Reading redefined

The countdown to your exams has begun. Three weeks to go but every time you glance at the textbooks on your desk, you feel a knot in your stomach. How are you going to plod through the pile of pages? The task seems so daunting that you procrastinate by cleaning your room, returning long-lost phone calls, checking your email or updating your status on Facebook.

Possibly, a reason you find studying so challenging is that you dislike reading. In the primary classes, you were taught how to read by “sounding out” words or recognising them by sight. Formal reading instruction in most schools typically tapers off when students start reading aloud accurately. Even though ‘reading’ per se in not taught in higher classes, older students can benefit from knowing how to wade through diverse, dense and demanding texts. Finally, skilled readers have to learn how to evaluate texts and make discerning choices.

In an increasingly digital and interconnected world, the ability to read and glean meaning is increasingly becoming an essential skill. But many students do not become proficient readers as they have a skewed understanding of what it entails. Right from school, reading is equated with regurgitating information from the text. You view your mind as a passive receptacle that has to be filled with facts and factoids from a dull and dreary text. Students tend to perceive reading as a relatively passive act compared to speaking or writing. Typically, listening and reading are construed as receptive forms of communication where you receive what is either told or printed. However, in a classic book on reading, educators Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren argue that for you to gain maximally from reading, you have to change your perception of it. Reading is an active and engaging act provided you do it the right way.

Learn to comprehend

Even though you do ‘receive’ information while reading, you should not be a mindless recipient. Instead, Adler and Van Doren compare a reader to a “catcher in a game of baseball.” Whether or not you get the message of a book depends not only on the author, but also on how you activate and use your mental toolkit. Reading experts Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis provide suggestions on how to enhance your comprehension.

First and foremost, word calling is not reading. Merely decoding print does not constitute reading. Unless you read to understand, your reading will remain shallow and superficial. But what do you do when you are confronted with a difficult chapter in your Chemistry textbook that you don’t quite understand? Adler and Van Doren advocate that you simply continue reading and complete the chapter even if you do not grasp the meaning of every word. On your second reading, you will find that your comprehension increases.

After getting the gist of a chapter or book, you have to turn on all your mental faculties. Active reading involves effort — don’t expect to breeze through texts. One of the key roles of a reader is to ask questions. You may mistakenly believe that as a student it is more important to answer questions, but learning actually involves more asking. As you read, ask yourself and the text questions, some of which may be answered as you read along. Harvey and Goudvis believe that “Questioning is the strategy that propels readers forward.” Some questions may be directly answered in the text while others may have to be inferred. Further, if you ask questions that are not addressed in the chapter, do not despair. You have only tweaked your own curiosity to seek further. Finally, you may even question the veracity of what you are reading. Just because something is printed, it need not necessarily be accurate or true. This is especially pertinent as the Internet is a vast repository of information; however, not all sites post valid or accurate material. Thus, you have to ask whether the author provides evidence to support his position. Does she masquerade opinions as facts? At the college level, you may discern that the author presents only a point of view; you as a reader are entitled to critique it.

See the connection

In addition to questioning, Harvey and Goudvis encourage readers to make connections, wherever possible between the text and themselves, other texts or the world. For texts that lend themselves to visualisation, try and picture what you read as vividly as possible. For descriptive material, you may even draw what you read.

Often, writers leave it to the reader to infer a message or theme. As you read, you have to sift through information to determine what the main concept is and distinguish supporting details from broader ideas. After you read a section, you may pause to summarise what you have read. Stating the content of a section or chapter in your own words is an excellent way to test whether you have understood it. If you can integrate what you have read with something you have learnt earlier or you are able to synthesise information from multiple texts, you are reading analytically and deeply.

Taking notes while reading can also enhance your involvement. While it may be time-consuming to jot down points on a separate piece of paper, you may circle key words, put an asterisk near important sections, number a sequence of points and make short notes in the margins. But be wary of highlighting sections mindlessly. You should also vary your reading speed for different portions of the text. Read denser sections more slowly to digest the content.

Mature readers make informed decisions on what to read. It is probably not worth your while to spend time over a low quality book or websites that lack credibility. You as the reader have to choose material that extends your understanding. Adler and Van Doren write that reading is a “kind of conversation” that you have with the author, but most importantly, “the reader is the one who has the last word.”

The author is director, Prayatna. Email: