You will probably be doing a lot of reading for college, even if you aren’t an English major. Here are eight tips that may help you understand a text better.
SET ASIDE TIME FOR READING
Nina Serafini is a writing tutor and a “triple English major,” studying writing arts, language arts and literature. Her most important don’t when approaching reading is leaving it for the 10 minutes leading up to the class it’s for. Serafini suggests giving yourself the time for the content of the text to “set in” so you can understand it better.
However, setting time aside for reading does not mean that you should be reading for all of it. Regan Levitte is a writing specialist for the Learning Center of SUNY Plattsburgh. She said the average human attention span is 15 minutes, so taking breaks when you need them is totally OK.
Arzu Gul, a professor at SUNY Plattsburgh who works with many international students, did not grow up speaking English herself. She suggested returning to a text at different times of day, sometimes taking extended breaks from it.
FIND A GOOD READING ENVIRONMENT
The environment you read in has an impact on how well you can understand a text. Depending on the difficulty of the text, Serafini reads either in silence or with instrumental music in the background.
Gul said a quiet environment can help to focus on a text and to think about it. Thinking about a text — understanding its meaning, interpreting hidden messages and asking questions to yourself — is a crucial part of reading.
“Reading is communication between yourself and the author,” Gul said. “There’s always something going on inside the brain.”
LISTEN TO YOUR TEXT
Listening is “the best thing to do with a difficult text,” Serafini said.
Whether reading aloud to yourself or listening to the narrator of an audiobook, listening can help pay attention to individual words and thus grasp details that you otherwise would have skipped had you read quietly. That, in turn, can help get through complex phrasing and difficult language.
“Your eyes don’t roam across the page,” Serafini said. “You can’t skip words like you can in your head.”
Audiobooks can also help understand the tone of the text. Additionally, they can be more engaging thanks to the unique voices narrators give the characters.
One place to find audiobooks is Audible, which is a paid subscription. Some free options are YouTube, LibriVox and public libraries.
PREPARE A PHYSICAL COPY OF THE TEXT
It may seem wasteful, Levitte said, but a physical copy of the text offers readers a very helpful visual.
“You remember where things are on the page,” Levitte said.
Obtaining a physical copy of the text, whether that’s purchasing or renting a textbook or printing the necessary pages, takes away from the temptation to open another tab to distract yourself, Levitte said. A physical copy can also help follow a text better using your thumb or a pencil.
HIGHLIGHT OR TAKE NOTES
Levitte said it is “smart” to read with a pencil or highlighter in hand to mark what she calls “sparklets,” originating from a monks’ practice called florilegium. “Sparklets” refers to bits of text that “sparkle” to a reader; anything that catches your attention or means something to you.
“More than likely, the things that sparkle to you will be quotes that you’d want to come back to,” Levitte said.
Gul suggested highlighting important sentences and things you don’t understand, to revisit later.
Another way to mark texts can be drawing specific symbols to leave messages for yourself. For example, in her undergraduate study, Levitte drew an asterisk to mark well-written text or interesting information and a five-point star to mark bits she wanted to quote from.
However, for some, highlighting is not an option.
“I’m somebody who never highlights,” Serafini said. “I love my books too much.”
Instead, Serafini writes her thoughts in a notebook and indicates the page number of the passage they relate to. Sometimes, her notes include summaries of passages, but most of the time, they contain her reaction. However, Serafini never writes her personal notes as she would write them for a teacher.
“I would write them in a language I understand,” Serafini said. “Sometimes that sounds like, ‘Willie Shakes was wild here.’”
Serafini said writing notes can be time-consuming, but it is worth it.
If you value your books, like Serafini, or have to return them to a lender in their original condition, Levitte suggests writing your remarks on sticky notes.
FIND SOMETHING TO RELATE TO
Sometimes, Levitte and Gul said, texts are excruciatingly boring. It takes extra effort to work through a text that does not pique your interest.
Levitte mentioned looking for bits of text that stand out to you, but Gul proposes finding “meaningful connections” between a text’s ideas and some personal experiences or interests to keep you engaged. Perhaps a general education course reading has some ideas you can apply to your major, or maybe you relate to some of the issues an academic paper discusses.
But even if a text is uninteresting, you might still learn something from it, Levitte said.
READ IN A GROUP
While many classes that assign readings also have classroom discussions, it can be helpful for students to gather independently for a “book talk,” as Gul said. Gul and Levitte both suggest finding a group to read together with or to discuss the assigned reading.
Levitte said students “vastly underestimate” the power of discussion and reading out loud. Even a half-hour meeting to discuss a text can help a lot, Gul said.
“Everyone can understand a text in a different way and contribute ideas,” Gul said.
If you are especially struggling with reading, Levitte recommends meeting with a writing tutor or reaching out to student support services on campus. Both are services available at many colleges in the United States.
“People talk badly about SparkNotes, but they’re a good resource,” Serafini said.
Reading summaries of the readings, when available, can help to deepen your understanding of the text or, if you’re completely stuck, give you some idea of what the text is about.
READ IT AGAIN
As the saying goes, when at first you don’t succeed, try again. Some international students have to read a text several times to understand what it is about, Gul said.
Gul said she advises her students to focus on understanding a text the first time they read it. The second time they read it, they analyze it while looking up words they don’t know. The third time, Gul suggests synthesizing their own ideas and opinions with those they extracted from the text.
Gul said she finds something new every time she revisits a text.
Reading may be difficult, but Gul, Levitte and Serafini all said that absorbing text is an important skill. Life after graduation comes with manuscripts, contracts, newspapers, technical articles, food labels and much more that requires attention and comprehension.
Levitte said reading familiarizes students with their field and gives them an idea of what work in the field sounds like in writing.
Gul said reading is important for strengthening vocabulary and other language skills such as speaking, listening and especially writing.
“If you don’t read, you won’t be able to write anything,” Gul said.
Reading also “enriches the understanding of one’s self,” she said. It is helpful for broadening one’s horizons and shifting perspectives and understanding other people.
“Reading is the foundation of everything,” Gul said.