As children get older, the focus of English education shifts from learning how to read to learning how to understand and work through more and more difficult texts. For many there are moments when this shift challenges them and reading becomes “boring” and they check out. Yet this is just the time when the act of reading itself is actually most interesting - it is a puzzle again. And learning how to tackle tough texts is a feeling of enormous empowerment.
In my experience, students usually have a good instinct for what something means. “You know, it’s just there,” they usually say. Helping them identify how the meaning they sense exists not only on the page, but also in their minds, is the challenge of learning how to read complex passages and texts. The fact is that many adults aren’t sure how they read either, or what helps them read better sometimes and not others.
Fortunately, reading well is a simple list of practices that anyone can implement. The effort takes time in the beginning. Like any habit, reading attentively requires training. I can promise, however, that surprisingly quickly, the practice becomes natural.
Most good reading takes at least two passes through the text. The first is a perusal in which the mind gets the most superficial information available. Only the second reading starts to grasp what is really going on and why it is important. Most teachers expect that students will read texts thoroughly, which means twice, at least initially– the first time thoroughly and the second time to review and gather the information. As reading improves, students get better at tracking information during the first reading.
Overall, every one knows to look up unfamiliar words and get the overall argument of the text. Most people need to read some sections more than once, either because they are tired and distracted or because the argument is dense and complicated. It’s totally normal and expected. The suggestions below for reading non-fiction and fiction are guides to reading attentively, to becoming a reader.
- The title should tell you about the general topic and possibly a particular aspect of it. State what you expect of the text based on the title.
- Do some “pre-reading” by checking out the information on the back cover, in the table of contents, and from reviews. Scan the opening and closing paragraphs of whatever section you have to read to get some sense of what it’s going to discuss.
- How is the text organized? Understanding the organization before beginning can help navigate the information. Is the information provided through a narrative or an argument? Chronologically? Thematically? By steps?
- Are there key words that appear? Words in bold, italicized, or that repeat need to be understood, even more than unfamiliar words. Try to define them.
- Key words are often in important sentences that are explaining major steps in the text’s development. Can you identify these sentences? Do they offer the logic of the text?
- Can you summarize each paragraph in one sentence? That should be possible, especially with textbooks, and confirms your understanding of that passage. If you can’t, it’s worth it to stop and go back and take the time to digest the paragraph. Go through it slowly and try to pinpoint where you “tuned out’ or found it confusing. Now go slowly through this part? What is it exactly that is confusing here? Is it the grammar of the sentence? Is it the vocabulary? Give yourself the time to understand the little pieces, and the big picture will take care of itself.
- If analogies are being used, try to connect the parts to see how the analogy works (or doesn’t).
- Does the author recognize alternate points of view? Can you think of one for some aspect of the text?
- Does the author seem to have a point of view about the subject? What words or sentences suggest that? Are there sentences that seem to be joking, disdainful, shocked? How can you tell? Ask about those sentences in class and the teacher can help explain how the language is influencing your perception.
- At the end of reading, take some time to write notes about what the book is about to you. Do you think the information is true? Why does it matter? To whom does it matter? What changes through knowing this information? Reading a chapter on the Battle of Waterloo in a history textbook or cell division in a biology textbook can still provide answers to these questions. What about the Battle of Waterloo seems to relate to recent situations that would make it a relevant event to know about, two centuries later? What impact does cell division have on human life? Do a quick online search if you can’t think of anything. The current relevance of “boring school topics” is often surprising.
With fiction, reading is understanding something beyond the plot. It’s about capturing some subtlety of the characters’ feelings/motivations, and learning why something is funny, sarcastic, foreshadowing, etc.
- Take a minute to ask what the title means and implies. Later, revisit the title of the work and try to understand how it represents the work you have read.
- Are there quotes, epigrams, or forewords (not editor’s or author’s introductions) before the story begins? What do they say? Do they introduce a theme (love, war, family, death) or a character or a narrator’s point of view? Try to write a sentence about these early moments as they will probably be relevant to the rest of the story.
- Observe the story’s organization, its divisions, transitions, ellipses...How are connections made between sections?
- At some point while reading, ask yourself what you expect to have happen next. Try to write it down. Later, check back and see if the reading offered a surprise. When did the surprise occur? If no surprise, why might the author remove that element?
- Try to sketch a description of at least one character. Consider not only the way s/he looks, but also how s/he speaks, where s/he lives or is found in the story, what s/he desires or despises, how others treat the character, and if the character is meant to be liked by the reader or not. Make a list of all the pages where you gather this information.
- Track characters, places, thematic statements. I recommend that students write in pencil on the inside back cover of their novel. List a name and then all the pages where that character occurs, or if two characters fight a lot then all the pages where that happens, or whenever a book/film/favorite something is mentioned, or every time there is a rainstorm or fire or ladder or other such potential symbols. Locations are useful to track because they often present new scenes.
- Locations do a lot of work. Inside/outside, city/country, street/forest, home/school/shop, bedroom/living room are all packed with meaning. A play that was set on a NYC street corner where a character asks the other for directions was about two cultures intersecting; they were literally at a crossroads. Keep track of scenes that seem to recur in certain settings. Something is being implied there.
- Can you identify a symbol? What does it stand for? What does it do in the scenes where it occurs?
- Look up references within the text that you may not know, or don’t know much about, such as places, names, events, or dates. They are often important clues to understanding the work.
- At the end of reading a section for homework, what seems like the most important scene? When done with the whole book, what do you think the climax is? Is it resolved?
At the end of a text, fiction or non-fiction, consider why it was an important text for you to read, from the teacher’s point of view, as a part of the class overall, and how it might influence your thoughts about life going forward. Flipping back into the text is normal at this point, because you are realizing what wasn’t clear, or finding the passage that was really important.
Again, some things will simply be confusing. That’s okay! Make a note of those passages. Try to identify specifically where the text stopped making sense, what step did not follow from the previous, or where you did not understand the sequence of action. Taking the time to study the most confusing moments instead of feeling dejected by them or trying to skip them is where the heart of learning takes place. It’s where growth happens.
If you can’t figure out the tough parts on your own, ask about those places in class and the teacher will be delighted. Working with concrete places of confusion leads to the best class conversations. It will also help you pay attention because the discussion is about something you want to know. There’s a misapprehension that not understanding the text suggests you are a bad reader. That’s not true. When you can present specific places that you don’t understand, you show what a careful reader you are. Asking for further information makes you a better student. After all, if you already understood it, you wouldn’t need to be in school.
Charlotte Kent, PhD. lives and works in New York City, where she helps people of all ages improve their writing.