can switch to Polish if
necessary. I started to learn hard again.
I translated into Polish all new words that appeared in my course-book, even those that were used in
the instructions for exercises. Before a test I would memorize dozens of words with their Polish
equivalents. However, later I would never revise those words so I would soon forget most of them.
Also, when I tried to memorize a new word I always made a special point of its spelling. But I would
do it the wrong way. For example, when I wanted to memorize the spelling of the word difficulty, I
would pronounce it like this: /di:f fi: ku:l ti/ to make the spelling clear to myself. Of course,
this way of learning had a disastrous effect on my pronunciation.
I knew that I should improve my learning techniques and I decided to ask for help those who had the
best results in English in our class, that is Michal and Tom. That wasn't easy because we hardly
knew each other. What's more, in the second grade, they seemed to look down on girls so after a few
attempts to approach them I decided to give up. For two years I learned English using the method
described above. My English was improving but I was still forgetting new words and my
pronunciation was bad. Finally, in the fourth grade I got closer to Michal, who started to teach me
English pronunciation and showed me how to learn English more effectively, which was a
breakthrough in the whole process of my learning English.
Michal encouraged me to read books in English and to use SuperMemo together with monolingual
dictionaries. I started to append new words to my SuperMemo collection and I also used Tom's
collection with ready-made items. Michal taught me the phonetic alphabet and practiced with me the
right pronunciation of individual English sounds. I had to learn many words anew because it turned
out that I mispronounced them. SuperMemo forced me to learn English regularly so I got better and
better from month to month. Finally, I began to write e-mail messages in English, which gave me a
chance to fix new words and grammar structures in my mind and helped to improve my writing
skills.
I have been using these techniques for four years, and in my opinion, I have achieved pretty good
results. I find it easy to read books in English, even those written a couple of centuries ago, which
gives me pleasure and satisfaction. I don't have much difficulty writing in English, and even my
American teacher praised me for my writing, which was significant because she's rather hard to
please. Recently, I have taken to watching English movies in the original, and I hope that soon I'll be
able to understand English movies the way I can understand English books. Finally, my
pronunciation has markedly improved and I can be proud of it now.

What has English given you?


Since I started to read books in English and watch English TV, English has become my hobby. It has
also become an important part of my social life because I use it to communicate with my friends and
teachers. I no longer find learning English unpleasant, difficult or boring. Actually, if for some
reasons I cannot catch my SuperMemo collection or at least read in English for a few days in a row, I
really miss it.