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Engaging with your reading list

Posted on: August 28, 2020

When you approach reading it is wise to think about why you are doing it. Are you studying a topic for the first time, preparing for a seminar or lecture? Or are you reading for an essay or research paper? Are you simply reading to learn more? In each of these cases you will want to read a little differently. That may sound strange - surely reading is simply casting your eyes over word after word and understanding their meaning?

Reading academically involves a little more than that. You’re doing what is termed ‘active reading’, where you are engaging critically with the text. As you read you are constantly asking questions of the material. Questions such as:

  • What is the author trying to say?
  • Do I agree with what is being said? If not, why do I disagree?
  • Is it logical?
  • What thoughts and ideas is my reading generating?

Young female student reading book at a table in library

Once you have established your purpose for reading you can think about your approach. For example, if you are reading as preparation for an essay or research project you will need to read a narrow range of books in depth. Look outside the one or two assigned textbooks for your course and consider the wider reading list that your lecturer has provided. If the topic you’re writing about isn’t covered, speak to your subject librarian to find out what books and resources the library offers on that topic. When you have found the books, articles, and other resources that you want to use, read the relevant sections carefully, making notes, jotting down any questions they raise or ideas that they spark.

If you are reading more generally, simply learning more about a subject you are interested in, you will want to read more widely but in less depth. In comparison to reading for a research project, general reading will mean reading more, if not all, of a book, but without the need for taking detailed notes. These are just two examples of why you may be reading, but whatever your reasons the key thing is to know your purpose for reading. Once you know your purpose it will be easier to know what to focus on and to find the information and ideas you are looking for in a text.

Getting the most out of your reading

Don’t be a passive reader, letting the words wash over you. Instead read actively, thinking about things as you read. What did the author have in mind when writing? Just as you have a purpose for reading, they had a purpose in writing too. Try to understand what that purpose was. Think critically about the questions they ask in the text and make a note your thoughts about that question and what your answers may be. This is a part of active reading and will help you as you read further. Some of these questions may be rhetorical, designed to stimulate your thinking, but in other cases the author may answer their own questions. In those cases, you can see how your thoughts differ and what you may not have considered initially.

Young man taking notes while reading

If you are someone who finds reading big chunks quite difficult it is a good idea to skim read the piece first. Look at opening paragraphs, chapter and section headings, figures, and conclusions so that, as you dive into the text, you already have some idea of what is coming. This brief knowledge will help you to follow the flow of the writing as you already have some idea of where it is going.

When you have finished reading, you may want to go back a little later and reread any part you found difficult. To cement the material firmly in your head, try summarising the passage in your own words. You will soon realise whether you have fully taken it in, if you need to reread any part of it, or if there are any areas you don’t understand. If there are specific words you don’t understand, jot them down and look them up, don’t just keep reading and hope their meaning will become clear.

Most importantly, take regular breaks. Our brain can only absorb a certain amount of new information in one go. Taking regular short breaks (for example, study for 25 minutes then take a 5 minute break), will help you to focus better and, ultimately, learn more.