Ways of reading
There are different ways to read. How we read depends on what we read, but also on the purpose of the reading. If we read for an exam, the purpose is to remember and understand the most important things in what we read. If we read to find material for a homework assignment, the purpose is to find material that is relevant to the issue in the assignment. In both cases, it is useful to have a reflective relationship with the argumentation in the texts. What is the main claim? What are the arguments for and against this claim?
When you read a novel for pleasure, you can immerse yourself in the story, get to know the characters, and wonder how things will turn out for them. A reader analysing a novel, however, looks for answers to specific questions. How is the narrative structured? How are the characters introduced and described? What literary devices does the author use? What type of novel is it?
Engage in dialogue with the texts you read. Studying involves not only gaining knowledge, but learning to employ it in different manners and situations. All your reading is ultimately directed towards writing something, be it a presentation for your study group, a semester assignment, a project report, an exam paper, or a thesis.
Orientation, or research
If your goal is to acquire general knowledge about a new subject or topic, then you read in breadth more than in depth. You might start with Google, Wikipedia, reference lists or citations, and going to the library.
In such an independent and broad orientation (we often say «research»), it is important to assess the reliability of the sources you use. To evaluate online sources, cross-reading can be useful. Cross-reading is a way of reading inspired by professional fact-checkers. Relevant questions you can ask for academic cross-reading can be found under Source assessment.
Remember: the text is an aid. A good reader is an active reader. It is not the text that should think for you, but you who should think with the help of the text.
If the goal is to use what you read to write an assignment, you must eventually read in a more focused way. Look for material that is relevant to the assignment’s theme and problem, and read in depth with a conscious purpose. The next step is to enter into a dialogue with what you read, for example by analysing the argument, the method or other important features of the text (more about argumentation can be found undeunder Writing.
Read to write well
When you read other people’s academic texts, you can learn a lot from looking at structure, sentence structure, word choice and argumentation. It is almost impossible to write a good, academic text if you have never read one.
Reading a text in several different ways
Practice being an active reader. Try to vary your ways of reading. One recommended strategy is to read the same text several times, each time in a different way.
Reading a text several times
- Familiarise yourself with the text. Browse through the text – form a provisional opinion of its genre and subject. If it is an article, look at the headings, subheadings, the summary and the reference list. If it is a book, study the table of contents, the foreword, the subject index, the names index, the back cover blurb and anything else that describes the text. Read some isolated paragraphs, for example, read the first and last paragraphs of an article or the opening paragraph of each chapter in a book. By doing this you will be better prepared when you actually read the book, as you already have an idea of its contents.
- Read quickly through the text. The next step is to quickly read through the whole text. Do not take notes yet (although you may add some small symbols in the margin – dots, lines, exclamation marks – to mark particular points of interest). If you do not understand everything, keep reading. If you do not understand anything at all, keep reading. You will get more than one chance to return to the text later. If you are reading a book, apply this strategy to, for example, one chapter at a time. It often helps to deal with the text in smaller chunks when reading books or other long texts (such as theses or official reports).
- Read the text closely. Immerse yourself in the text. You are now reading to understand the text to the best of your abilities. Get a pen and paper – or open your laptop. Take notes while reading. Print your computer notes once finished. Keep all your notes together in a file. Over the course of the semester, build an archive of notes on the reading list. This archive is worth its weight in gold when preparing for exams, writing your thesis, or recalling what you studied in a previous semester. In addition, your archive is already providing you with a motivation to keep reading – you need to expand your archive!
- Read for repetition. Once you have familiarised yourself with the text, have read quickly through it, and have read the text closely, you can put the text aside. When you return to the text, for example the following week, you can read it through quickly. You will probably perceive the text a little differently then.
Ask the text questions. Try to “force” it to provide you with answers. Trying to clarify something you wonder about or do not understand while reading makes the reading both easier and more interesting. Ask different questions depending on why you are reading, from general questions about the text’s agenda, message and argumentation, to the specifics of particular words and concepts, or what an example in the text intends to illustrate. The idea is not that the text will think for you, but that you use it as an aid in thinking about your topic and your thesis.
Syllabus (reading list)
When you read the syllabus, you can mostly trust that others have done a thorough source assessment for you. It is nevertheless useful to ask critical questions beyond the content of the syllabus texts, such as: Why is this text on the syllabus? How does this text fit with the subject description and expected learning outcomes of this course?
Consider a text you have on the syllabus, and first ask (to familiarise yourself): What is the theme? Why is this text on the syllabus?
You can then go more in-depth and find answers to questions such as: What is the research question? What does the author think is the best answer to it? How does the author arrive at this answer?