Ways to Improve
Your Reading Process
reading tasks require different speeds.
how much time and work a particular assignment calls for. Some you should skim; others you
should read closely and critically. A few may even call for a detailed analysis. In our
class, most literary texts will call for close, critical reading. However, unless
otherwise indicated, you might give a cursory reading to the introductions. And depending
on how familiar you are with literary analysis and MLA documentation, some of the Simon
and Schuster material you may even be able to simply skim.
|2. Preview the text.
When you first examine a reading, try to gain a sense of the
overall structure of ideas and concerns. Look at titles, chapter headings, lists, and
words and phrases bolded or in italics. These often clue you in to an essay's key
concepts, central concerns, or organization. Be aware of the genre of the work: a poem
calls for different reading skills than a play or a novel. Pay attention to the beginning
and ending. Such matters help orient you for a close, detailed reading.
the highlighter; find a pen."
can make you passive because you tend to mark main ideas without taking more extensive
notes that actively respond to the text (see below). If you are marking a text as a
word-processing document, make your comments in another font or in bold between
|4. Annotate the text.
You can annotate texts both marginally as you go and in summary
fashion at the end:
- Content notes label the purposes and assumptions in a text.
- Organization notes help you identify the primary parts of a text.
- Connection notes observe links between various ideas in a text or between texts.
- Questions help identify passages you find confusing or that you wish to dispute.
- Responses give you a chance to write down your reactions to various ideas, characters,
- Summaries briefly overview a text's major ideas, plot, dialogue, etc.
to recognize when you need more context.
you find passages confusing or particularly difficult, make a note to yourself to look up
a word, idea, or reference that might help clear up matters. But do this after you have
finished your reading. Stopping too often to look up unknown terms can cause you to lose
the overall sense of the text. Likewise, learn to pay attention to the footnotes. Often
the notes give you key background clues you need to understand a passage. Yet don't let
these overwhelm you. Sometimes you can lose sight of the forest for the trees. If a note
does not seem to offer any major insight, keep it in mind for later study, but move on.
|6. Put it in your own
Sometimes putting a very
difficult passage in your own words will help you make sense of it. At least, it gives you
a tentative idea that you can later refine and build on.
reading it a second time.
got to be kidding, right?" some students will ask. Of course, you have to balance all
your various requirements and commitments, but if you have the time, rereading a passage
you find difficult (or even enjoyable) can reveal additional meanings and connections any
first reading tends to overlook.
|8. Try reading it aloud.
Often the oral nature of a work, especially a poetic one, can
better be understood when we read portions of it aloud. Try reading for a sense of the
rhythms, the sound changes and patterns, the places one should emphasize, the speed and
intonation. Sometimes a passage that seems confusing on a first read will make more sense
when you hear the voice behind it.
willing to live with ambiguity.
texts, especially literary texts, are written with an emphasis on suggestiveness, even
mystery. Authors tend to rely on readers' intuition, their willingness to play with the
implications of something, their openness to the implications of a story or character. In
short, such authors expect readers to do part of the work.
Try conceiving of this as the evidence one musters for a law case. Not every
interpretation is equally valid. Some do a better job with the evidence than others. Some
make a suggestion that is at best tangential. Many have to be thrown out because they make
claims the evidence doesn't back up. Your goal is to come up with the most convincing
|10. Likewise, be willing to
live with ill-structured problems.
ill-structured problem is one that does not immediately suggest one right answer. Such
problems tend to work with incomplete data or within the contradictory claims of a field.
It often helps students to see interpretation as a chance for problem-solving, not because
texts are "problems" but because they offer opportunities for generating ideas
working in groups; be willing to cooperate when groups are assigned.
Often students discover that working together helps uncover the
richness of a work. We realize quickly that others have additional insights that we do not
have. Effective group work tends to practice five key skills:
- It avoids "ego-think" where each person refuses to listen to other ideas or
ever consider alternatives.
- It avoids "clone-think" where each person fills the need to always agree with
everyone else and never challenge the status quo.
- It considers the "idiot idea generator." Sometimes the idea that seems the
most unworkable or inapplicable contains the kernel of a real solution or suggestive new
- It works towards consensus yet is willing to live with difference.
- It respects each member's time, work, and ideas.
|12. Finally, know why you
Admittedly, when the
reading is required, the bottom line is about doing the work to make the grade. We all
tend to think in terms of opportunity cost--where can I excel, where should I just strive
for the satisfactory middle, where should I do the best I can and cut my losses? Yet, in
addition, I hope we will all consider what it means to do our reading for God.
The author of Proverbs encourages us: "Get wisdom, get understanding . . .
Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over
you" (4:5-6 NIV). Likewise, Jesus tells us to "Love the Lord God with all your
heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matt 22:37 NIV).
While not every text we will read and study offers equal amounts of wisdom and truth,
all can equally be studied within the larger framework of our worldview. As we spend our
time and energy engaging such works, I hope some of us may even discover that such work
can even be a form of service to God's greater purposes.