How to Become a Better Reader

I know what you’re thinking – you already learned how to read in kindergarten, right? Well, reading is more than just recognizing words on a page. It involves the ability to interpret text by recognizing a writer’s intentions, perceiving what is implied but not stated, making connections between the ideas you read and personal experience or other ideas from outside the text, and drawing conclusions. In other words, efficient reading isn’t the only skill you need; you also need to read effectively, and that means reading critically. Critical reading is not simply close and careful reading. To read critically is to make judgments about how a text is argued. To read critically, one must actively recognize and analyze evidence on the page. Especially when you conduct research, you cannot read a source without being critically aware of both the information it presents and the author’s attitude, purpose, and reliability.

In this age of easily accessible information, it’s great to be able to look up anything you want to know and be able to find the answer quickly. However, the amount of information available can be overwhelming and unfortunately, misinformation is rampant – whether in newspapers, books, or on the internet. Would you like to be able to distinguish between the good information and the bad? Or do you ever get to the end of a page or chapter and realize that your mind has been wandering and you haven’t been paying attention to what you’ve been reading? The following tips will help you to read critically and become a better reader.

Pre-Reading Strategies – It’s always easier to read a passage if we have a reasonably clear notion of what it’s likely to be about. Here’s how:

Survey the Text – Look over what you intend to read so you can place it in an appropriate context and anticipate what it is likely to contain.

Title – Take note of the title, which can be an important source of information to help you anticipate content.

Author – Information about the author and his credentials can enrich your reading of a text. Recognizing an author’s name often allows you to make predictions. Professional titles, academic degrees, authorship of other publications, or information about a writer’s occupation and accomplishments may provide clues about his expertise or bias.

Date of Publication – Knowing when a text was published can help you to evaluate it and the author’s claims.

Length – Noting the length of a text can give you an indication of how thoroughly the author’s point is developed.

Section Headings – Headings and subheadings are especially useful in longer passages. Accurately predicting a text’s major ideas and organization makes reading more efficient.

Highlighted Statements – Important statements are often highlighted, providing clues to the central idea of a text.

Bold Type, Illustrations, and Captions – Words relating key concepts are often bold-faced. Other major ideas may be illustrated in charts, graphs, drawings, or photographs and explained in captions.

Recommended Techniques – Here are some suggested techniques for reading actively and with purpose:

-Look up definitions of words you don’t know.

-Make note of impressive sentences or images.

-Examine the structure or organization of the text.

-Detect recurring ideas, images, or patterns of language.

-Boil the passage down to its key points.

-Study relationships among facts, opinions, generalizations, and judgments.

-Point out internal contradictions or inconsistencies.

-Examine the treatment of opposing views. Are they ignored? Tolerated? Refuted? Ridiculed?

-Characterize the audience that the text appears to target.

-Study the context – the background information and circumstances surrounding the text.

Critical Reading Strategies – As you are reading a passage, pay attention to what it is saying. Think about how you could apply it to life, state why it is not clear, examine its logic or evidence, argue with it, consider its unstated assumptions, explain its implications and significance.

Summarize – Try to summarize the author’s ideas in your own words.

Questions – Ask questions to help identify gaps that may exist, causing confusion or arousing doubts and reservations, and places where there could be more detail or explanation.

Personal Reactions – Consider your reactions to the ideas presented in a passage or to the author’s manner of expressing them (i.e., tone, vocabulary, bias).

Extrapolations – Take a given set of facts or ideas and project, predict, or speculate about other facts or ideas that are not provided in the text.

Inferences – Draw conclusions about how the narrator reveals his views and personal character.

Speculation – Making an inference often arouses further reflection and speculation.

Elements of Style in Writing

Writing practices differ among individuals and vary according to purpose and audience. It depends on the amount of tacit knowledge that writers and readers share – that is, how much a writer can safely assume his or her readers understand without explanation. Interpretation is also affected by the writer’s ability to assess the needs and expectations of a particular audience. Good writers help their readers. They anticipate who those readers are likely to be, and they strive to be understood by them. They write clearly, using a vocabulary and style appropriate to their audience. They provide punctuation to signal pauses or to show when one idea ends and another begins. Through topic sentences and repeated key words, writers give readers clues to make reading easier. Writers also make choices in words and examples that reflect and convey their attitudes.

Diction – Study the words chosen by the author. Does the writer have a large vocabulary? High-level (formal) words indicate an intelligent target audience. Lower-level (informal) language indicates a more massive audience appeal. Does the author use emotionally charged words, or words with positive or negative connotations? For example, calling someone “skinny” produces a different response than calling someone “slender” or “thin” or “gaunt” or “emaciated.”

Tone – Attitude is the writer’s position on, or feelings about, his or her subject. The way that attitude is expressed – the voice we hear and the feelings conveyed through that voice – is the writer’s tone. A writer’s tone can be described as positive, negative, or (rarely) neutral. Authors often choose certain words to enhance the tone of their writing and express a particular attitude toward the subject. Studying the context in which a writer uses emotionally charged words helps us to understand the writer’s attitude.

Sentence Structure – Note sentence length; are the sentences long, short, or varied in length? Short sentences increase the pacing of a paper, while long sentences slow a piece down. Are the sentences simple, compound or complex and what might these constructions say about the target audience? Does the writer use sentence fragments? An overly simplistic style?

Organization – How does the author’s organization increase the audience’s understanding of the piece? Is the paper neatly organized, or does the author jump from idea to idea quickly and without warning?

Repetition – Deliberate repeating of a key word for emphasis.

Symbolism – Use of an image or object to represent an idea or something else larger than itself.

Simile – A stated comparison of two unlike objects or ideas, using the words “like” or “as” (“cheeks like roses”).

Metaphor – An implied comparison of two unlike objects or ideas, without using the words “like” or “as” (“rosy cheeks”).

Alliteration – Consecutive words that begin with the same or similar consonant sounds (“sing a song of sixpence”).

Onomatopoeia – Words that imitate a sound (bang, boom, tinkle, pitter patter, tick tock).

Personification – Human qualities given to non-human objects or animals (referring to a ship as “she”).

Malapropism – Intentional misuse of words (“Mind your own beeswax.”).

Puns – Humorous word use involving two or more interpretations of a word’s meaning.

Quotation Marks, Italics and Capital Letters – Note how the author calls attention to certain words in the piece and study how those indicators affect your reading of that particular word. Authors often use quotation marks, italics, or capital letters to call attention to an important term, or even question the usage of such terms.

Point of View – There are three main modes of narration that an author may use: first person, second person, and third person. On rare occasions, something may be written in an alternating point of view, such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island which switches between third and first person.

First Person – Speaks through the “I” of one of the characters. An author who wishes to use a first-person narrative must decide which character’s actions and feelings should influence the story. (uses the pronouns “I” and “we”)

Second Person – Uses the pronoun “you” because instructions are being given directly to you, the reader. The use of second person should be avoided in formal or scholarly writing. It should be reserved for writings of direct address – such as personal letters or documents that give specific instructions.

Third Person – Provides the greatest flexibility to the author and thus is the most commonly used narrative mode in literature. A third person narrative mode (“he she, they, it”) can be further subdivided into three distinct points of view:

Third Person Objective – This point of view lets actions speak for themselves. The author describes only the characters’ actions, and readers must infer the characters’ thoughts and feelings.

Third Person Omniscient – In this point of view, the author is not restricted to the knowledge, experiences, and feelings of one person. The feelings and thoughts of all characters can be revealed.

Third Person Limited Omniscient – This point of view concentrates on the experiences of one character but has the options to be all-knowing about other characters. A limited omniscient point of view may clarify conflicts and actions that would be less understandable in a first-person narrative.

These tips will help you to become a better reader. Want to become a better writer? Get The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.

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