2 Reading Effectively

Rosie the Riveter. A white woman in work clothes and a bandana on her head. She flexes her right arm.Now that we know what a text can be, we will move on to reading in the traditional sense: moving our eyes across printed words on a page. Good reading skills help us to analyze material better and to become stronger writers. Every time you read, you’re exposed to someone else’s ideas and to their way of writing: their word choice, vocabulary, knowledge base, use of language, and so forth.

Vote: Do you enjoy reading? I cast this vote to all my classes. I frequently hear the response that many students feel that they don’t like reading, or that they are bad at it. By the end of the semester, I pose the vote again, and there is (usually) a marked decrease in negative feelings about reading. You can do it!

Reading: What NOT to Do

  •  DON’T treat all reading situations the same.
    • DO: first, understand what type of material you are reading, and for what purpose.
    • “Reading” a Science-based textbook to study the night before an exam is a completely different situation than reading the assigned chapter of the same textbook in preparation for the week’s class on the material.  And both of those reading situations are completely different from reading a novel for your English course.
  • DON’T pick up the text, turn directly to page one, and begin reading, aiming to go straight from beginning to end.
    • Why it’s not a good idea: consider that Science textbook above—there is no way you are going to get through the whole text the night before the exam AND understand the information AND retain it, nor do you need to read every single word in order to study.
    • How about a novel? Yes, you should read an entire novel that is assigned to you, but you don’t have to go into it blind and try to figure out what is going on word by word, sentence by sentence, page by page. Prereading techniques will set you up to get the most out of the novel as you read.
  • DON’T try to read for just a few minutes at a time.
    • When we change from one task to another, we have a few minutes of lag time, or change-over time while we close our minds off from what we were doing before AND while we transfer our focus to the new task. If you plan to read in 5-minute time intervals, you only have about 2-3 minutes of reading time. But, you might be looking forward to the interval ending soon, so you will likely be less focused on your reading even then.
    •  DO set yourself a longer interval of reading time. I recommend to my students 20 minutes minimum and 40 minutes plus if you’re really into it. Don’t stop when you’re on a roll even if your timer goes off!
      • Why it’s a good idea: 1) you will spend so much more time actually reading once you’ve finished your lag time switching to this new task; 2) you will get into the rhythm of the material and will be able to read more quickly as each page passes; and 3) you will read enough to get a greater context and better understand what is going on.
      • A good idea is to divide the total pages assigned by the number of available days, figuring out how many pages you’ll need to read each day to finish the assignment. Sometimes approaching the text in smaller pieces like this can make it feel more doable. Also, once you figure out how long it takes you to read, say, five pages, you can predict how much time it will take to read a larger section.
        • For the above tip, don’t start reading so far in advance that you will forget what you read, or that you read in tiny tiny increments for many many days.
  • DON’T look up words or do research as you are in the middle of a sentence or thought.
    • Why it’s not a good idea: Think about the rhythm you got going by using the tip above—gone when you screech to a halt, pull out your phone and type into Google, or pull out a print dictionary to look something up.
    • Also, you undermine your confidence in being able to understand the material by using context clues or by your own previous knowledge or relatable experiences.
    • PLUS, do you think that one word holds the key to the entire thing you are reading? Probably not. There are hundreds and thousands and even hundreds of thousands of words in texts; you probably  don’t need to know what every single one of them means.
    • DO make quick notes alongside the text to go back and clarify the areas that you found unclear AFTER you have finished your 20-40+ minute reading session.
  • DON’T be stressed and stop reading altogether if you don’t understand what is going on (related to above).
    • Why it’s not a good idea: You might fool yourself into thinking that if you don’t understand what you’re reading, what the point in continuing?
    • First of all, you might not be misunderstanding as much as you think you are. The chances are very high that you are reading a text with the goal of using it for further learning. You can either check back on a lesson you had before this reading assignment, or wait for the follow-up lesson; then you can clarify what you still have concerns about.
    • You definitely will understand nothing if you read nothing, so… keep reading!
    • Make sure to talk with your teacher. Let them know you don’t understand the reading, and they should be able to help.
  • DON’T let strong opinions about the material make you stop reading.
    • DO keep an open mind. The philosopher Aristotle was known for saying, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” As a college student, you must be ready to explore and examine a wide range of ideas, whether you agree with them or not. In approaching texts with an open and willing mind, you leave yourself ready to engage with a wide world of ideas—many of which you may not have encountered before. This is what college is all about.
  • DON’T skip or brush off reading in subject areas that are not your chosen field of study.
    • Why it’s not a good idea: all classes that you take in college will count towards your GPA, and that always matters; so don’t cheat yourself out of the best possible overall transcript because a few of your classes are not “relevant” to your future goals.
    • It’s good for you to read a wide variety of texts. You don’t just increase our knowledge base—you also make your mind work. This kind of “mental exercise” teaches the brain and prepares it to deal with all kinds of critical and innovative thinking. It also helps train us to different reading and writing tasks, even when they’re not familiar to us. And it builds healthy discipline.

How Do You Become an Effective Reader?

  1. First, read every day. And vary the materials you read: a book, a magazine article, an online blog, even signs you see while taking transit or in shop windows. Try readings things that are a little challenging. In other words, don’t just vary the subject matter—vary the difficulty, too. Stretch!
  2. Second, learn and practice the skills of effective reading (which are explained below in this section and in their own chapters).
  3. Third, learn and practice the skill of reading critically. To learn more, see Reading Critically.
  4. Fourth, keep reading. Yes, every day, putting your skills to work. (Practice makes perfect!)

Reading effectively means reading in a way that helps you understand, evaluate, and reflect on a written text. As you might guess, these skills are very important to college students; no matter what field you’re going into, you’ll be doing a lot of reading. The more effectively you read, the easier it’ll be, the less time it will take, and the more you’ll enjoy the experience.

Skills of Effective Reading

  • Start by creating an optimal setting for reading: pick the best time, place, and conditions to create a reading environment that helps decrease distraction.
  • Engage in pre-reading strategies before starting to read (see pre-reading strategies later in this section)
  • Read material efficiently: pick up a piece of material, engage actively with it, and finish.
  • Annotate written texts (in other words, they write directly on the texts) or take notes as they read. By doing this, you enter into a discussion with the text, interacting with it.
  • Research or investigate content you don’t fully understand, but not until AFTER you have finished reading the portion you have set for yourself.
  • Work to discover the central meaning of the piece. Ask yourself:
    • What is the author’s point?
    • What is the text trying to say?
    • How does the author create and build this meaning?
  • Reflect on what the text means to you, internalizing the meaning:
    • How am I responding to this text?
    • Why am I responding that way?
    • What does the text make me think about?
    • What does this information mean to me?
    • What past experience can I anchor this text to in my brain to increase understanding and retention?

Text Attributions

  • Text under “How Do You Become an Effective Reader” and “Skills of Effective Reading” were adapted from “Read Effectively” in The Word on College Reading and Writing by Carol Burnell, Jaime Wood, Monique Babin, Susan Pesznecker, and Nicole Rosevear, which is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 Licence. Adapted by Allison Kilgannon.

Media Attributions



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