Ways to Improve Your Reading Process

1. Different reading tasks require different speeds.

Know 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.

3. "Lose the highlighter; find a pen."

Highlighters 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 paragraphs.

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, language, etc.
  • Summaries briefly overview a text's major ideas, plot, dialogue, etc.
5. Learn to recognize when you need more context.

When 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 words.

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.

7. Consider reading it a second time.

"You've 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.

9. Be willing to live with ambiguity.

Many 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 evidence.

10. Likewise, be willing to live with ill-structured problems.

An 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 and responses.

11. Consider 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 interpretation.
  • 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 are reading.

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.







"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding