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26 Reading Strategies

Practicing the strategies described below should expand your skills as a reader and the ways you think about reading. The primary goal of this handout is to help students become active, thinking readers who have a rich repertoire of strategies for dealing with and comprehending even the most demanding texts.

Mumbling. While you are reading, actually voice the words, speaking clearly enough that you can just hear the words you are reading to yourself. Give some inflection to your voice so you are not reading everything in a monotone, but keep your voice relatively quiet. Do not read with a full, loud voice. It is probably best to try this strategy in some location where your mumbling will not bother others. [Keep in mind that silent reading of texts is a fairly recent development. Prior to the 15th century, very few people read silently. If you visited a medieval monastery, for example, you would have found all of the monks mumbling the words while reading. The assumption was that to read, you needed to hear the words--and so nearly all reading was done aloud.]

Underlining Key Words/Rereading. This strategy depends upon you planning to read a piece two times. The first time through the text, try to maintain a smooth, even reading tempo. But keep a pencil handy, and underline or put a check in the margins for identifying what you suspect are keywords in the piece or new words that you don't recognize. After you finish, go back through the text. Think about the significance of the key words or marked phrases. Look up unfamiliar words and write the appropriate definitions in the margins. Now reread the piece, focusing your attention on details and insights unnoticed during the first reading.

Start with the Conclusion. Read the conclusion of the text first. You can decide how much of the conclusion you want to read, but select a long enough passage so you can gain some idea of what is happening. If you choose a ten-page essay, you might read the last 3-4 paragraphs; if a two-page poem, perhaps the last 20-25 lines. After you've read the conclusion, go to the beginning and read the piece all the way through. While reading, keep in mind what you know about the conclusion and consider how the pieces of text you are reading might somehow prepare the reader for that ending.

Kinesthetic Reading. Most of the time when we are reading, we are sitting down or lying on a bed or scrunched up on a sofa. For this reading strategy, you need to be up and about. This exercise would probably work best with a fairly short passage, no more than 3-4 pages. While reading, read with your entire body. Feel the words in your body. Allow yourself to move around, to walk, to pace, even to dance. Think of the words as instructions for dancing. Use your body movements as a way to interpret the text or to give emphasis to key moments.

Reading on a Walk. Take your book and go for a walk (this is a strategy that works better in June than in January). During the walk, stop a few times and read from your text. Then continue walking. Or you can go for a walk, find a nice cozy bench or swing, and read the entire text in one sitting. But periodically refresh yourself. Stop looking at the words and enjoy the spring flowers or fall leaves, the squirrels planting acorns, the clouds above the trees. Relax and read some more.

Stopping at Predetermined Reflection Points. Before starting the text, mark one or more points in the text where you will stop and reflect on what you have read so far. When you reach a reflection point, stop and think about what you have encountered. Do some quick review, skimming through the portions you have read to remind yourself of details or key points you may have forgotten. In the margins write some brief notes to summarize what you have so far. Then continue to the next reflection point.

Visualizing Yourself as a Reader. We often allow negative thoughts and mental baggage to interfere with our comprehension of a text. It's difficult to enjoy playing basketball if you are constantly telling yourself how you hate basketball and how lousy you are as a player. Maybe by the standards of Michael Jordan you are not a great basketball player, but we don't have to be the best in order to gain value from what we are doing. When a task is at hand, just do the task. That doing can be helped if you visualize yourself succeeding at this task. Reading can be helped by an ability to see yourself as a reader. Before you begin reading a text, create a mental picture of yourself reading the piece. See yourself as a confident reader, someone who knows how to handle difficult challenges. No need to be cocky, just a sense that you can handle this text. And then start reading. And when your concentration drops or various kinds of interference interrupt your thoughts, stop reading, focus on the interference for a moment, tell it to go away, wipe it from the mind, and return to the text, again seeing yourself as the reader.

Reading Inductively/Deductively. To read inductively is to move from specifics to generalizations, to use details and examples for creating conclusions, to discover the thesis of the text, the controlling ideas. To read deductively is to begin with generalizations, the thesis, the main point(s) and then to read for purposes of acquiring evidence to test the thesis, determining its accuracy or appropriateness. As a simple rule of thumb, we begin new texts by reading inductively, using the text to give us clues on grasping the text messages. At some point we construct a hypothesis for telling ourselves what this essay or story or poem or book chapter is about. That hypothesis may come as soon as we read the title; it may come when we finish reading the first paragraph or the first page or when we finish the text--or perhaps such an insight never arrives. But usually at some moment in the text there will be a shift in our reading: we grasp the author's message and then our reading process shifts, taking in new data from the text and plugging that new information into the schema or plan that the mind has created for this text (a creation based on discoveries while reading). With this inductive/deductive model in mind, try reading an unfamiliar text. As you are reading, occasionally think about which kind of reading you are doing: inductive or deductive?

The Special Reading Place. Find somewhere new to read, somewhere you have never previously spent any time, some place that is quiet and secluded, free of any likely interruptions. There are several rarely used areas in the library, many classrooms at night that have no one in them. Or perhaps you want to find a noisy place that is so filled with noise that you can block out the distractions. You might also consider a few places off campus; Wendy's could be a great place to go for a drink, a few fries or a caesar salad (for the health conscious types), and virtually no one to bother you. Once you are settled, pull out the book and start reading. And then return to this same place on at least two more occasions; and be precise about where you sit--not just in the PUB but the same chair at the same table. Wherever you choose, do nothing here but read. No other studying allowed. No stereo music. No distractions. Nothing but reading. See if the place begins to invite reading, that once you enter this space, you assume the reader's frame of mind. Can we become better readers by changing our environment?

Reading Aloud to Someone. This is another strategy that will probably work best with a short piece or an excerpt from a longer piece; it also depends on going through a text two times. You need a reading partner, someone willing to listen to you read and talk with you about the piece. Partners can be roommates, friends, other students in the same class, Writing Center consultants (who are paid to do this stuff).

Someone Reading Aloud to You. Same process as above, except this time your partner reads the text aloud to you. All the other aspects of the strategy remain the same, including the conversation after the reading is done.

Skimming/Reading. Take a few minutes to skim through the text. While skimming, look for repeated names of people, names of organizations, recurrent words or phrases that might be important. When you are done with your skimming, spend a few moments guessing what is covered in this piece. What have you learned so far and what are you expecting to find when you read the complete text? Once you have thought about the text, read it straight through, tracking how your reading corrects or modifies or completes your initial impression. Focus on the new information you are acquiring and how this fits with what you learned from skimming.

Marginal Notes: Talking with the Text. While reading, jot down notes about the text in the white space around the text. The nature of the marginal notes are up to you. Notes can be summaries of important ideas, comments on ideas, brief quotes of interesting or puzzling passages, insights or responses or ideas you have while reading, etc.

Annotating a Text. This is a technique for marking a text so the structure and main points or illustrations are highlighted. A reader can develop a personalized annotation system unique to the persona's individual reading habits. Here are a few annotation techniques that might prove beneficial:
Circle the thesis or key themes.
Insert brackets around key supporting points.
Underline key details and examples.
Use marginal symbols to indicate personal feelings or insights about the passage. For example:
N.B. for the Latin phrase nota bene, "mark well"; used to identify important, notable passages.
Question marks for passages that are confusing or vague.
Cf for "confer" points: noting instances when the marked passages connect with some other passage in this text or another text.
Whatever annotation system you devise, it's a good idea to keep it simple and flexible.

A Reward. Before reading your selected piece, determine a reward you will give yourself for the successful completion of the assignment. You determine the appropriate reward, whether food or 15 minutes watching TV or shooting pool with a professor. But be honest with yourself: don't give yourself the reward until you have read and understood the text you choose for yourself. No prize until you've earned the prize.

Hearing the Text Inside Your Head. While reading the text, listen to the voice inside your head reading the text. Be sure you can actually hear that voice and that the voice has a natural inflection, a sense of phrasing and rhythm. If the voice has trouble with a passage, don't hesitate to stop and reread. Listen to how your internal speaker handles the language. Don't forget to think about the meaning of the words, but also remain aware of how meaning is delivered through the sound of a voice and the way sentences are phrased and given life by the voice.

Visualizing the Text. While reading, visualize what is happening, see the landscape, the people, their actions. If the text is primarily abstractions and ideas, try to visualize the ideas in some way--or perhaps visualize the person delivering these ideas to you. You might imagine that you are creating a movie of the piece in your head, treating the text as a script. While reading or after you finish the text, make some simple drawings of events or people or places in the margins, some visual cues to help you remember what you've been reading.

Talking Through a Text. This strategy may be useful when encountering a complex or ambiguous text. Find a partner and the two of you work through a text together, perhaps line by line or sentence by sentence. As you proceed through the poem or essay or chapter, talk about any word or phrase or image that is puzzling or intriguing. Work together in constructing the text's meaning. Feel free to jot down notes if that helps.

Reading and Rereading. Read an essay, story, article, or poem using any strategies that feels most appropriate. Let the text sit unread for a few days and then reread the piece again. What did you remember? How was the second reading different from the first? Were you surprised by any discoveries in the second reading, seeing things that you don't believe you saw the first time

Rumination. Reading involves not only the time when you are looking at a text but also the process of thinking and reworking the text and its ideas long after you have closed the book. The process is perhaps analogous to cattle that eat their grass or hay (reading the words on the page) and then lie down to regurgitate their food and rechew what they had swallowed (what the writer Sven Birkerts calls "shadow reading"--thinking about the text after it has been translated from words on the page to images and ideas in the mind). For this experiment, set aside time to do both kinds of reading. Begin by reading the words on the page, using whatever strategy seems most helpful. When you are finished, close the book and do something else. But on 2-3 occasions later in the day or the next day, set aside a few minutes to think about what you have read. See how much of the text you can reconstruct without looking at it. And spend some time really thinking about the meaning of the text, its implications and applications, the possible connections between this text and other things you've read or thought about. After being away from the text for a couple days, reread it, this time comparing what you now see with what you were thinking about in the "shadow reading" phase.

Spotting Key Words. In an initial encounter with a text, skim through a text, underlining suspected key words. Be on the lookout for new or unfamiliar words, phrases, or terms and underline them. Do this for several pages of the composition, and then go back and look up any unfamiliar words or phrases. Write marginal notes explaining/defining what you learn from your dictionary or another source. Now read through the piece. Does the initial preparation help you read those pages and the remaining text more effectively? Did you notice a significant difference in comprehension or interest when you moved into the previously unexplored text?

Twenty Details. If you are reading a text you find remarkably dry and boring, play a game of twenty details. While reading, place a checkmark next to any passage that expresses an idea or insight that you suspect the author thought was important. A simple rule of thumb: minimum of one check mark per page. When you have twenty check marks, quickly review what you discovered. Try to construct some connections among these twenty passages you have marked. You might write a simple commentary or summary of what you discovered. Then repeat twenty details game or try reading the text with normal rhythms.

End of Text Summary. When you are finished reading the story, poem, or essay, write a paragraph in the margin or at the end of the composition, summarizing what strikes you as most interesting or appealing or puzzling about this composition.

Mapping a Text. During and after reading your text, draw a reading map, a visual representation, of the structure or main ideas in a text. A map can be as simple as a list of key ideas or it can be a complex, symbolic representation of a text's internal relationships and patterns. A useful technique for many readers is to draw a web. Place a key term from the text in a circle in the middle of a page. Then start drawing interconnected circles and boxes of ideas and details drawn from the text. This can also be an excellent technique to use when you are preparing to write a paper about a text.

Commonplace Book. Keep a notebook handy for writing down new words, their definitions, and reflections on the words' meanings and how you might use them. It is also a good idea to copy the passage where you encountered the word. You can also use the Commonplace Book for recording interesting quotes, ideas, and insights you want to remember from your reading. By keeping these quotes and ideas in a "common place," you increase the likelihood of remembering and being able to retrieve what you have read.

Share Your Reading Experiences. Get in the habit of talking with people about texts you have recently read. If you think of reading as having a conversation with a writer, then it’s only natural that you share the results of that conversation with other people. The more you talk about your reading, the easier it will be to do more reading.