In this paper, I want to look at reading and some of the techniques and strategies used to develop this essential skill. Improving your reading skills will reduce unnecessary reading time and enable you to read in a more focused and selective manner. You will also be able to increase your levels of understanding and concentration. This paper shows how to read with greater efficiency and effectiveness by using a range of different reading skills.
What is reading?
Reading is a complex activity that involves both perception and thought. Reading consists
of two related processes: word recognition and comprehension. Word recognition refers
to the process of perceiving how written symbols correspond to one’s spoken language.
Comprehension is the process of making sense of words, sentences and connected text.
Readers typically make use of background knowledge, vocabulary, grammatical knowledge, experience with text and other strategies to help them understand written text.
- a skill which enables us to get a message;
- recognizing the written words (written symbols);
- getting (understanding) the meaning;
- used to teach pronunciation;
- grasping information from texts.
There are several activities, techniques and strategies which help the reader to develop better reading skills. These techniques are discussed below.
Asking questions as a way into reading
How does your reading proceed? Clearly you try to comprehend, in the sense of identifying meanings for individual words and working out relationships between them, drawing on your implicit knowledge of English grammar. If you are unfamiliar with words or idioms, you guess at their meaning, using clues presented in the context. On the assumption that they will become relevant later, you make a mental note of discourse entities as well as possible links between them. You begin to infer a context for the text, for instance by making decisions about what kind of speech event is involved: who is making the utterance, to whom, when and where?
As you follow such interpretive strategies, which apply to all discourse (not just to literary works), you are likely to speculate about what kind of text this is: how it fits into whatever you take to be its discourse-type, or genre.
Information and reading
To read a text we must decode what the text literally says but at the same time we must bring our knowledge to the text to determine what the text actually means (to us). The knowledge that we bring can be of history, of the everyday world, of geography, of zoology or botany, of literature, of science and so on – any kind of knowledge can in principle be relevant in making sense of a literary text. Information sources are searchable collections of fragments of knowledge. They can be useful for our reading when they help us decode the text (to find the meaning of a particular word, for example) but their primary importance is that they can help us bring contextualizing knowledge to the text, particularly when we are separated from texts by history or geography and hence have drifted away from the knowledge that might have been assumed for the original readers of those texts.
Information sources come in many forms and include footnotes to a poem, a dictionary of symbols in the library, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Modern Language Association bibliography on CD-ROM, or the Internet.
The Internet offers files about authors, recordings of authors speaking, files that contain whole novels or poems that you can copy, pictures of original printings of texts, critical essays and other scholarly information, and of course files that just give any kind of relevant general knowledge. Library catalogues and the sites of bookshops and publishers can help fill out information about a particular book. Contents of journals, abstracts of articles, and lists of articles cited can be found at particular sites. The cost of this richness of information is that you have to know how to find the files you need. One approach to this is to consult a source (printed or on the Internet) that lists the addresses of files that are relevant to your interests; your library might have some suggestions of places to start. The second approach is to embrace the randomness of the Internet by using a search engine such as Google.
All information sources should be used with caution, because the information available is always partial and always selective. The information that goes into information sources has to be selected by someone, and hence the information is filtered through someone’s value judgements and can be altered through someone’s error. Thus the basic flaws of information sources are: they are partial, they are partisan, and they may misinform. When using the Internet, you should try to use sites that are most likely to be reliable, such as sites associated with government sources (often with .gov in the address) or with universities (often with .edu or .ac in the address).
Because information sources are random collections of fragmentary knowledge, the risk in consulting an information source (that you are wasting your time) is balanced by the possible rewards (that you might find a richly rewarding clue for very little effort). Information sources can generally act as ways of generating ideas and getting you unstuck if you do not know how to begin to work with a text.
Reading for study
You already use a range of reading styles in everyday situations. The normal reading style that you might use for reading a novel is to read in detail, focusing on every word in sequence from start to finish. If it is a magazine you are reading, you might flick through the pages to see which articles are of interest. When you look in a telephone directory for a particular name, you purposefully ignore all other entries and focus your attention on spotting the name you want. These everyday reading skills can be applied to your studies.
To improve your reading skills you need to: have clear reading goals; choose the right texts; use the right reading style; use note taking techniques.
Clear reading goals can significantly increase your reading efficiency. Not everything in print will be of use to you. Use reading goals to select and prioritise information according to the task in hand. Reading goals can be: an essay or seminar subject; a report brief; a selected subject area; a series of questions about a specific topic.
Use your reading goals to help you identify the information that is relevant to your current task.
If you tend to begin reading like this: “I need to read Chapter 6 – here it goes! …”, you may need to rethink your approach. Specifically, you will need to create a purpose for reading. You can create this purpose if you:
- assessment tasks
- lecture slides
- tutorial questions
- textbook questions
- questions based on lectures or tutorials
- questions based on a skim of the text
- (contents, headings, subheadings, diagrams, introductions, etc)
- what you already know
- related knowledge or experiences
Be very clear about exactly what you are looking for. Don’t just read aimlessly. Perhaps you will look for answers to questions, general understanding of a topic or issue, detailed knowledge, a range of perspectives, identification of a writer’s position, evaluation of a writer’s position, arguments that support your position, arguments that oppose your position, examples, statistics, definitions, explanations, quotes, etc. Try to have the purpose in writing nearby so you maintain focus.
Purposeful reading of this nature can help you read faster and more selectively. It can also help your concentration and your ability to remember.
Choosing a text
You will need to assess the text to see if it contains information that is relevant to your reading goals. Check the date of publication. Is the information up-to-date? Read the publisher’s blurb at the back or inside sleeve for an overview of the content. Check the contents page for relevant chapters. Look up references for your topic in the index.
If the text does not seem relevant, discard it. Once you have selected a text you can use the following techniques of scanning and skimming to help you identify areas for detailed reading.
Scanning is the technique you might use when reading a telephone directory. You pass your vision speedily over a section of text in order to find particular words or phrases that are relevant to your current task. You can scan: the introduction or preface of a text; the first or last paragraphs of chapters; the concluding or summarising chapter of a text; the book index.
Scanning is reading quickly to search for specific information. You may not realise it, but you are already good at scanning. You scan, for example, when checking a TV guide or a phone book. Scanning may allow you to ‘read’ up to 1,500 words a minute.
One reason to scan an academic text that you have found while researching is to locate key terms as a means to assess the text’s relevance.
Skimming is the process of speedy reading for general meaning. Let your eyes skip over sentences or phrases which contain detail. Concentrate on identifying the central or main points. Use this technique to: pre-view a selection of text prior to detailed reading; refresh your understanding of a selection of text following detailed reading.
Skimming is reading quickly to gain a general idea. Skimming may allow you to ‘read’ up to 1000 words a minute.
Skimming helps you identify whether or not to continue reading, what to read carefully, and where the best place is to begin. Skimming an academic text immediately before you read it carefully can help you consider what you already know and can help you develop a purpose for reading. An initial skim can also help maximise your interest in the text and your understanding and reflection on the material.
As with scanning, skimming does not involve reading every word. Instead, you may skim by reading:
- words in that are in bold, in italics or underlined
- a report’s abstract, introduction or conclusion
- the first sentence of every paragraph
- chapter questions
- chapter objectives
- chapter summaries
There will be times when you need to do more than skim a text in the way described above, but still need to read quickly. This may require ability to conduct “surface reading”.
It is worth remembering that no more than 50% of the words in an average textbook are “information” words. The other words are like glue and paint: they are there to provide connections and add interest, but are not essential for meaning. If you concentrate on information words, you can read faster and with better comprehension.
But, how do you learn to pick out the important information words? A large part of the trick involves paying attention to what the author is trying to say. Look for the message, and the information words will emerge naturally.
Watch the eyes of a friend or a member of your family while he or she is reading. You will see that they move along each line of print in a series of jerks. The pauses between the jerks are known as fixations. It is during the fixations that your eyes take in words.
Poor readers take in only one or two words in each fixation.
| This is | how a | poor | reader’s| eyes move | along | lines| of print. |
A good reader, on the other hand, takes in several words in each fixation
| This is how | a better reader’s | eyes move along | lines of print.|
Analytical reading (or study reading) is needed when you want to make sure that you fully grasp and appreciate what you are reading. You may have to read statements more than once, stop to think about them, or jot down key words when using this style. As a result, your reading rate can easily drop to below 100 words a minute.
Marking the text
If the text you are reading is your own copy, you could also underline key words, highlight with a marker, or make notes in margins, or alternatively, if you don’t own the text, you could use little ‘post-it’ labels.
This process of marking texts can help you concentrate (and keep reading!) and can help you identify key points and make the book easier to survey later when you need to use it again for your assignment or to revise for an exam. revise effectively later.
Detailed reading and note taking
Once you have selected useful information, you can begin to read in detail. Note taking techniques provide a useful aid to reading. Use: underlining and highlighting to pick out what seem to you the most central or important words and phrases. Do this in your own copy of texts or on photocopies – never on borrowed texts; keywords to record the main headings as you read. Use one or two keywords for each main point. Keywords can be used when you don’t want to mark the text; questions to encourage you to take an active approach to your reading. Record your questions as you read. They can also be used as prompts for follow up work; summaries to check you have understood what you have read. Pause after a section of text and put what you have read in your own words. Skim over the text to check the accuracy of your summary, filling in any significant gaps.
These techniques encourage an active engagement with the text as well as providing you with a useful record of your reading. Avoid passively reading large amounts of text, it does not make effective use of your time. Always use a note taking technique to increase your levels of concentration and understanding.
If you don’t take notes well, or don’t take them at all, now is the time to develop this essential skill! Note-taking can help you gain deeper understanding and reflection, a better ability to remember and good exam preparation materials for later. When taking notes, keep in mind the following 7 principles:
- Record publication details
Always note publication details of any text you may use. Specifically, record such things as the title, author, date, publisher, place of publication, URL, and page numbers.
- Preview the text before you take notes
As mentioned earlier, scan, skim and ‘surface read’ the text before noting to help you develop understanding of the text and awareness of what is important to note. Taking notes of everything is a slow, boring, ineffective exercise.
- Maintain a central place for your notes.
Where record your notes is up to you. Some people prefer using a computer, while others use flash cards, folders, or exercise books. What is important is that you will be able to find the notes and understand their layout and content a few weeks or months later.
- Paraphrase and summarise ideas
Writing out sentences word for word is probably even less useful than just highlighting sentences with a marker. Sure, they will be times you need write things word for word (use quotation marks when you do this!) but better understanding will come through putting things in your own words. Not sure how to do this? Say the key points in your own words out loud and then write them down. Finish by checking your paraphrase is clear and accurate.
- Note your thoughts
Don’t forget the great value of noting beyond just what is said in the text. Note down such things as your ideas, points you agree or disagree with, relevant experiences, questions, examples, and relationships with other texts. Those initial thoughts you have as you read may be of great use later, and it is a mistake to risk forgetting them.
- Be creative
Consider how you should note different parts of texts as well as just what you should note. The process of thinking about how to note can aid understanding as well as ability to remember information and reflect. Depending on the nature of the information you wish to note, you may choose to use spider diagrams, concept maps, titles, columns, dot points, numbers, symbols, colours, pictures or columns for your reflections.
- Review your notes
Once you have completed some notes, always look back at them and check: 1. they are accurate, 2. they are readable, 3. you will be able to use them later and 4. they contain full reference details.
Even if you are a native English speaker, you may at times feel overwhelmed by the amount of unfamiliar vocabulary you encounter. Of course, as a university student, you have a great opportunity and need to build you vocabulary (discipline specific and general), so consult glossaries and use a dictionary. Keep a list of new words: record their definitions and write example sentences which show meaning and usage.
When using your dictionary, be discerning. Know which words can be ignored, and see if it is possible to guess the meanings of words. You may be able do this if you:
- Guess using context.
- Guess using prefixes, suffixes and word stems.
Reading with others
Consider getting a “study buddy” or study group. Be careful to keep focussed on what you need to do and you may find that by sharing notes, explaining, asking and quizzing each other, you can increase you ability to understand, reflect upon and remember key points in texts.
Increasing your reading speed
It is more important to improve your reading skills than your reading speed. Being focused and selective in your reading habits will reduce the time you spend reading. If, in addition to using a range of reading skills you want to increase your reading speed, then the following technique will be of use.
The average reading speed is about 240-300 words per minute. For the average reader, the eye fixes on each word individually.
It is easy for your eye to recognise 4 or 5 words in a single fixation without a loss of understanding.
The key to increasing your reading speed is not to increase the speed at which your eyes move across the page, but to increase the word span for a single fixation. A simple way of developing the habit of taking in more than one word per fixation is to take a page of text and divide it length ways into three with two lines drawn down the page. Using a pen or pencil as a pointer, read each line of text by allowing your eye to fall only in the middle of each of the three sections, as indicated by your pointer.
Developing your reading speed
Don’t worry about how quickly you are reading but instead, concentrate on reading the line in only three fixations. As this becomes more natural, practise without drawing lines. Later, reduce the number of fixations to two per line. Once this increased word span becomes a comfortable habit, an increase in your reading speed will occur.
If in your essay you use ideas, phrases or other information taken from a book or the Internet, you should always say that you are doing so, and give a reference back to the original source. This means that, when you are gathering this information, you should always label the information with its source. If the source is printed material, you should keep detailed information on the author or editor, date, title and publisher or journal (the kind of information that you might include in a bibliography); at a minimum you must indicate in your notes and carry over into your essay the fact that the information comes from someone other than you. The same applies to material you find on the Internet, where you should in addition copy the website address (and ideally the date when you consulted it as well, as sites change). Be sure to include proper acknowledgement in your essay; if you don’t have notes on the actual source, you should still say that the words or ideas are someone else’s even if you can’t remember who they are. This means that when you write your essay there is no danger of your accidentally inserting material that is not yours into your essay as though you wrote those words or had those ideas or knew those things yourself. (If you do so, you are plagiarizing, whether accidentally or deliberately.)
Be particularly careful when making notes or working with Internet material that, if you copy and paste any material into your notes, you always put quotation marks around it to show that you are quoting.
Have a clear focus for your reading. Set your reading goals. Survey the text before you spend the time and effort involved in detailed reading. Scan and skim to select the text for detailed reading. Scan and skim after detailed reading to reinforce your understanding. Use a form of note taking whilst reading in detail, to keep you concentrating, aid understanding and provide you with a record of your reading. Using clear reading goals and a variety of reading skills is more important than increasing your reading speed. To improve your reading speed, don’t increase the speed of the eye across the page, but increase the number of words the eye recognises in a single fixation.
It is also important to remember that the goal of reading is to understand the texts and to be able to learn from them. Reading is a skill that will empower everyone who learns it. They will be able to benefit from the store of knowledge in printed materials and, ultimately, to
contribute to that knowledge.
Adams, M.J. (1990). Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Fabb, N. and Durant, A. (2005) How to Write Essays and Dissertations: A Guide for English Literature Students, Harlow: Pearson.
Fracis, H. Learning to Read, George Allen and Unwin, London, 1982.
Perfetti, C. A. (1985). Reading Ability. New York: Oxford University Press.
Williams, E, Reading in the Language Classroom, Macmillan Publishers Limited, London and Basingstoke, 1984.