By: Dougald McLaurin
Editor’s Note: Dougald McLaurin is the Reference Coordinator at the Library at Southeastern. He is also a Ph.D. student who not only manages a busy work schedule, but a heavy reading schedule as well. Dougald also hosted a panel discussion on this topic last year at The Library at Southeastern, and you will find a video of that event below this post if you are interested in learning more.
Reading More Better, or Reading A Lot Well: Tips For Mastering Your Semester Reading.
Several years ago, I was sitting outside in downtown Wake Forest, reading How to Read a Book by Morimer J. Adler, when a man in mechanic’s overalls came sauntering down the street. He bent over so that he could read the title of the book.
He stood up and said, “How to read a book? How to read a book!? I’ll tell you how to read a book. Start at the beginning, read every word, and don’t stop ’til you are finished.”
He continued his initial route repeating, “Man don’t know how to read a book!”
This is conventional wisdom. Reading, to a certain extent, is word recognition—but it is more than this. Reading is the recognition of and active engagement with ideas. This is a skill that needs to be taught and practiced. Sadly, one of the many comments I hear from students is that reading is a laborious task. First, they must read so much material that they cannot process all of it. Second, they do not remember what they have read.
This article hopes to aid the student in reading quickly, actively, and help with long-term memory of what you read. The goal is not to be exhaustive, but rather, to be a starting place for you as you hone your skills in becoming a more active, critical reader.
Pick up The Pace
Sometimes students complain about the tomes of materials they must read for classes. One student lamented that he had to read about a hundred pages a week for just one class! I chuckled because that semester had been my busiest ever. Just to keep up with my reading for that week, I was covering 150 pages a day. I was resistant to speed reading. But that semester forced me to pick it up and I have not looked back since.
Speed reading is not so much about speed as it is about removing cumbersome reading habits. There are two common habits that slow readers down: subvocalizing and, what I will call, “shifty eyes.” Subvocalizing is when you find yourself reading the words on a page and sounding them out, either out loud or inside your head. “Shifty eyes” is when your eyes either lose your place or you find yourself going back and re-reading things repeatedly to make sure you understood it.
To avoid both habits, begin running your index finger or open hand underneath the line you are reading. Move your hand along underneath the words you are reading as though you are attempting to underline the word with your fingertips. As you do so, do not vocalize the words in your head or out loud. Start slow and as you begin to get the hang of it speed up.
You may be resistant at first, but give it time. The process does take some getting used to. But once you do, you will find that you retain more of what you read, cover more ground, and, as a result, gain a better grasp of the argument of the author.
For more on how to read faster and skim well, read The Evelyn Wood Seven Day Speed Reading and Learning Program and How to Read A Book mentioned above.
Identify and Return to the Thesis/Main Points
When you read a book or an article be sure to look for the thesis first. A thesis is generally a declarative statement (not a question) that states what the author is arguing for. Once you have identified it, underline it (if you own the book) or get out a notepad or use note taking software and write it down. Keep returning to the thesis as you read through the work. As you read keep asking, “How does this relate to the thesis? Does this support it well? How does it support the thesis?”
Once you identify the thesis, identify the main points the author uses to support the thesis. In general, good authors will have clear, easy to identify, supporting points. Like the thesis, these are usually declarative statements that are related to the thesis. If the author has used subheadings in an article these will typically be in the first few paragraphs of a sub-section. Think of main points as a kind of “mini-thesis” to the sub-section. Underline or write the main points down. You may even want to write a summary of the evidence that they use to support the main point in the margins to help you review it later (because good reading is like writing…it must be reviewed). If you are reading a book, typically the main points will be the thesis of a chapter.
Once you have written down the thesis and the main points of the argument you have a brief sketch of the author’s argument. You can usually slip something like this inside the book so that when you pick it later you are able to quickly remember the points of the book. The simple act of writing down the main points or summarizing them will help you easily recall them later.
Remove Distractions and Schedule Breaks
Understanding an author’s argument is at the heart of reading non-fiction. Whether you read slowly, or quickly, this will require a lot of concentration. Remove distractions that will take you off course. Turn your phone off (or turn social media notifications off). Use headphones and white noise apps to help create an insulated environment. Finally, plan to read for a certain period and then take a break. I usually attempt to go for 45-50 minutes at a time and break from 10-15 minutes. Knowing a break is coming up can help you avoid distractions when they come up and increase your levels of concentration.
Soon, you will be reading more, better, and retaining more of what you read.
If you would like even more reading tips, listen as John Hammett, Keith Whitfield, Jeremy Evans, and Dougald McLaurin discuss practical ways to help you read well, take notes, and manage your time well, also be sure to check out the video below.