Reading Strategies


The purpose of practicing these strategies is to expand your repertoire of reading techniques and the ways you think about reading, the ways you perceive yourself as a reader. Keep in mind that many of these strategies are just exercises. Such exercises as mumbling or reading pages in a random order are not intended to become a permanent reading method, but they should help you understand how you read and perhaps suggest ways to become a sharper thinker while reading. Other strategies (such as reading aloud or dramatizing a passage) can frequently be used for short periods of time--so that when you return to your "normal" reading practices you may feel refreshed and refocused.

This page has three sections: Exploratory Strategies, Refresher Strategies, and Skilled Reader Strategies. Try a few at a time, mix and match, go in order, whatever you wish to do to bring new insights into your reading.


Exploratory Strategies

  1. The Special Reading Place. Find somewhere new to read, somewhere you have never previously spent any time, some place that is quiet and secluded, free of any likely interruptions. There are several rarely used areas in the library, many classrooms at night that have no one in them, or perhaps you want to find a noisy place that is so filled with noise that you can block out the distractions. You might also consider a few places off campus; Wendy's could be a great place to go for a drink, a few fries or a caesar salad (for the health conscious types), and virtually no one to bother you. Once, you are settled, pull out the book and start reading. And then return to this same place on at least two more occasions; and be precise about where you sit-not just in Wendy's but the same chair at the same table. Wherever you choose, do nothing here but read. No other studying allowed. No stereo music. No distractions. Nothing but reading. See if the place begins to invite reading, that once you get into the space, you begin to automatically assume the reader's frame of mind. Can we become better readers by changing our environment?

  2. Start with the Conclusion. Read the conclusion of the text first. You can decide how much of the conclusion you want to read, but select a long enough passage so you can gain some idea of what is happening. If you choose a ten-page essay, you might read the last 3-4 paragraphs; if a two-page poem, perhaps the last 20-25 lines. After you've read the conclusion, go to the beginning and read the piece all the way through. While reading, keep in mind what you know about the conclusion and consider how the pieces of text you are reading might somehow prepare the reader for that ending.

  3. Reading Pages in Random Order. Choose a story or essay or book chapter of 5-10 pages and read the pages in random order. For example, in a 9-page story, you can begin with page 7, read page 3, then jump to page 6. You can continue this process until all pages have been read, or you can stop after you have read at least half of text. Before beginning this random reading, write down the order of the pages as you intend to read them. After you finish this first reading, think about what you discovered, and then reread the pages of the text in the right order. Notice how the piece unfolds, notice the transition devices that help structure the composition, notice the way ideas and details build on each other. This reading strategy may seem crazy, and it's certainly not a strategy that you would use for all reading assignments, but with some luck you may discover some new insights about how compositions are structured-and how you look for clues to help you discover what is going on in a text. Also consider how your reading the second time might compare with what it would be like if you were meeting this text for the first time.

  4. Gradual Increase in Reading Speed. You need to choose a composition that is at least six pages long. Read the first page, stopping whenever you need to reconsider what's happening, what is being said. When you reach the bottom of the first page, go back to the beginning of the text and start reading a second time. Try to establish a normal, even-paced reading rate. At the beginning of the third page, start to pick up your reading speed very slightly. Don't rush, don't get tense; just read a bit faster than normal while maintaining a smooth, even tempo to your reading. Try to maintain this speed to the end of the composition. If you do need to stop or reread a passage, that's fine, but once you enter the text, try to return to the slightly faster reading pace. After you finish reading, think for a minute or so about how this variation in your reading speed affected your comprehension.

  5. Spotting Key Words. For an initial encounter with a text, skim through a text, underlining suspected key words. Be on the lookout for new or unfamiliar words, phrases, or terms and underline them. Do this for the first four pages of the composition. When you reach the bottom of page 4, go back and look up any unfamiliar words or phrases. Write marginal notes explaining/defining what you learn from your dictionary or another source. Now read through the piece all the way through. Does the preparation spent on the first four pages help you read those pages and the remaining text more effectively? Did you notice a significant difference in comprehension or interest when you moved into the previously unexplored text?

  6. Twenty Details. While you are reading, place a check mark next to any passage that expresses a key idea or important insight or simply something that you find interesting. By the end of the text, aim for twenty check marks. If you don't have twenty check marks, go back to the beginning and start reading again, checking off important passages you missed the first time until you have about twenty check marks. Now take a quick look at each marked passage and in the margins (or at the end of the piece) summarize the most significant points you identified.

  7. Kinesthetic Reading. Most of the time when we are reading, we are sitting down or lying on a bed or scrunched up on a sofa. For this reading strategy, you need to be up and about. This exercise would probably work best with a fairly short passage, no more than 4-5 pages. While reading, read with your entire body. Feel the words in your body. Allow yourself to move around, to walk, to pace, even to dance. Think of the words as instructions for dancing. Use your body movements as a way to interpret the text or to give emphasis to key moments. You might want to read the text twice. The first time, just reading in a normal way. Then use the kinesthetic reading for your second time through the text.

  8. Reading on a Walk. Take your book and go for a walk (this is a strategy that works better in June than in January). During the walk, stop a few times and read from your text. Then continue walking. Or you can go for a walk, find a nice cozy bench or swing, and read the entire text in one sitting. But periodically refresh yourself. Stop looking at the words and enjoy the spring flowers or fall leaves, the squirrels planting acorns, the clouds above the trees. Relax and read some more.

  9. Stopping at the Halfway Point. Before starting the text, mark a point in the text that is approximately in the middle. After reading the first half of the text, stop and think about what you have read. Do some quick review, skimming through the portions you have read to remind yourself of details or key points you may have forgotten. In the margins write some brief notes to summarize what you have so far. Now finish reading the second half of the text. Repeat the skimming, review, and summarizing for the second half of the text.

  10. Reading Two Pieces Simultaneously. The title of this strategy is misleading. You won't read the two pieces at exactly the same time. But the idea is to read two pieces back to back, and to try and keep the first piece in your thoughts while reading the second piece. This strategy does not always work, but it is surprising how often two different compositions will speak to each other-that some image or idea appearing in one piece will enable you to understand something in a second composition. This strategy involves a kind of comparison, so that when you finish the second piece you can reflect on how these two pieces relate to each other. The relationship can be in terms of character or plot (applicable, for example, if you're comparing two short stories) or phrasing or ideas or speaking voices or whatever. This strategy can be used in combination with another strategy, so you read the first piece using one strategy and the second piece using this strategy. When you finish the second piece, jot down a few notes in the margins of your text, reflecting on how the two pieces compare.

  11. Reading Inductively/Deductively. To read inductively is to move from specifics to generalizations, to use details and examples and specific bits of information and draw conclusions from that data, and thus to discover the thesis, the controlling idea, the main point(s) to be drawn from the text. To read deductively is to begin with the generalizations, the thesis, the main point(s) and then to read for purposes of acquiring evidence to support the thesis or to test the thesis to determine its accuracy or appropriateness. As a simple rule of thumb, we begin new texts by reading inductively, trying to use the text's data to give us a clue on how to interpret and comprehend the text's messages. At some point we construct a hypothesis for telling us what this essay or story or poem or chapter or book is about. That controlling idea hypothesis may come as soon as we read the title; it may come when we finish reading the first paragraph or the first page or when we finish the text--or perhaps such an insight never arrives. But usually at some moment in the text there will be a shift in our reading: we grasp the author's message and then our reading process shifts, taking in new data from the text and plugging that new information into the schema or plan that the mind has created for this text (a creation based on discoveries while reading). Try reading a text while keeping this inductive/deductive tension in mind. As you are reading, occasionally think about which kind of reading you are doing: inductive or deductive? And then see if there isn't some moment (or perhaps more than one moment) when your reading strategy switches and you switch modes. If such a switch occurs, jot down a brief note in the margin indicating where this happened, and you might reflect on why. If you reach the end of the text but you still have no sense of a controlling idea for this text, start reading it again and keep reading until you can articulate what this text is about. Summarize that insight in the margins of the text, close to the passage you were reading when the insight came to you.

  12. Visualizing Yourself as a Reader. We often allow negative thoughts and mental baggage to interfere with our comprehension of a text. It's difficult to enjoy playing basketball if you are constantly telling yourself how you hate basketball and how lousy you are as a player. Maybe by the standards of Michael Jordan you are not a great basketball player, but we don't all have to be the best in order to gain value from what we are doing. When a task is at hand, just do the task. That doing can be helped if you visualize yourself succeeding at this task. Reading can perhaps be helped by an ability to see yourself as a reader. Before you begin reading a text, create a mental picture of yourself reading the piece. See yourself as a confident reader, someone who knows how to handle difficult challenges. No need to be cocky, just a sense that you can handle this text. And then start reading. And when your concentration drops or various kinds of interference interrupt your thought, stop reading, focus on the interference for a moment, tell it to go away, wipe it from the mind, and return to the text, again seeing yourself as the reader.

    Refresher Strategies

  13. Mumbling. While you are reading, actually voice the words, speaking clearly enough that you can just hear the words you are reading to yourself. Give some inflection to your voice so you are not reading everything in a monotone, but keep your voice relatively quiet. Do not read with a full, loud voice. It is probably best to try this strategy in some location where your mumbling will not bother others. [While thinking about this exercise, you might keep in mind that silent reading is a fairly recent development. Prior to the 15th century, very few people read silently. If you visited a medieval monastery, for example, you would have found all the monks mumbling the words while reading. The assumption was that to read, you needed to hear the words-and so nearly all reading was done aloud.]

  14. Reading Aloud to Someone. This is another strategy that will probably work best with a short piece or an excerpt from a longer piece; it also depends on going through a text two times. Begin by reading through the composition in a "normal" way. When you are finished, find a reading partner, someone willing to listen to you read and talk with you about the piece after you are finished. The Writing Center staff are always available for these sessions. While reading the text aloud to your partner, the two of you can decide if your partner will just listen or will follow along in the text as you read. Once you are finished reading, discuss the piece. The topic of the conversation can be wide open-whatever you and your partner want to discuss-but try to stay focused on the text, talking about main ideas or writing style or whatever catches your fancy. When the conversation is over, consider how the text has changed since you read it the first time.

  15. Someone Reading Aloud to You. Same process as above, except this time your partner reads the text aloud to you. All the other aspects of the strategy remain the same, including the five-minute conversation after the reading is done.

  16. Talking Through a Text. This strategy may be useful when encountering a complex or ambiguous text. Find a partner and the two of you work through a text together, perhaps line by line or sentence by sentence. As you proceed through the poem or essay or chapter, talk about any word or phrase or image that is puzzling or intriguing. Work together in constructing the text's meaning. Feel free to jot down notes if that helps.

  17. Telling Someone About What You Read. After you finish reading the text, go over the key discoveries in your mind. If necessary, review the text, perhaps jotting down some marginal notes. Then corner someone for a few minutes (e.g., room mate, lover, parent, drinking buddy, Writing Center Consultant, instructor, President Phifer) and tell the person something about what you read. Try to explain in substantial detail what you read, what you thought of it, how it compares with other texts you've read or movies you've seen or whatever seems comparable. Once the conversation is over, consider how the text changed for you once you began talking about it.

  18. Predictions Preceding Reading. Before you begin reading your text (for example, a chapter in your course textbook), think about the subject for the text and jot down a list of what you know about this subject. Don't worry about perfect sentences; just create a written portrait of the insights on this subject you already have at hand. While creating this list, you can also start a second list: what do you expect to learn from this text you are about to read? What do you want to learn? Once these two lists are done, start reading the text, keeping in mind how the new information corresponds with your previous knowledge and how well the text is answering your questions. Also track instances where you are surprised by what the text delivers, offering passages totally unexpected.

  19. End of Text Summary. When you are finished reading the story, poem, or essay, write a paragraph in the margin or at the end of the composition, summarizing what strikes you as most interesting or appealing or puzzling about this composition.

  20. A Reward. Before reading your selected piece, determine a reward you will give yourself for the successful completion of the assignment. You determine the appropriate reward, whether a handful of M & M's or 15 minutes watching TV or shooting pool with a professor. But be honest with yourself: don't give yourself the reward until you have read and understood the text you chose for yourself. No prize until you've earned the prize.

    Skilled Reader Strategies

  21. Underlining Key Words/Rereading. This strategy depends upon you planning to read a piece two times. The first time through the text, try to maintain a smooth, even reading tempo. But keep a pencil handy, and underline or put a check in the margins for identifying what you suspect are key words in the piece or new words that you don't recognize. After you finish, go back through the text. Think about the significance of the key words or marked phrases. Look up unfamiliar words and write the appropriate definitions in the margins. Now reread the piece, focusing your attention on details and insights unnoticed during the first reading. Note: you have two options for doing the second reading-it can occur immediately after the first reading and word study or you can let the text sit for a day or two and then come back to it.

  22. Skimming/Reading. Take a few minutes to skim through the text. While skimming, look for repeated names of people, names of organizations, recurrent words or phrases that might be important. When you are done with your skimming, spend a few moments guessing what is covered in this piece. What have you learned so far and what are you expecting to find when you read the complete text? Once you have thought about the text, read it straight through, tracking how your reading corrects or modifies or completes your initial impression. Focus on the new information you are acquiring and how this fits with what you learned from skimming.

  23. Marginal Notes. While reading, periodically jot down notes about the text in the white space around the text. The nature of the marginal notes are up to you. Notes can be summaries of important ideas, comments on ideas, brief quotes of interesting or puzzling passages, insights or responses you have while reading, etc.

  24. Annotating a Text. This is a technique for marking a text so the structure and main points or illustrations are highlighted. A reader can develop a personalized annotation system unique to the persona's individual reading habits. Here are a few annotation techniques that might prove beneficial:
    • Circle the thesis or key themes
    • Insert brackets around key supporting points
    • Underline key details and examples
    • Use marginal symbols to indicate personal feelings or insights about passage. For example:
      • "N.B." for the Latin phrase nota bene, 'mark well"; used to identify important, notable passages.
      • Question marks for passages that seem confusing or vague.
      • "Cf" for "confer" points: noting instances when the marked passages connects with some other passage in this text or another text.

    Whatever annotation system you devise, keep it simple and flexible.

  25. Hearing the Text Inside Your Head. While reading the text, listen to the voice inside your head reading the text. Be sure you can actually hear that voice and that the voice has a natural inflection, a sense of phrasing and rhythm. If the voice has trouble with a passage, don't hesitate to stop and reread. Listen to how your internal speaker handles the language. Don't forget to think about the meaning of the words, but also remain aware of how meaning is delivered through the sound of a voice and the way sentences are phrased and given life by the voice.

  26. Visualizing the Text. While reading, visualize what is happening, what is being suggested by the author's words. Try to see the landscape, the people, their actions. If the text is primarily abstractions and ideas, try to visualize the ideas in some way-or perhaps visualize the person delivering these ideas to you. You might imagine that you are creating a movie of the piece in your head, treating the text as a script.

  27. Reading and Rereading. Read your text using any strategies that feel most appropriate. Let the text sit unread for a few days and then reread the piece again. What did you remember? How was the second reading different from the first? Were you surprised by any discoveries in the second reading, seeing things that you didn't see the first time?

  28. Chewing the Cud. Reading involves not only the time when you are looking at a text but also the process of thinking and reworking the text and its ideas after you have absorbed the words and translated them into meaning. The process is perhaps analogous to cattle that eat their grass or hay (reading the words on the page) and then lie down to regurgitate their food and rechew what they had swallowed (what the writer Sven Birkerts calls "shadow reading"-continuing to think about the text after it has been translated from words on page to images and ideas in the mind). To practice this strategy, set aside time to do both kinds of reading. First, read the words on the page, using whatever strategy seems most helpful. Second, when you are finished with the text (or you can stop periodically during the reading), think about what you have read. You can jot down some notes while thinking, but try to focus on developing a mental reconstruction of key points in the text. If needed, feel free to look at passages of the text again, to refresh your mind on what was there. You need not rigorously time yourself, but try to put in at least ten minutes rethinking the text. At the end of this period of meditation and thought, write a few brief notes in your book identifying the major points you explored while "shadow reading."

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Email Dr. Bob Marrs with any questions, comments or suggestions.