A number of skill problems are listed below to support you when reading literature. Click on your skill problem and find more detailed information how to deal more effectively with this skill problem and make it a skill advantage instead. The Skill Sheets book gives you even more detailed information on subjects related to reading literature.
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Source choice and selection Every student, manager and researcher spends an immense amount of time going through piles of literature and other written sources. They should be able to keep track of relevant articles, newspapers, books and reports on a more or less permanent basis. It is impossible to read everything that is published even on relatively limited areas of research. Effective reading, therefore, requires selection of sources. Making good use of libraries and databases is a vital prerequisite for informed selections. International journals and magazines are also important sources of information. Knowledge of the most relevant journals and their methods for gathering news is important for making an informed selection in this area.
As part of your education your teacher will often present you with a number of books which you are expected to read from cover to cover. In this case it is nevertheless important to grasp the background of the author(s). Authors with a good reputation in an area in general write more influential books – although their writing might not be a particularly easy read. In later phases of your training, the selection of a book by your tutor is almost always inspired by the relative importance of the author in a particular scientific discipline. In research practice you have to select the books yourself, but reading them from cover to cover will rarely be necessary. The most important reading skill is to be able to identify and select those (parts of) books which are most useful to you.
The book’s contents
- Define the status of the book as (a) monograph, (b) textbook, (c) edited volume (C2). Consider whether this approach suits your needs.
- Look at the titles and the table of contents. What do you already know about the topic? What would you like to know about the topic? Do you think you can anticipate that the analytical focus of the author correlates positively with your areas of interest?
- Get an impression of the kind of sources that the book is based on in order to find out how original the analysis is, and how useful it might be for your purposes:
- If the authors mainly use secondary sources, the main function of the analysis will be in reinterpretation and theory building.
- If many primary sources are revealed, the valued-added of the book could be empirical, presenting new data. But does this data really add to your existing knowledge?
- Most importantly: get an idea of the reliability of the sources (and of the book):If the authors use a very limited number of sources, it may indicate that the work is primarily conceptual, very creative, but it could also indicate plagiarism (see below for further indicators)
- If the sources are not revealed adequately (E*), i.e. many quotes or tables and figures have been included without a proper source, the book will be useless for serious scientific use, because it is unreliable and difficult to check. The author is prone to plagiarism (E*).
- Other indicators of an inadequate revelation of sources include: o factual information without a source; o use of information obtained during interviews without really explaining how they were held (E*);
- entire sections which are referred to by one source only (mentioned at the beginning of the section: ‘this section is primarily based on .....’);
- inconsistent or insufficient references, indicate that the author may not have been very precise in the research project either.
- Skim through the tables and figures for originality and reliability. Assess the tables and figures: do they include recent data? Are they functional (E*)? Are most of the tables based on other sources - implying that the study is primarily a reinterpretation of existing material? Does the study include any new tables and figures - showing more interesting empirical data?
- Look at the index. How well developed is the index? Are many key words familiar to you? If you are working on a concrete research project or essay compare the index with your own list of key words (E*). Check one of the key words and assess the text it refers to. The more key words that are of interest to you, the more reading the entire book becomes an option.
- Consider the bibliography:
- if you are familiar with the topic: what sources did you expect; were your expectations fulfilled?
- if you are unfamiliar: check publisher’s reputation, and the number of promising sources.
Skim through the opening sections and the conclusions.
In particular, read the first and the last lines of the book: (1) what is the nature of the first line: introductory, a question, a clear observation?; (2) what is the nature of the last line: popularising, pathetic, clear and compact; (3) do the first and the last lines relate to each other: is the last line an answer to the first line, or is there no relation at all?
Effective reading always necessitates that you have an idea about why you read the material (A14, A15). Effective reading requires a selective approach to the contents of written material. It is very often not necessary to read a book or an article from ‘cover to cover’, but how should one select the relevant parts? A good insight into the structure of a book, or the nature of an article, can considerably shorten the reading time and can still give sufficient input for a research project or help you in understanding the exam reading better. In the early phases of your reading (level 1), it is particularly difficult to identify inappropriate argumentation or badly written articles and books. Fortunately, reading it is something you can do at your own pace, at times which suit you best and with repetition (if needed). Reading, therefore, remains a skill that is easiest to train and still the best input for study, writing, presentations and management.
Before close reading: Identify the organisation of the text
The structure of good analytical writing is predictable. You should be able to get a reasonable idea of the nature of the argumentation before you start studying a text in detail. If a writer has followed the general principles used for scientific texts (E*) the text has a structure that is intended to represent the main idea of the argumentation. The structure will be hierarchical or pyramidal and relatively easy to identify.
- The central theme is often included in the (sub)title. Have you ever really looked closely at the title of a text? Take a minute to look at the title, and think about the kind information you get in relation to (1) your own interests, (2) the nature of the question addressed by the author, (3) the nature of the argumentation developed in the text. Titles reveal a lot about the intentions of the author.
- Supporting themes make up the chapters and sections. In the introduction you will find a description of the problem which is addressed and the sequence in which the analysis is presented. Each chapter or section presents further introductions to these themes and refers back to the ones mentioned previously.
- The detailed components of the argumentation make up each paragraph in a (sub)section. Each paragraph will include only one thought, proof or evidence in support of the general argumentation.
- Often the author has also added (sub)headings to help you to keep track of the argumentation.
- Finally, the text and sentences include many additional supportive tools to help you to find the structure of the argumentation:
- signal words or numerical signs: 1,2,3; 1.1, 1.2, 1.3; A, B; or ‘firstly, secondly’;
- typographical signs: in particular italics or underlines are added to place an emphasis.
Conclusions are announced as such and include a summary of the argumentation and the way the evidence has been collected (inductive or deductive) to arrive at the conclusion. If an author has used this kind of organisation it is relatively easy to decide whether this line of reasoning appeals to you and/or fits into your own research aims. If you understand the basic structure well, it is also far easier to memorise the text if you read it in preparation for an exam (B8).
Reading is a daily and very time consuming activity. Most people have never really reflected on their own reading skills, since this is a basic skill that you have learned at a relatively early age. After that age, your reading pace quickens primarily because you are more experienced in reading rather than that you have improved your technique. Quantity, however, rarely triggers quality. This Skill Sheet discusses a number of characteristics and techniques to improve your reading speed. Speed reading works on the premise that your brain processes pictures and not words (Turley, 1989). But always remember the first rule of speed reading: the quickest read is once you have been able to select out irrelevant material; that takes no time and always beats brainless speed reading (C2, C4).
Slow and quick reading
The average reading speed is around 230 words per minute. But most people are capable of reading at least as fast as 500 words per minute. They are "held back" by bad reading habits. Slow readers also generally read with poor comprehension (Fry, 1963). This is because reading and understanding a complex sentence requires the reader to hold the information in their short term memory (B8). By reading slowly it becomes harder for the reader to keep the information in the memory, and therefore harder to understand. It is accepted that slow readers can actually increase their comprehension by learning to read faster - until a certain limit (Bell, 2001).
Conversely, of course, poor comprehension can also explain for slow reading. Everybody has the experience that slow reading in a foreign language is the necessary start of a learning curve. The same applies to a new area of research or another scientific discipline: you start off with slowly going through texts, trying to identify the most important concepts, and if needed looking them up in dictionaries or glossaries. After you have mastered these phases, your reading speed will increase automatically. So slow reading is not always a bad thing. On the contrary, it represents a very functional phase in research and learning (The Challenge, Part I). "Comprehension is achieved by reading neither too fast nor too slow" (Coady, 1979). Once you are more acquainted with a language or an intellectual area, improving the quality of your reading is never a bad thing. That is what speed reading is basically about. Some pointers can be given on how you could try to speed up your reading speed in Table C.11.
You are preparing to write a paper or part of a thesis and you have been lucky enough to find a lot of material on your subject. Then the problem arises: how to get the most important information from the pile of paper in front of you?
1. Specify the aim of your search
- Link the aim of you reading with the most appropriate manner for digesting it
- Prepare the structure of your argument You can only get the right things out of the material if you know what to look for. The structure (table of contents) of your paper is the ‘net’ with which you are going to fish for the relevant points from your reading. Of course, the first draft will be provisional (A6). Prepare the basic structure by using key words (E*). If you want to read effectively, you must always begin by writing!
2. Decide upon the style of your search:
- Start with the pieces that seem most promising You want to improve your knowledge of the topic in the shortest time possible. Start, therefore, with those texts that provide you with the richest 'harvest'. Do not read everything (including more marginal texts) immediately.
- Do not lose time by reading texts from beginning to end If you know what you are looking for, you can go through the texts relatively quickly and select the items that are relevant. First, skim through the text and identify the most interesting sections and arguments (C8). Then, return to those parts you want to ‘conserve’ by taking notes.
No answer yet...
The way to handle a text depends on the aim of your reading (C1, C6). Actively going through (parts of) a text always requires that you take notes.
Printed texts are not sacred, so underline important sentences and sections, even in expensive hardback books (except those from libraries!). You increase the intensity and speed (C12) with which you read a text.
- Do not underline everything. If you force yourself to be selective you will be able to understand the argument more clearly. Also, do not underline full sentences, rather underline words or groups of words.
- Only underline once you have read the whole paragraph. If you underline while you read, you could end up underlining everything. Restricting the use of underlines also increases your understanding of the message in the text.
- Should you underline with a pencil or a pen? A pencil has the advantage that you can rub it out afterwards. But: if you know that what you underline with a pen cannot be erased, you will probably be more selective.
- The same principle can be used to decide whether lines made with a ruler are preferable to (less time consuming) those made freehand: the more accurate the underlines are, the more time it takes, and therefore the more you will be inclined to be selective. So it may be advisable to use a ruler and write with a pen! If you prefer this, use a marker. Remember, however, that the marks fade away and are sometimes difficult to photocopy.
2. Use the margins
- Indicate the number of arguments used by numbering the different components: 1, 2, 3.
- Write a question mark in the margin if you do not immediately understand the argument. If the text contains many question marks, you should ask yourself the reason why you did not understand large parts of the text. Remember that this is often because the text itself has been badly written and argued (C8, C9).
- Write an exclamation mark in the margin if you find a phrase particularly relevant. Interestingly enough, you may think differently of this passage later: sometimes exclamation marks can even become question marks or vice versa.
- Get used to writing codes in the margins which refer to your research topics. For example: the part of this text which includes information on active reading skills would be given the code ‘SS-C10’ in the margin.
- A text which you think may be interesting for someone else could be marked by a vertical line in the margin, together with the first name or initials of the person. • Other remarks can also be written in the margins. Try to make them legible so that they can serve their purpose: as input for further digestion and use of the text.