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Reading Techniques & Resources

Reading triggers thinking. Further, reading engages our mind to understand and create meaning from written language. Spanning poetry to spreadsheets, the techniques and resources found in this guide will support your improved reading skills.

Reading Textbooks & Research Articles:

One way to make sure you’re getting all you can from your assignments is to brush up on your reading comprehension skills. There are myriad methods to promote and engage active reading; we've broken down one method below and provided prompts to assist.  Active reading strategies and tools bolster your reading of college materials and the questions/prompts provide a framework to dialogue or "talk" with your reading material.  

Previewing enables you to develop a set of expectations about the scope and aim of the text. These very preliminary impressions offer you a way to focus your reading. For instance:

  • What does the presence of an abstract or introduction tell you about the material?
  • Does the layout of a text prepare you for reading? For example, if the material is broken into parts--subtopics, sections, or the like--use these parts to guide you toward understanding the material especially the author's line of inquiry. 
  • Ask Questions:  Active readers ask questions before reading to better understand the author and the meaning of the text.  Ask questions of the author, yourself and the text:

Before Reading:

What do I think I will learn from this text?

What predictions do I have about this reading?

Do I know something about this topic?

Take the subtitle of the section (or the first sentence of a paragraph) and turn it into a question. For example, if you're reading part of a chapter called "Functions of the Spinal Cord," ask yourself, "What are the functions of the spinal cord?"

Determine Importance and Make Connections:  Active readers look for things that help them identify big ideas and why they are important such as:  titles/headings, bold/italicized print, pictures and captions, graphs and charters, chapter objectives and questions.  Annotate and make your reading thinking-intensive from start to finish. Annotating puts you actively and immediately in a "dialogue” with an author and the issues and ideas you encounter in a written text. It's also a way to have an ongoing conversation with yourself as you move through the text and to record what that encounter was like for you. Here's how:

  • Throw away your highlighter: Highlighting can seem like an active reading strategy, but it can actually distract from the business of learning and dilute your comprehension. Those bright yellow lines you put on a printed page one day can seem strangely cryptic the next, unless you have a method for remembering why they were important to you at another moment in time. Pen or pencil will allow you do to more to a text you have to wrestle with.
  • Mark up the margins of your text with words and phrases: ideas that occur to you, notes about things that seem important to you, reminders of how issues in a text may connect with class discussion or course themes. This kind of interaction keeps you conscious of the reasons you are reading as well as the purposes your instructor has in mind. Later in the term, when you are reviewing for a test or project, your marginalia will be useful memory triggers.
  • Develop your own symbol system: asterisk (*) a key idea, for example, or use an exclamation point (!) for the surprising, absurd, bizarre. Your personalized set of hieroglyphs allow you to capture the important -- and often fleeting -- insights that occur to you as you're reading. Like notes in your margins, they'll prove indispensable when you return to a text in search of that perfect passage to use in a paper, or are preparing for a big exam.
  • Ask Questions:  During your reading, create a habit of hearing yourself "talk" to your text.  Write the questions down (in your margins, at the beginning or end of the reading, in a notebook, or elsewhere. They are reminders of the unfinished business you still have with a text: something to ask during class discussion, or to come to terms with on your own, once you’ve had a chance to digest the material further or have done other course reading. Here are some prompts to get you started:

During Reading:

What is the most important information?

What does this mean? . . . I wonder why . . . ?, I wonder how . . .?, I wonder if . . .?

Why is the writer drawing that conclusion?

This idea is similar to . . .?

Why am I being asked to read this text? etc.

Connections -- That reminds me of . . .?, This made me think of . . .? This is different from . . .?

So far I've learned . . .?

Summarize & Analyze: Take the information apart, look at its parts, and then try to put it back together again in language that is meaningful to you. The best way to determine that you’ve really gotten the point is to be able to state it in your own words.  

A Summary Outline of a text is a version of annotating, and can be done quite informally in the margins of the text and enables you to see the skeleton of an argument: the thesis, the first point and evidence (and so on), through the conclusion. With weighty or difficult readings, this skeleton may not be obvious and a formal summary needed.  Summarizing accomplishes something similar, but in sentence and paragraph form, and with the connections between ideas made explicit.

Analyzing adds an evaluative component to the summarizing process—it requires you not just to restate main ideas, but also to test the logic, credibility, and emotional impact of an argument. In analyzing a text, you reflect upon and decide how effectively (or poorly) its argument has been made. Ask questions to dig deeper into the meaning of the text.

After Reading:

  • What is the writer asserting?
  • What am I being asked to believe or accept? Facts? Opinions? Some mixture?
    • What reasons or evidence does the author supply to convince me? Where is the strongest or most effective evidence the author offers -- and why is it compelling?
  • Explain the big idea of the selection.

Synthesize:  Combine this new information with existing knowledge in order to form new ideas or interpretations.  Use contextualization to assist with this process by re-viewing a text you've encountered, framed by its historical, cultural, material, or intellectual circumstances.  View the reading and your active reading responses through the lens of your own experience. Your understanding of the words on the page and their significance is always shaped by what you have come to know and value from living in a particular time and place. 

Compare and Contrast: Set course readings against each other to determine their relationships (hidden or explicit).

  • At what point in the term does this reading come? Why that point, do you imagine?
  • How does it contribute to the main concepts and themes of the course?
  • How does it compare (or contrast) to the ideas presented by texts that come before it? Does it continue a trend, shift direction, or expand the focus of previous readings?
  • How has your thinking been altered by this reading? How has it affected your response to the issues and themes of the course?
  • How do connections made through this reading help create new generalizations or new perspectives?

Inference - Coming to a Conclusion:

An inference is defined as a conclusion reached on the basis of evidence and reasoning.  Often when we read, we must infer the author's purpose based on the evidence provided to come to a reasonable conclusion.  Many times we're asked to infer the purpose of answer to a question based on a reading passage - below are some tips as well as a short practice passage:

Step 1: Identify an Inference

First, you'll need to determine whether or not you're actually being asked to make an inference on a reading test. The most obvious questions will have the words "suggest," "imply" or "infer" right in the tag like these:

  • "According to the passage, we can reasonably infer..."
  • "Based on the passage, it could be suggested that..."
  • "Which of the following statements is best supported by the passage?"
  • "The passage suggests that this primary problem..."
  • "The author seems to imply that…"

Some questions, however, will not come right out and ask you to infer. You'll have to actually infer that you need to make an inference about the passage. Sneaky, huh? Here are a few that require inferencing skills, but don't use those words exactly.

  • "With which of the following statements would the author most likely agree?"
  • "Which of the following sentences would the author most likely use to add additional support to paragraph three?"

Step 2: Trust the Passage

Now that you're certain you have an inference question on your hands, and you know exactly what an inference is, you'll need to let go of your prejudices and prior knowledge and use the passage to prove that the inference you select is the correct one. Inferences on a multiple-choice exam are different from those in real life. Out in the real world, if you make an educated guess, your inference could still be incorrect. But on a multiple-choice exam, your inference will be correct because you'll use the details in the passage to prove it. You have to trust that the passage offers you the truth in the setting of the test and that one of the answer choices provided is correct without stepping too far outside the realm of the passage.

Step 3: Hunt for Clues

Your third step is to start hunting for clues – supporting details, vocabulary, character's actions, descriptions, dialogue, and more – to prove one of the inferences listed below the question. Take this question and text, for example:

Reading Passage:

The widow Elsa was as complete a contrast to her third bridegroom, in everything but age, as can be conceived. Compelled to relinquish her first marriage after her husband died in the war, she married a man twice her years to whom she became an exemplary wife despite their having nothing in common, and by whose death she was left in possession of a splendid fortune, though she gave it away to the church. Next, a southern gentleman, considerably younger than herself, succeeded to her hand, and carried her to Charleston, where, after many uncomfortable years, she found herself again a widow. It would have been remarkable if any feeling had survived through such a life as Elsa's; it could not but be crushed and killed by the early disappointment of her first groom's demise, the icy duty of her second marriage, and the unkindness of her third husband, which had inevitably driven her to connect the idea of his death with that of her comfort.

Based on the information in the passage, it could be suggested that the narrator believes Elsa's prior marriages to be:
uncomfortable, but well-suited to Elsa: 1 votes (100%)
satisfactory and dull to Elsa: 0 votes (0%)
cold and damaging to Elsa: 0 votes (0%)
awful, but worth it to Elsa: 0 votes (0%)
Total Votes: 1

Step 4: Narrow Down the Choices

The last step to making a correct inference on a multiple-choice test is to narrow down the answer choices. Using the clues from the passage, we can infer that nothing much was "satisfactory" to Elsa about her marriages, which gets rid of Choice B.

Choice A is also incorrect because although the marriages certainly seem uncomfortable based on the clues, they were not well-suited to her as she had nothing in common with her second husband and wanted her third husband to die.

Choice D is also incorrect because nothing is stated or implied in the passage to prove that Elsa believed her marriages to be worth it in some way; in fact, we can infer that it wasn't worth it to her at all because she gave away the money from her second husband.

So, we have to believe that Choice C is the best – the marriages were cold and damaging. The passage states explicitly that her marriage was an "icy duty" and her third husband was "unkind." We also know that they were damaging because her feelings had been "crushed and killed" by her marriages.

Step 5: Practice

To get really good at making inferences, you'll need to practice

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