by Justin L. – Tutor at Oxford Tutoring
Reading is one of the most deceptively challenging skills to master. Once you’ve learned how to sound out words, it can feel like riding a bike downhill. You coast on momentum until coming to a stop at the bottom. You push your line of vision across the page until coming to a stop at the end.
Except, there’s more to riding a bike than balancing and pedaling, and there’s more to reading than sounding out words and scanning pages. You have to know your destination and how and why you made it there.
To learn how to read properly, you must understand the goal, the tools, and the process.
The #1 mistake people make when reading is approaching a text with the wrong mindset. They are looking to react to or critique what is presented. Reactions and critiques are valuable, but they are an entirely different process that follows reading. In fact, they are dependent on it.
To understand the goal of reading, you have to understand the goal of writing. Every writer wants to change your mind. That desire is not as nefarious or complicated as it sounds. While a lawyer, politician, or philosophy may pen a composition to change your opinions or actions, a screenwriter, playwright, or novelist crafts a story to entertain you. Still, either end requires the same means–your mind has to change. How? By communicating new information to you.
Thus, your goal as a reader is to understand what is being communicated to you. How? By knowing the tools the writer has at his disposal.
The basic tool of the writer is the word. However, like the process of reading, the word is not as simple as it seems. It is more than a collection of sounds. It is a symbol. What does it symbolize?
Every word represents a concept you hold in your mind (or will hold if you’ve never heard the word before). Concepts are placeholders in your mind for either concretes or abstracts. A concrete is an observable (by the five senses) thing. An abstract is an idea or emotion.
For example, the word “tree” symbolizes the large amount of observable traits of trees in the world. When you read it, you think of all the important traits of trees summed up in one image or “concept.” Additionally, the word “love” symbolizes the idea or emotion that can only be believed or experienced. When you read it, you think of all of the different ways to understand or feel love in one “concept.”
Thus, a writer uses symbols to make you think of the world in a specific way in order to show you new parts of it, or information, that will change your concepts.
The challenge of reading, then, is to understand all of the information being presented to you and how it is both different and the same as the information you already have. To do so, you must use a process similar to the Scientific Method.
Every writer has one Overall piece of information he is trying to communicate to you–usually called the Main Idea, Point, Argument, or Theme. Once you figure it out, it becomes your Touchstone or Key to understanding everything else the writer shows you in that same piece of writing. The challenge is that you’re shown everything else first and can’t be sure of the Overall until you’ve read it all (and sometimes even after you’ve finished).
Ask a Question
Before you even consume a word, you have to decide which of the almost-infinite amount of books to pick up. If you’re completing an assignment for school or work, that decision is made for you, but your work on this step isn’t complete. You have to understand why you are reading what you’re reading. How does the text reflect your (or your teacher’s or company’s) values, interests, beliefs, tastes, and goals? Once you understand the context of your efforts, you can open the cover.
With a book or essay in front of you, it can be easy to flip to page one or find the first paragraph and start pressing forward. If you do so, however, you’ll miss out on a lot of important information. Gather all the background information you can to have an idea what the text is about.
Ask yourself: What is the title? Who is the author? When did he write the text? What content does it contain? How long is it? What type of sections and how many, if any, is the text divided into? Also, make sure you didn’t miss gathering any general information about the book’s subject when completing the previous step. (Ex: If the book is about architecture, learn about the basic purposes, principles, and people of architecture). The answer to all of these questions provide you all the information you need to complete the next step.
This step is where using the scientific method to read becomes really important. Based on all of your knowledge of the book and the subject, come up with a proposed Main Idea, Point, Argument, or Theme of the text. This proposed Overall piece of information will be the umbrella you try to fit every other piece of information you learn while reading into. It is the starting point that you will slowly craft into your end point over the course of your consumption of the text.
Experiment + Analyze
In sciences, this step is divided in two. Reading, however, has a much less clearly defined line between the physical task (experimentation) and the reflection on it (analysis). In fact, that experimentation and analysis often occur at the same time is what makes reading so challenging. In a science experiment, you set up the physical process, run it, and collect the data. It is only then, when the physical process is complete, that you analyze the data to determine its significance.
When reading, you are collecting data and analyzing it at the same time. As you consume each new word, sentence, paragraph, and chapter, you try to fit it into your hypothesis. If you can explain how it fits into your hypothesis, you can move on. If not, you must change your hypothesis or create a new one. Thus, there are two important guidelines to follow for this step:
- Your hypothesis is always in flux until you finish the text. Until you have all the data, you can’t have a complete conclusion. However, as you read more and more of the text, your hypothesis should change less and less.
- Set up checkpoints for yourself to stop consuming new data and think about the data you have. Typically these checkpoints are the ends of sections or chapters, as the author included those breaks to signal the information because it is a data subset.
Basically, once you read the first word of the text, you enter into a loop of Experiment + Analysis and Hypothesis until you read the last word of the text.
Now that you have all the data and have finished looping, you should have a hypothesis that explains why the author included everything in the text. The key here is being able to explain the hypothesis and how it explains everything. To do so, write a one sentence summary of what you think the Main Idea, Point, Argument, or Theme is. This sentence serves as your shorthand for the text. Any time anyone brings up anything about the text, you refer back to your conclusion and use it as the foundation of any thinking you do. (Keep in mind, if anyone presents you with new information you may have missed when you read the text or a new understanding you may have not thought of, you may have to re-enter the loop.)
Right now you may feel overwhelmed and discouraged by the challenge that reading presents. You may not want to put in so much effort every time you read, especially if it is “just for enjoyment.” It’s important to remember that just as everyone who learns how to ride a bike isn’t going to become a professional BMXer and medal in the X-Games, not everyone who learns how to read is going to become a Shakespearean scholar and earn a PhD in Literature. Still, just as riding a bike well can add to your life immensely, so can reading.
Truly understanding the Main Idea, Point, Argument, or Theme of a book can greatly increase your enjoyment of it. By knowing why everything was included, the importance of each line of dialogue and event becomes clear and impacts you more. Likewise, comprehending what the author is showing you can improve your life by helping you to consider complexities of life that you may never have before. Or, if you’re assigned the book for school or work, it can help you earn a good grade or complete your project perfectly.
About the Author: Our Oxford Tutoring, Justin L., tutors Middle School through High School English Language Arts, as well as SAT and ACT English. As a published writer and former college English teacher, Justin has extensive knowledge of the reading and writing process. He uses his knowledge to challenge his students to think critically, encouraging them to go deeper with the texts they read and the essays they write.