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Choosing a Reading Strategy

TIP Sheet
CHOOSING A READING STRATEGY

Good drivers don't drive the same speed on every road and under all conditions. They speed up on the interstate and slow down for curves and pedestrians. They drive more slowly in rain or fog. Similarly, good readers don't read everything the same way or at the same pace. Depending on your purpose-that is, knowing what it is you need to know–you can intelligently choose a reading strategy and pace that meets your needs. An appropriate strategy avoids information overload and improves your understanding. Reading strategies vary depending on the type of reading:

  • Leisure reading
  • Study reading
  • Skimming
  • Scanning

 

Reading purpose
The best readers know why they are reading. The leisure readers' purpose is escapist: to savor language, ideas, images, and predicaments. The purpose of study reading is to gather and remember main ideas, facts, and terminology, and be able to make meaningful connections among them. The purpose of skimming is to get a rapid bird's-eye view of the material. Scanning quickly locates specific facts. A lover of detective novels wouldn't dream of skimming a novel rapidly before reading it. Neither should a study reader plod in a straight line through a textbook without variation in speed or attention.

Do you need a detailed knowledge of the subject? Then you will need to read the material closely. But if you just need to know the main points, begin by reading only the section titles. Do you need factual answers to study questions? Skim and scan. Maybe you don't need to read a particular book at all; maybe you only need to find certain passages in it. Read the index or table of contents first for page numbers to the appropriate sections. It is not cheating to skim over nonessential material in search of the essential!

Passive reading
Ineffective readers read passively. They do not have a clear idea what they want to learn, how it can connect to other subject areas, or why they ought to care. They depend on the author to motivate, inspire, organize and tell them what is essential and unessential. Passive readers allow the author to do the thinking-they are just along for the ride.

The result is that passive readers daydream. They have trouble concentrating. They fail to grasp the overall organization of the material. They come away with a hazy understanding of what they have read, and forget it in a short time. They are not motivated to read further because it seems boring and a waste of time.

Passive readers are often slow readers. They believe that if they read slowly, they will understand more. On the contrary, though, slow reading can actually interfere with understanding because the reader's thoughts do not slow down-they just have more time to wander.

Passive readers often make the mistake of trying to read everything at the same pace. If all the parts of a book were of equal value, there might be some logic to this. But, like a highway system, books are full of twists and turns, ramps and straight-aways. A steady 45 mph may be too fast for the twists and too slow for the open road. In reading, too, environmental conditions vary. There are many factors, uncontrollable by the reader, that might demand a slower reading pace: a poorly written book; a very dense, technical book; an overheated or noisy room; a worried mind. But the more you slow your reading, the more you should practice active reading.

Active reading
Active readers engage mentally with their books. They "talk back" to the authors and compare ideas. They take sides and make objections. And effective study-readers spend as much time interacting with the physical text as they do reading-flipping pages back and forth, reading end-of-chapter questions first, stopping for pictures and graphics, and marking up the margins. A textbook is not an Agatha Christie murder mystery: you can look ahead. In fact, you should look ahead. For more on study reading, see the TIP Sheets "Study Reading: SQ3R" and "Double-Entry Reading Journals."

Skimming and scanning require a fierce physical and mental attention that can be quite tiring if you're doing it right. They require the reader to move in a disciplined way through the text, avoiding the impulse to stray. Eye movement and finger movement coordinate to move rapidly, for example from keyword to keyword or from heading to heading. Use skimming to preview the reading of your textbooks. That way, when you finally settle down to read closely, you will have already picked up the general tone and context and will understand and remember new ideas more readily. Also use skimming to review books and notes. Scanning is a similarly rapid reading used to locate specific facts, for example to answer factual questions. The questions supply keywords, while the reader moves rapidly through the pages to locate them. Use scanning for research and in-depth studying of fact-heavy subjects. For more, see the TIP Sheet "Skimming and Scanning."

Leisure readers can afford to read more slowly, but they still read actively. They visualize–create mental pictures–as they read. They may interact with their reading by mentally comparing characters, relating one idea to another, predicting outcomes, or guessing solutions. They might underline or otherwise mark favorite passages. We read literature and poetry this way. Reading Shakespeare, for example, without visualizing his spaces and characters and guessing at outcomes would be a sterile exercise! Comprehension and personal insight into literature are both the result of active reading.

Some people may never be avid readers. But all readers can learn ways to actively engage with reading in a way that achieves their purpose and improves their understanding and speed.

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