Unit 3: College Level Critical Thinking and Reading

Chapter 13: Reading Skills

Linnea Spitzer

“Reading is the gateway skill that makes all other learning possible”
Barack Obama

College classes are notorious for assigning lots of reading. It can be hard to know where to start and how to manage the heavy reading load. Also, academic texts can be especially difficult. There is often very dense language and discipline-specific vocabulary, so you may find yourself reading the same sentence over and over without really understanding the meaning. The most important thing to remember is, it’s OK to feel overwhelmed by college-level reading. Most people do! This chapter will give you some strategies to manage your reading load and get the most out of every assignment.

Some key terms in this chapter:

  • Skim: Read quickly for the main idea. Run your eyes over the page, and try to get a feel for the general point that the text is making.
  • Scan: Read quickly, but look for specific information, like bolded or italicized words. If you have a question in mind, you can scan for the answer to that question by looking for words and phrases that match the words and phrases in the question.
  • Margin notes: These are notes that you take in the white space on the side of the text. They can be questions, reminders to yourself, or other types of notes. We’ll cover margin notes in more detail later in this chapter.

Why are you reading?

This is an important question because the reason why you read will determine how you read. For example, are you reading for general information, to participate in a class discussion in-person or on a discussion board? Are you reading to study for a test? Are you reading to write a paper?

If you are reading for general information, your main purpose should be to understand the context and the arguments of a text. If you have a lot of time, you can read through the text leisurely, making notes where you see interesting points.

If you don’t have a lot of time, you can read the introduction and conclusion carefully, then skim the headings of each section, and spend some time looking at the images or tables. You can also look for words in bold or in italics, which will be the key terms in the text. If you are reading a textbook, look at the comprehension or discussion questions at the end of the chapter and then scan the rest of the chapter for the answers to these questions.

If you are reading to study for a test, your main purpose will be to memorize or retain the information you read. In this case, you’ll need to set some time aside to read more carefully. You may want to try a specific study technique like SQ3R. SQ3R stands for Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review.

  • Survey: Scan the text
  • Question: Think up questions you want to ask the text, or (better yet!) find the questions at the end of a chapter or unit and use these to help you review.
  • Read: Read the text, focusing on identifying answers to your questions
  • Recite: Repeat the information in the text to yourself (via notes) or to a study buddy, through explaining it to each other. Don’t use exactly the same words or phrasing. Try to make it more simple, like you were teaching each other the basics.
  • Review: Give the information some time (a day, an hour) and then go back to it. Review it again at least a couple more times before the test. You can also practice reciting, or telling the information in order to help it stick.

If you are reading to write a paper, you will likely need to read a text several times. First, read it for general information. Then, after you have made an outline for your paper, read the text(s) again and highlight ideas that support your arguments in your paper. You may want to use different color highlighters for each point you want to make. Make use of the writing prompt by breaking it down into parts such as questions and key terms.

What are you reading?

Reading fiction, a journal article, a textbook, or a news article will require very different kinds of reading. You will likely read a lot of textbooks, but you may also read different types of texts in your other classes. Some are easier than others!

Difficult to read: Journal articles, historic texts and documents, philosophical texts or essays

Texts that are difficult to read are often not written for students. They are written for other experts in the field, or they may be old documents, which express ideas in ways that may be hard to understand. For these texts, you may feel very frustrated when you first pick them up. I would recommend trying to find the main idea in the introduction, conclusion, or headings. In most cases, more difficult texts will also be discussed in class.

  • Try to think of a couple questions that would help you understand the main meaning of the text you have been assigned.
  • Use these questions in small groups or class discussions. If you are too nervous or embarrassed to ask them, you can ask them one-on-one during your professor’s office hours.

Easier to read: News articles, magazine articles, textbooks

News and magazine articles may not have been written for students, but they are written for the general public, which means that they should be easier to read. Textbooks are written for students, so while the content may be challenging at times, they are often broken up into smaller sections, with illustrations, exercises, and comprehension questions. Focusing on these study tools can help you better understand the material.

How are you reading?

When you are reading, it is important to be an active participant in the material. You can do this by taking notes in the margins (margin notes), and by engaging with material in different ways.

  • Margin notes: Writing notes to yourself in the margins is a good way to “have a conversation with” the text that you are reading. Studies have found that making notes is a better way of remembering information than just highlighting a text. Highlighting can be useful, too, but sometimes it is easy to just highlight and forget why you did so. Try to make notes about why you thought a particular passage was important or interesting.
  • Dictionaries: When you are reading, don’t feel too bad about stopping to look up a word in a dictionary (it can be handy to have a physical dictionary or dictionary website handy that you really like). Often, library websites have links to very good dictionaries. These are sometimes easier to use because they don’t have distracting ads and are free to all students.
  • YouTube: If you are totally confused about something, look it up on YouTube or a similar platform. The internet is full of videos that explain just about every concept and every difficult reading ever assigned to students.
  • Read together: Read with a group! When you have finished a chapter, summarize it together. Ask each other questions, and try to identify what the most important points or arguments are.
  • Read aloud: Speak or whisper while  you  are  reading  to help  you focus. This takes extra time, but can work  to improve concentration if you are feeling distracted. You can also listen to your texts using a text to speech app like Natural Readers (https://www.naturalreaders.com/) or Voice Dream Reader (https://www.voicedream.com/)



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Blueprint for Success in College and Career Copyright © 2019 by Linnea Spitzer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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