Savvy Student's Study Skills: Reading

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The Savvy Student's Guide to Study Skills—Chapter One

We're talking about reading?

You might think it's a little silly to include a chapter on reading in a book on study skills for high school and college. After all, most people have been reading since before they started kindergarten — and not just words like “cat” and “ball”, but reading symbols, like what a red light means, or the logo of your favorite restaurant.

Believe it or not, that's actually the biggest challenge with reading in high school and college — since it's something you've done since for¬ever, you take it for granted. Don't believe me — OK — pull out your phone, and time yourself while you read the following. Go!

Alexander Hamilton (January 11, 1755 or 1757 – July 12, 1804) was a Founding Father of the United States, chief staff aide to General George Washington, one of the most influential interpreters and promoters of the U.S. Constitution, the founder of the nation's financial system, the founder of the Federalist Party, the world's first voter-based political party, the founder of the United States Coast Guard, and the founder of The New York Post newspaper. As the first Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton was the primary author of the economic policies of the George Washington administration. Hamilton took the lead in the funding of the states' debts by the Federal government, the establishment of a national bank, a system of tariffs, and friendly trade relations with Britain. He led the Federalist Party, created largely in support of his views; he was opposed by the Democratic-Republican Party, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, which despised Britain and feared that Hamilton's policies of a strong central government would weaken the American commitment to Republicanism.

How long did it take? 30 seconds maybe? Great. Now, answer these questions — and take your time:

OK — now, one more question. How many times did you have to go back to the paragraph you just “read” to find the answers to the questions?

If you're like most readers, there's a good chance you had to go back to the paragraph to answer at least three of the four questions (many people remember Hamilton served under President George Washington because Washington is mentioned twice, and because, well, he's George Washington, and that's easy to remember). Most people also have to go read the paragraph two more times to find out it doesn't mention how Hamilton dies at all—but, thanks to the popular musical, that's something we all know anyway (and, thanks to the tune “Ten Duel Commandments” from Hamilton, you might even know the protocol for dueling, even though it's now illegal).

This exercise points out that most people don't really read when they look at a book. You turn to the pages your instructor assigned you, and your eyes glide through the page with no problem. In fact, this is so easy to do, chances are you stop halfway through the assignment to pop some earbuds in to listen to some music while you're reading, or put the book down to check your email or your social media. Soon enough, you've finished with the last page, and you're on to something else, but you can't remember a single thing your eyes just saw…

…because that isn't reading. It's moving your eyes.

That's why it's important to review the key parts of reading as a high school and college student—reading has changed since you were younger. Sounding out words and answering questions about a sentence you just read was OK in elementary school, but now you have to read to understand point of view, tone, symbols, foreshadowing—in other words, you have to think about what you read while you're reading it, and keep track of what you just read so the next part will make sense. This is so important, it's actually part of the dictionary definition of reading:

Read: to look at carefully so as to understand the meaning of (something written, printed, etc.)

“Wow”, you're thinking, “so if that's reading, what was I doing the first time I looked at that paragraph about Alexander Hamilton?”

Actually, you already know. You were looking at it. You weren't reading it.

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How to really read a textbook

One of the best ways to get used to this new approach to reading is to replace the word “understand” every time you hear or see the word “read” for the next week. This not only helps you remember you have to do something different when you read; it requires you to think about the sentence, which is a practice version of reading itself.

Teacher at end of class: So, read pages 35-42 tonight.
You, writing the assignment in your notebook or phone: Understand pages 35-42 tonight.

Dad at the dinner table: “So, what were you reading before dinner tonight?”
You: “I was understanding how to balance chemical equations.”

Friend: “Did you read about Taylor Speedy and her boyfriend breaking up?”
You: “Yes. I understand she's seeing someone else before she heads out on a world tour.”

Since everyone has their own way of understanding things, not everyone has to take the same approach to reading, but there are some habits you may want to try as you think about how to improve your level of understanding:

Figure out the point of what you're reading.

The chapters of most textbooks have review questions and summary statements; these are the key ideas of what you'll be reading. Since these important parts are at the end of the chapter, StudyRight recommends you consider starting at the back of each chapter to get a clear idea of what the chapter is all about. Once you learn how to follow their four steps of reading a chapter, this will make your task much easier.

Engage your brain in the reading, Part I.

Understanding what you read is like driving a car; once the engine is on, you have to keep paying attention to the road ahead of you. Roger Farr of Indiana University used to have his students ask questions while his students read. This is an important way to paying attention to what you're reading in small chunks, just like you pay attention to the road when you're in the car. So if you were reading the following passage on metamorphosis, Dr. Farr would likely suggest you ask questions like this:

Metamorphosis is a biological process by which an animal physically develops after birth or hatching, (“So, when does it happen?”) involving a conspicuous and relatively abrupt change in the animal's body structure through cell growth and differentiation (“What exactly changes?”). Some insects, fishes, amphibians, mollusks, crustaceans, cnidarians, echinoderms and tunicates undergo metamorphosis, which is often accompanied by a change of nutrition source or behavior (“Does metamorphosis happen to all fish? How does this change their eating habits?”). Animals can be divided into species that undergo complete metamorphosis ("holometaboly"), incomplete metamorphosis ("hemimetaboly"), or no metamorphosis ("ametaboly") (“So, metamorphosis isn't always a complete change! I wonder how that works?).

A couple of these questions, especially the last one, can't be completely answered by what you've just read—and that's good! This means you now have questions you'll be thinking about as you read the next section of the textbook.

Engage your brain in the reading, Part II.

Once you've read a paragraph or two and you've developed a few questions, it's time to make sure you know the answers. Cornell College recommends you use a highlighter, sticky notes, or notecards to write down the answers to your questions—but only once you've read the entire section first. You can't really know what part of the paragraph is important until you've read the whole thing, which means you may ask some questions while you're reading that turn out not to be very important at all. That's more than OK—asking yourself the questions means you're thinking about the material, and deciding some questions don't need to be answered means you're thinking about the material at an even deeper level.

Take a second and try this out. Print the “Insect Metamorphosis” article from Wikipedia. Then do the following:

  1. Read the paragraphs, asking yourself questions with each sentence or long phrase.
  2. Go back and find the answers to the questions and highlight them, or write them down on a sticky note or notecard.

Review everything you've understood at the end of a reading session.

Cornell College is one of many, many, MANY sources that advise you to do your reading in bits and pieces, and not in huge chunks of hours and hours at a time. You may like reading fiction for a couple of hours in a row, but that's reading for pleasure, and you won't likely get tested on the book you read at the beach. Textbook reading has some kind of final activity—a test, a paper, a presentation—that requires you to show what you know. That means it's better to read one assignment for not much more than an hour at a time, and finish the reading session by asking yourself, what are the big ideas I just learned, and what do I know about each of them?

There's a great video by College Info Geek that helps you figure out just how much detail you need to remember for any reading assignment, based on what you're going to do with the information you're learning. If you're reading to understand a new math formula, or parts of the Periodic Table, that's going to involve a lot of memorization—and we'll talk about those strategies in our study skills section. If this is more traditional textbook reading, you're more likely to get tested on this with either a test or an essay. If it's a test, details will matter more; if it's an essay, the big ideas will matter more, as long as you can include one or two examples. Understanding the big picture of what you're reading is the best way to make sure you're really reading, and not just moving your eyes. Practice this skill with every reading session.

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Reading a novel for school

Some of the rules for reading textbooks also apply to novels, short stories, or other literature you may be reading for school. If you love reading for pleasure, you might find it hard at first to apply some of these ideas to literature, since you likely may have whipped through your favorite novels in one all-night reading. That may ultimately work with your literature reading for school, but you're going to want to slow your pace at first for two important reasons:

Depth of writing

Most of the summer bestsellers that are sold at beach bookstores and airport snack areas are designed to be read in a single flight, or in a few days by the lake. This doesn't make them bad books, or less entertaining, but it does mean they may be pretty easy to understand, with less symbolism or elements of foreshadowing than you'll find in the books assigned in school. Teachers assign readings with more layers to give you examples of different kinds of writing, and that requires more time and attention than your typical vacation book.

Comparing with other books

Teachers are also more likely to assign you essays or final papers that ask you to explain the presence of a certain theme in several of the books you've read in class. This level of analysis asks you to remember examples and ideas of books long after you've read them, something most people can't do with the books they read in one sitting. This means making the time for more detailed reading—or understanding—is pretty important.

The ideas we discussed about reading a textbook also apply with novels. It's best to read them a little at a time; keep asking yourself questions as you read (which isn't hard, once you get into the book), and stop to write down ideas or highlight them once you read a few paragraphs. Depending on how the novel or literature is structured, you might be able to get away with taking notes and highlighting at the end of every chapter, but don't do too much reading before you stop to review. This may not be factually based reading, but there's still a great deal of detail to consider.

In addition to the textbook reading skills, WikiHow provides some important points to consider that are unique to reading literature. Many novels are designed in a way that the shape of the story is as important, if not more important, than the plot itself; a classic example of this is the intercalary chapters of The Grapes of Wrath. At first, it seems like there's two stories being told at once, and some would argue you can read James Steinbeck's classic in two different parts. But the two parts also interact with each other, so you have to keep thinking about that relationship as well.

If this sounds like you might need more extensive notes reading literature than reading a textbook, you may be right—that's why it's smart to add a couple of additional skills to your reading repertoire. First, you may want to keep a notebook handy, and take full-sentence notes of what you're reading. Most textbook reading can be done with a highlighter and sticky notes (although many students use a notebook there as well), but since one idea in a novel could relate to several other themes at once, it might be best to use a notebook to keep track of everything each idea represents.

Second, you may want to do a little advanced reading to give you some idea about the writing before you begin to read it. Literary criticism is created for just this purpose, where experienced readers and writers discuss the plot, structure, symbolism, metaphors, and design of a book, giving the reader some idea what they're getting into before they start reading the book. More than a review of the book, and much more than a study guide, literary criticism is the goal every English teacher has for their students, where you can understand what the book says, the way it says it, and how the book relates to other books.

If you think this sounds easy, it isn't. Take a look at this passage from that high school have-to-read, The Great Gatsby:

“…he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward – and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away…”

Using your basic textbook reading skills, you can easily get a picture in your head of where this fellow is standing—on shore, but away from the water. But if that's all there is to it, why does Fitzgerald say the light is far away—isn't that obvious?

That's the kind of question that should tell you there's more here than just a light. One analysis picks up on a commonly accepted interpretation of the green light:

To Gatsby, the green light represents his dream, which is Daisy. To attain her would be completing Gatsby's American Dream. The first time the green light is seen in the novel is also the first time Nick sees Gatsby. Fitzgerald writes, “…he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward – and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away…” The green light is described as ‘minute and far away' which makes it appear impossible to reach. This will prove to be true for Gatsby. The green light also represents society's desire and the seeming impossibility of achieving the materialistic American Dream.

If you didn't pick up on that right away, don't worry—lots of people don't. That's why people read literary criticism before taking on a major piece of literature.

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The limits of literary criticism, and plagiarism

If literary criticism sounds like the famous CliffsNotes students use to get a quick idea of the book, you're right—but only kind of. Many students use CliffsNotes, or other summaries of a book, to learn just enough about the book without actually reading the book. Other students who really aren't interested in literature don't even bother reading CliffsNotes. Instead, they just pay close attention to the discussion of the book that occurs in most English classes. Combined with taking some good notes for the small lectures the instructor gives on the book, the students use these discussions as the basis for any essay they may have to write about the book.

If that's your plan for approaching literature classes, you're going to want to be careful here. First, literature teachers read for a living, and they don't just read literature—they read reviews, literary criticism, and yes, even CliffsNotes of the literature. In addition, they too are listening to the ideas that are raised in class discussion—and if someone's idea from class is in your essay that you're claiming to be your original thought, that's plagiarism, and that's a real problem.

Most English teachers design their paper assignments and other assessments in ways that make it impossible for students to get by just reading literary criticism or casually listening to class discussion. Since they're looking for your original ideas, you need to have some in the first place before you can share them—and that generally means you have to read the book, and make it your own. Who knows? You could end up with a final essay or project that makes it to the social media Hall of Fame, like this remake of Jane Eyre.

On the other hand, if you really love to read, you might not like the idea of reading literary criticism before you read the literature, since that would spoil the experience of reading. That's a good point, especially since some students think reading the CliffsNotes or other notes ahead of time makes it harder to come up with your own ideas about the literature. If that's your concern, that's easy to fix; read the literature, develop a solid set of notes, then read the literary criticism to see what else might be there. This may require you to go back and re-read some parts of the novel or literature, but that's a widely recommended strategy anyway – and is that really a bad thing?

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Reading poetry

If you think it's a challenge to find the symbolism and hidden meanings of a novel, wait until you try your hand at reading poetry. Most of us are introduced to poetry at an early age, but most of that poetry is pretty easy to understand, and almost all of it rhymes, which makes it pretty easy to understand…

…until you run across something like this from Robert Frost (read it out loud, then listen to someone else read it:

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

What exactly do you do with this poem? It sort of rhymes, but it kind of doesn't—and the lines don't all have the same number of syllables.

Since poetry is unexplored territory for many, it's a good idea to understand why authors turn to poetry to express an idea—if they have something to say, why don't they just use regular prose?

One of the best known answers is in this clip from the film Dead Poets Society, where the teacher suggests poetry provides a level of emotion other forms of writing can't quite capture. That may not be true for all poetry, but when you engage in this rarely used version of writing, it's clear you're making people pay attention in a way they don't demonstrate when they're reading email.

The first step in reading poetry

A common suggestion for making sense of a poem is to read it out loud. This allows you to use the skills you've learned to read for understanding—like asking questions—but it also allows you to use the skills you've learned in listening. Both sets of skills will be needed to understand a poem, especially one that doesn't rhyme or use punctuation. And if you don't understand it the first time, don't worry—since most poems are much shorter than the chapter of a novel or textbook, you can re-read it several times in a short period of time. Give it a try with this poem by William Carlos Williams, This is Just to Say:

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox
and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast
Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Want to compare it to someone else's reading? Listen to someone else read the poem and then read an interpretation of the poem. Just like novels and other literature, there is a great deal of literary criticism for poets and poetry, and it's well worth reading, especially since a lot of it compares a number of poems written by the same poet all at once. That can really help you understand the major ideas, or themes, the poet worked with in a lifetime.

If you're wondering what kind of questions you should be asking as you read a poem, poets.org has a valuable list of questions under the section titled “Talking Back to a Poem”. This entire page is worth reading, since it points out some key ideas about poetry. One of the most important ideas is that, unlike textbook reading, poems often have meanings that are unique to the reader, and that's more than OK. One of the reasons students learn how to read poetry is to understand what symbols mean to them, and how they see the world. That won't always be the same from student to student, and that's what makes reading poetry, and our world, so rich and wonderful.

Speed Reading

There are two points when many students seriously consider studying the art of speed reading: the start of high school, and the start of college. Depending on the speed reading program, students can improve the pace of their reading pretty significantly, cutting their reading time to as little as one third of the time they currently need to read something.

If that sounds appealing to you, keep these points in mind as you think about taking a speed reading course:

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