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Questions to think about

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Here are some questions to think about to help you develop effective reading strategies:

Your purpose for reading

  • What do we mean by purpose?
  • Why is it important to consider your purpose for reading a text?
  • How does your purpose determine the strategies you should use?

Getting started with reading

  • How should you approach a long subject reading list?
  • How does background knowledge affect your reading of a text?

Reading critically

  • What is meant by a critical approach to reading?
  • How do you take a critical approach to reading internet material?

What do we mean by purpose?

To read successfully, we need to know why we are reading a text, what we need to get from it, and to think about how we can use our knowledge of other related texts to formulate questions. As we explore ideas and think critically about issues raised, we make greater sense of a text.

Being aware of our purposes - and of the kind of text we are reading - helps us decide which texts to read, and which texts not to bother with.

Our purpose can involve looking for the following:

  • factual information
  • more details
  • evidence
  • an overview
  • an interpretation
  • another interpretation

Why is it important to consider your purpose for reading a text?

Suppose you are writing a sociology essay, on social attitudes to literacy and education in the 1990s. You might well refer to newspapers, not as a source of factual information, but as evidence of social attitudes of the time. This will affect how you read these newspaper articles. You will read them as evidence, and this will involve you in interpreting the news reports in light of what they might tell us about social attitudes.

You will not be reading the articles for their factual content as such. So once again, which texts we select to read, and how we read them, depends upon many factors, including our purpose, and what counts as acceptable for our purposes in the discipline.

How does your purpose determine the strategies you should use?

Our purpose determines our strategies.

Think about how you read a newspaper. Do you begin with the first word on the first page and read through to the last word on the last page? Of course not! But why not?

When you pick up a novel, where do you begin reading? Why don't you normally read the chapters in an order of your choosing?

How do you approach:

  • a text book
  • an edited collection
  • an academic article

The way you deal with a text depends upon your knowledge about such texts (that newspapers are a collection of separate news and opinion articles, and that they are usually organised into sections such as local news, international news, sports etc, so you can find very easily the information you want) and you can decide which order to read the contents in.

Academic articles and books do not need to be read word by word, nor do we necessarily need to start at the beginning!

You will understand why more fully as you proceed with the exercises that follow.

How should you approach a long subject reading list?

It is very important not to let time and availability determine which texts you look at. Although a book may not be available in the library, you may be able to find a review of the book (ask your lecturer) which will tell you basically what the book is about and identify its strengths and weaknesses.

You cannot usually read everything on a reading list. But this does not mean you select one or two, and ignore the rest. Scan the reading list for authors' names, more recent dates, or shorter (or longer) accounts, depending on what you want.

Try to get some idea of the range of issues and approaches the texts cover, and the significance of them. (A study group might be useful; each member reads a different text and summarises it for the others.)

As you begin to take an interest in certain topics, you can choose texts to read more closely, and focus your reading in a constructive way. By then you will have obtained a basic understanding of the general issues, and some sense of how your topic of interest fits into the wider picture.

How does background knowledge affect your reading of a text?

We always bring to a text background knowledge of a general sort and knowledge that relates more directly to the content of the text.

A professor brings a great deal of background knowledge to a text. He or she can consider the context, and all the issues and questions in light of many other texts. A student may be a relative 'beginner', but can still start to build up his or her own picture of what the issues and questions are. Reading generally becomes easier.

What is meant by a critical approach to reading?

A critical approach to reading means asking yourself why this particular author has written this particular text. You can ask yourself many questions about the text - the more the better. These are shaped by what you already understand about the text, and what you need to get from it.

Questions you can ask about the text:

What appears to be the author's main theme or point?

  • What is the text really about (i.e. special agenda, underlying themes)?
  • Which aspects does the author seem to be interested in focusing on and why? Does he/she omit any important points?
  • Are there additional clues about the author's attitude or stance (e.g. from his/her position/qualifications, country of origin; the text's date of publication or publisher; the type of text)?
  • What theoretical perspective has the author taken (e.g. which writers does she/he cite most often or most approvingly)?
  • What basis or criteria is the author using to make judgements?
  • What explanations or supporting evidence are drawn on? Do they seem adequate, completely relevant?
  • Is all the factual information correct as far as you know?
  • Is the author making any particular assumptions? On what authority?
  • Are there problems with the approach, or questions which remain unanswered?
  • What does the structure of the text reveal? Is the framework clear (e.g. different theories compared with a preferred theory)? Is the material developed historically, in order of importance, in terms of a debate?

How do you take a critical approach to reading internet material?

As you read internet material, you take a critical approach as outlined in this tutorial, but in addition, consider the following:

  • Is it clear who authored the material (not the same as the site maintainer)?
  • Is it clear which pages belong to the site you accessed and which are linked pages to other sites?
  • Where do the author's hyperlinks take you? What does this tell you about the author's perspective or intentions?
  • Is the purpose of the site clear?
  • Are the identity and the status of the writer quite clear? Is the writer qualified to express these views on this topic? (you can cross-check using sites with similar material, or books/articles.)
  • o Is there any evidence of potential bias, e.g. are they expressing the views of a particular organisation/institution? What effect do the domains .edu, .com, or .gov have on the validity and usefulness of the materials for you? Is the distinction between information and advertisement clear?
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