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OET Reading: How to develop a reading habit

A woman in blue is reading a book

The best way to improve at something is by doing it. Think of anything you’ve learnt to do in your life (some enjoyable experiences, others perhaps less enjoyable experiences) riding a bike, learning to drive, baking a cake, taking a patient’s blood, even learning to read as a child. When you first started the learning process, you had to focus; concentrate on what each part of your body was doing. If you were distracted, you might forget a step and get frustrated from falling off or from eating a cake that wasn’t light in texture.


The more you practised, the less you had to focus and instead started enjoying the prowess of your body and mind combining to perform the skill accurately. If you stopped doing the skill for a while, trying it again felt a bit strange, it might give you a bit of anxiety, but your muscle memory soon came back. You found by doing something regularly, you were able to maintain your skill level comfortably. 


The same is true of reading. How many of you enjoyed reading as a child and student but as you became a busy adult found less and less time to read? And now, when you want to read in English, and at a proficient level to meet regulatory requirements, your brain struggles to perform. To turn this struggle around, you need to get back into a reading habit. 


How much work do I need to do to build a habit? 


Read these 10 statements and count how many you can answer ‘yes’ to already. The higher the number, the closer you are to a good reading habit. 


  1. I read something in English every day 
  2. I try to read where I’m comfortable and won’t be interrupted 
  3. I make predictions about what I’m going to read before I start reading 
  4. I think about my purpose of reading before I start reading 
  5. I try not to translate words from English to my first language 
  6. I read in phrases rather than word by word 
  7. I try to picture in my mind what I’m reading 
  8. I read silently, without moving my lips 
  9. I try to understand the meaning of the passage, and try not to worry  
  10. about understanding the meaning of every word 
  11. I usually enjoy reading in English 


For some tips and explanations about why each of these things are important in developing a good reading habit, you can download this checklist 


Set some achievable reading goals 


To master anything, you need to break it down into manageable chunks. You can’t go from not really reading anything to reading a full book overnight. A reading habit will take time to develop and the best way to succeed is to set yourself some realistic goals. Of course, these days, there are apps to help you with this and to encourage you to stay on track. 


If you’re someone who likes reading in hard copy (books, articles, magazines etc. you can hold in your hands) then getbookly.com or readmore.pro will suit you. While, if you’re happy reading online on your phone, tablet or laptop, bookmate.com or thestorygraph.com will likely suit you better.  


Whichever app you choose, you can use it to track the time you spend reading, what you’ve read and create a reading schedule to help you stick to goals you set such as how many pages you’re going to read each day or how many minutes you’re going to read for each day. Some of the apps include free books and some recommend things you might like to read based on preferences you’ve provided in your profile. 


Try to be as realistic as possible with the goals you set. If you find you’re struggling to hit your goals after a few days, reduce them to something you can fit into your regular schedule, for example if you’ve set yourself a number of minutes reading you want to hit each day, perhaps bring it down by 5 minutes. Or, if you’ve set a number of pages, reduce the number to something more manageable. The main thing is to be kind to yourself. You want to enjoy developing this habit so being self-critical if you don’t hit your goals won’t do this. It’s much better to enjoy and stick to a realistic goal than feel constantly guilty for not managing to meet a goal. 


Enjoy what you read 


It’s natural to think that you should focus on reading the types of texts that you will read in your test. However, if you really want to improve your reading fluency and proficiency, creating a reading habit that is enjoyable is the way to do it. 


Start off your new habit by finding things you are interested in reading. One good place to start can be an English translation of a book or film you have enjoyed in your first language. Because you already know the story, you don’t need to work so hard on understanding what’s happening and can instead relax into a story you know and like, but in English. A popular option is the Harry Potter series.  


If you like reading the news, read the news in English, if you like reading sport match write-ups, read them in English, if you like cooking recipes, find recipes in English. These days with Google translate it’s even easier to find content you’ll enjoy online, you can read it first in your first language and then in English or vice versa.  


As a healthcare professional, you might be inspired to read in English accounts and books by other healthcare professionals. Here’s a list of suggestions, the first one has also been made into a TV series.  


  • This is going to hurt - Adam Kay 
  • When breath becomes air - Paul Kalanithi 
  • Medical maladies - ed. Haris Qadeer 
  • Every patient tells a story - Lisa Sanders 
  • Intern - Sandeep Jauhar 
  • The comfort garden - Laurie Barkin 
  • The emperor of all maladies - Siddhartha Mukherjee 


The more you enjoy reading, the better you will become at it. Students who read a lot also seem to acquire English better than those who do not. 


Opportunities for reading are everywhere 


How many things have you seen so far today that you could read? Of course, it’s going to depend a bit on how long you’ve been awake, but regardless of this, the number is likely to be quite a lot higher than you would think.  


Written text is everywhere, so much so that we can become oblivious to it. Aside from things you might see at your workplace or in the course of doing your job, here are some texts you might not think of, but you’re likely to have seen today already: 


  • street advertising  
  • food packaging  
  • public transport signage  
  • social media feed  
  • emails  
  • menus  
  • messaging e.g. WhatsApp  
  • mail  
  • laundry instructions 
  • streaming schedule 


It means that you can use these incidental reading opportunities whenever you come across them and make them part of your reading habit by using one of these three tips. 


Tip 1 

Set yourself a scanning challenge – find all the nouns, any words for people (man, girl, couple, family etc.), any words about food or health or shopping, any numbers in the text.  

Practise starting in the middle of the text, at the end of the text, on the right side, on the left side. It really doesn’t matter; the objective is to move your eyes quickly to find the information you have challenged yourself to find. 


Tip 2 

Practise your gist skills anywhere you can see a slightly longer text. Perhaps set yourself 20-30 seconds to quickly read through the text (not focusing on understanding every word but picking up the main points) and then come up with a short statement in your head to explain what the gist of the message is. The idea is not to have a statement that covers everything in the text, but the main points the writer is trying to communicate. 


Tip 3 

Adverts or other marketing content are great texts to develop skills to understand the writer’s attitude. Find the adjectives and adverbs the writer has used. How do they make you feel about the topic (positive, negative, neutral)? What purpose does the writer have in this text? (to encourage you to buy something, to inform you etc.) 


What can you expect from building a reading habit? 


Reading regularly builds your reading fluency. A fluent reader can continue reading without any hesitation caused by lack of comprehension and for a good period of time without feeling tired or confused.  


For OET, Reading fluency depends on your ability to read for 45 minutes without feeling tired and without significant hesitation or need to re-read a sentence a number of times to understand its meaning.  


Reading for 45 minutes in one go is not something many healthcare professionals have the luxury of time for, but if you don’t build up your reading stamina, you might not finish all the questions in the test or get to the end feeling stressed and lacking in confidence about the accuracy of your answers. 


Reading enjoyment builds reading confidence, and this leads to reading fluency. All three together are a recipe for success in OET Reading. 


Learn more about each part of OET Reading:

Reading Part A Guide

Reading Part B Guide

Reading Part C Guide