Strategies for Engaged Reading
College students in their first year at UW often say that managing the level of college reading is the biggest leap they make in the "schoolwork" transition from high school. Many first-year students don't realize that they'll need to develop entirely new strategies than the ones they used in high school. Effective reading demands mental activity before reading, during, and afterwards.
Starting a reading without a clue about the topic or what you might want to focus on can feel like accidentally walking into a room after a discussion has already started. It takes a great deal more energy to get invested in a topic when you don't have any background or guidance for participating in the conversation. Most of your success in reading will depend on how well you understand the conversation surrounding the reading and your reason (or focus) as you begin.
What you can (and should!) ask the teacher to provide:
- Questions to help you focus on key "stuff" as you read
- Some background or context on the topic or argument of the reading
- A sense for how the reading will be used in class activities or assignments
What you can do before reading:
- Take a few minutes to look up the author on the internet.
- Read the title and think about your own understanding and experiences with the topic.
- Skim the reading by looking at the introduction, first sentences of sub-sections and paragraphs, and reading the last paragraph or two. Taking 5 minutes to get a feel for the reading will help you form a "mental map" that will strengthen your recall and understanding as you read.
- Consider the unit within the class and how this reading fits into the whole.
The challenge of learning to read college-level texts is similar to the challenge of any new activity (sports, tough video games, navigating a new city, learning a new math problem, etc.). The key is persistence, and a willingness to make changes to your technique. In college courses, becoming a stronger reader involves two processes. The first is controlling the external environment, and the second part is your internal approach--helping your mind respond to the ideas as you read, to remember and form thoughts actively.
- Read in a spot that is comfortable for you and gets you in the "schoolwork" mood. Try blocking out time between classes, during daylight, and finding a place in the library.
- Decide ahead of time the length of time you'll read in one session (30 min., 45, 1 hour, etc.). Stop reading when you are no longer concentrating, even if you haven't finished out the session (you will slowly increase this time over a period of weeks).
- Eliminate distractions for the amount of time you've planned, including cell phone, internet, visitors, and TV. If you are working several hours, reward yourself between work sessions with a small chunk of time for relaxing stuff.
- Form a committed reading group of 3 or 4 participants. Question, comment, argue, reflect as a team. Divide the text into manageable sections. Take a break between sections.
- Break up readings over more than one day or one sitting.
- Read every day. Make it part of your college routine.
- Keep a few guiding questions in your mind as you read, especially the questions outlined by the instructor. Sometimes narrowing complicated questions to few words or catch-phrases will help you focus on several specific ideas.
- Annotate your reading. This means writing in your book AS you read. Research shows that writing actual words and symbols in the margins will increase your memory of the reading significantly. (Interestingly, underlining or highlighting alone do very little to improve your retention of new material). Many students report that this is the best habit for creating an easy study guide, not to mention creating a quick-reference for class discussion, quizzes, and paper ideas. Some of the ideas you'll want to capture in your annotations include:
- Main ideas. Note these in the margins in one-to-three words. Pay attention to what you see as the "big" argument or idea of the reading as well as the most important details or evidence.
- Connections to other stuff in class, or to your own knowledge of the topic.
- Thoughts or knee-jerk reactions that come up as you read (try using symbols for reactions such as agree, disagree, have a question, this is important, etc.)
- Words or concepts you are not familiar with. Look these up as often as possible.
- Examples, data, and other evidence: What do they explain or clarify, and how do they do it?
- Outside sources: Who are they? What is their credibility? Are the sources biased?
- Organization and Structure: How does the writer set the essay up? Why?
- Unanswered questions: What does the writer avoid or omit? Why?
- Tone: What is the writer's attitude about the topic? What emotions is he or she trying to evoke? Why?
- Keep a "double-entry log" for class readings. For each reading, write the title and author of the reading at the top, and draw a line down the center of a page. On the left side, list page numbers and main ideas from the reading; on the right, jot down explanations, definitions, reactions, or important ideas you want to remember. This can take more time than annotating on the page, but it is also a more thorough way to track key ideas and thoughts about a reading.
Finishing a complicated reading is often a relief, but research shows that spending even a few minutes of time after reading can help readers solidify major ideas in their mind. This is especially important in classes where you'll be expected to know and remember information over several weeks or even the entire semester. Some post-reading strategies include these:
- Discuss the reading. Talk with friends and family about what you are reading. This will make the reading spread into other parts of your brain and inspire deep thinking--not to mention sparking some good discussion!
- Write a summary, focusing on the writer's purpose (why the writer has written the piece), intent/message/claim (the specific message the writer wants to communicate to the reader) and key concepts.
- Review the material. Complex readings often become more clear when you leave the reading for awhile and then return to look again at your own notes and important parts of the reading. If possible, get a head start on the readings, give yourself time to absorb the information, let your subconscious work, and then put the pieces together. Try spending 20 minutes or so re-viewing a reading 1-2 days after finishing it.
- Visually map out important information. Another way to increase understanding of a reading is to create a visual of key ideas immediately after you've read it. If you've ever studied for a memorization exam or tried to get around an unfamiliar city without a map, you know two things: (1) repeating or "playing back" something immediately after you see or hear it will make it much easier to remember, and (2) having a visual is often the best way to understand complicated material. There are many ways to "map" a reading, but the common parts include:
- Summarizing the biggest ideas and arguments in a central place on the page
- Capturing sub-ideas and important evidence with branches out from the top-level ideas, and using arrows to trace connections among them
- Inserting your own thoughts, responses, and connections to other readings using bubbles or other highlighting technique