Break Out of the Passive Reading Habit and Get Active!

This might sound silly,but there is a “right” and a “wrong” way of reading.This is especially true for students,who are expected to summarize,analyze,and critique the readings assigned to them by their professors.

The task can be particularly daunting to students who are working on a term paper,since they need to read a number of materials and then integrate them into the ongoing discourse that is their research paper.

So what forms of reading are “right,” and which are “wrong“? While reading a book or article, you want to read actively as opposed to passively. When you read passively, you are just receiving information; as you read, you aren’t digesting the information and forming an opinion. Of course, this is not very conducive to critical thinking, a practice for which you should always endeavor.

In contrast, active reading is a more interactive process. Active readers are participants in the reading process. As they pour over the text, they interact with it; they question it, challenge it, gather evidence and present counterevidence, converse with it even. Active reading helps you comprehend and recall what you have read, and ultimately makes for a better paper.

This explanation probably sounds pretty vague. Nonetheless, active reading isn’t just an abstract theoretical concept – there are concrete steps you can take towards becoming a more active reader!

Firstly, don’t approach a text with the assumption that you have to read it straight through, from beginning to end. Before you even start, scan through the title, the abstract, the table of contents and the index. This provides a framework for the rest of the readings. As you move on to the text itself, do not be afraid to skip from chapter to chapter or section to section.

If you are reading a book, look at the index to see when your topic is mentioned.For research reports,try reading the conclusion before the results; this will give you a general idea of the author’s findings and will help you understand the specifics as presented in the results section.If a statement or subject has you confused,don’t be afraid to backtrack and reread a paragraph or even an entire chapter,if need be.After all,if you don’t understand a topic,it will be awfully hard to write coherently about it!

Active reading also involves forming an opinion of what you are reading. As you take in the text, pay attention to your emotional reactions to it.Does it make you angry? Upset? Incredulous? Why? Does the author make any claims that you find dubious? What have you read to date that supports or contradicts the author’s arguments? Does the author offer credible evidence for his statements, or is he just presenting his opinions or making speculations? Mark down these questions and your impressions as you go.

Another means of breaking the passive reading habit is to make use of those margins. This is easy if you are reading a photocopy or printout of an article.On the other hand,if you’re reading a text,photocopy any sections you plan on using in your paper so that you can mark them up without defacing the library’s property! It will save you a ton of time, so it’s well worth the extra expense.You can also save documents on your computer as Word files (rather than printing out hard copies) and “mark” them up using Word’s highlighting function.This conserves both money and paper!

Marking in the margins gives you pause to consider what you’ve read.It also draws your attention to important passages and makes note of them for future use.You can jot down anything that comes to mind. Underline or highlight important facts,statements, or findings in the text.Use arrows to connect relevant sections to one another and denote relationships. Write down any questions you might have.

Is there something you don’t understand? A new avenue you might want to pursue? A topic that you need to research further? Make note of it! Single out any inconsistencies in the text along with points of discussion or debate. Gather evidence that supports or defies your viewpoint.Don’t shy away from statements you don’t understand or can’t explain -these are what you should pay closest attention to.

Consider not just the text in front of you, but the context in which it was written. Examine the time period in which the source was written. Your analysis should also include the perspective the author’s writing from – is she a psychologist or a biologist? How about a feminist, or perhaps a Marxist? How might the context influence the author’s conclusions? Keep these questions in mind as you read, and make note of any impressions you have while reading.

After you have finished a chapter or article, write up a brief summary. Not only will this aid in your understanding of what you’ve just read, but it will provide a helpful guide for later, when you’re writing your paper and need to sort through hundreds of pages of material. Besides, if you can’t easily write a paragraph or two, this is a clue that you need to go back and reread the source.

Don’t wait until you’re assigned a paper to try out these suggestions.The next time you need to do any reading for class,practice some active reading strategies.You’ll increase your comprehension of the material and your grades!

by Kelly Garbato

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