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Tom Siebold

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Effective Reading

At the foundation of almost any college class is the textbook.  Perhaps the first step toward a comprehensive reading of a textbook is to have faith that, if you let it, it will offer up something valuable for you: knowledge, insight, inspiration, surprises, and/or a doorway into greater self-awareness.

You must remember however that reading a textbook is not a passive activity.  You can’t just open the cover and expect that information will pour forth into your brain like liquid flowing from one vessel into another.  Indeed, a textbook needs to be attacked actively.  This means that the second step toward cracking a text is a well-conceived study strategy. 

Below is a three-phase textbook study strategy that will help you gain as much as you can from your school books.

Phase One: Orientation

Before you begin reading the text assignment, take a moment to prepare yourself for what you are about to encounter.  Like a long distance runner, you need to warm up—stretch out, assess the course, and know what to expect.  Follow these simple warm up exercises.

A. Glean a feeling for the writer’ purpose and his general topic.  To do this you may want to read the preface to the text.  Here you will find some insight into the motivation of the writer and his purpose for writing the book.  The meaning and enjoyment you get from a work will be enhanced if you have an understanding of the author’s point of view.  It is essential then to ask yourself “What is the text about (the general topic) and what is the author attempting to do with it?”

B. If there is an introduction to your assigned chapter, read it first.  Moreover, if there is a summary or concluding statement, read it.  Both the introduction and summary will give you an important overview of the topic at hand.  Before you move on ask yourself what you already know about the topic.  Even if you don’t know a thing, at least by asking the question you will prepare your mind to absorb something new.

C. Next, quickly skim through the reading noting section headings, italicized statements, and paragraph highlights. Don’t forget to take  brief look at any charts, diagrams, pictures, and/or tables.  This skimming process will give you a feeling for the territory and help you establish familiar “signposts” as you journey through the reading.  Similarly, take a moment to assess the writer’s language. Is it precise, technical, emotional, picturesque, metaphorical, factual,  etc.?  The more you know before you begin, the more meaningful your reading will be.

D. Now that you are oriented to the reading you must take one last step; you should determine your approach to the assignment.  This means answering the following questions:  How does this assignment fit into the overall scheme of the class?  What does the teacher expect you to gain from the assigned reading? How much time will you give to this assignment? How important is this assignment and is it testable material?  And will you come back to this material later for a second reading and/or skimming.  In other words, be sure that you know what needs to be done and why.

Phase Two: An Active Reading of the Assignment

One major point cannot be stressed enough in this section: reading is an active endeavor requiring that you get involved in the communication process.  One of the best ways to do this is to engage yourself in a dialogue with the author.  Imagine that he is in the room with you as you read; questions him, challenge him, try to anticipate his next move, and summarize his key points as you read.

The best way to begin this dialogue process is to turn the heading of each section into a question and allow your mind to determine logical follow-up questions.  For example, your history of the Middle Ages textbook might have a heading that reads, “Organization of Medieval Villages: The Manor.”  Your question before you begin reading may be stated as “In what ways did the manor serve as an organizer for Medieval villages?”  Now let your mind speculate on this question; undoubtedly numerous follow-up questions will logically emerge: “How did a manorial organization evolve?”  “What is the structure of the manor?”  “What was life like in the manor?” “What roles did the peasants play in the manor?”  “Who ruled the manor?”  “How were rules enforced?” “What were the relationships between the villagers and the rulers of the manor?”  “What was everyday life like in the manor?”

Although not all of these questions will necessarily be answered in the reading, the fact that you are actively focusing your mind on the topic will keep your reading active.  Look for answers, continually frame questions, be hard on the author by demanding a response to your inquires.  It is this kind of active reading that will keep you involved and stimulated.

At the end of each section you may want to take a moment to ask two important review questions:  1. What is the main point of what you just read?  2. How is this main point supported?   If the answers to these questions aren’t immediately evident, perhaps you need to reread the section.  This kind of spot check will work as an antidote to a reading disease call “message hypnotism.”  No doubt you’ve experience it; the eyes keep working, time passes, and you move further down the page only to discover that you have no idea what you’ve read.

Active reading also requires you to use your text aggressively.  Yes, your texts are very expensive and they deserve your respect, but they are tools for you to use, so go ahead and mark them, write in them, color them if you want to, but use them.  All good students develop a system of marking their texts so they can review the material later for tests.  This is an important skill so be sure to check out Textbook Note Taking

Phase Three: The Self-Lecture

At the end of your reading assignment, it is important that you solidify the material by reviewing it in its totality.  One effective way to do this is to present a self-lecture.  Here you imagine that you are the instructor (model yourself after your favorite teacher) and present a mini-lecture on the material you have just learned.  Keep in mind some simple but important mini-lecture guidelines:

1. Summarize the material in your own words.

2. Outline all major points.

3. Review supporting details for major points.

4. Answer you’re heading questions (see Phase Two)

5. Present the mini-lecture out loud (if you can without embarrassment)

6. Answer student questions from your imaginary listeners.

7. Keep the mini-lecture short and to the point.

8. Upon completion, check your accuracy with the text.

Tip: Polish your reading assignment by giving it the “one day tune up.”  Allow your reading to settle overnight and the next day fine tune those areas that gave you some trouble.  This follow up review need not be long or involved; simply screw down that which needs tightening.