Read an Excerpt
How to Read a Book
(…and understand everything in it.)
When you see Sally she is usually carrying a book under her arm. I am not talking only about the times when you see Sally at school. She often has a book with her when she is at the shopping mall, riding in the car, going to see relatives, or doing just about anything where there might be an opportunity to read. Now, you might think Sally is a bookworm, but that would not be accurate because she enjoys spending a lot of time with her friends and doing a lot of different things. Very simply put, books are one of Sally's main hobbies.
People practice their hobbies in many different ways. Some people like to collect stamps or trading cards, others like to listen to music or go to the movies, and still others like to travel and visit new places. Sally likes to read books--all different kinds of books. She is happy to browse through the library looking at different titles in different sections. Even though she is not reading all of these books, she feels that it gives her a good idea of the various things people have written about. When her interest is strong enough, she takes a book out of the library to investigate more deeply. She also likes to go to a large bookstore near her home, where she can see the latest releases or perhaps pick up a bargain book for her own library.
Sally's love of books has made it a lot easier for her to do well in school because, after all, you do have to read a lot of books in your classes. When Sally gets an assignment and has to read a chapter, it almost seems like she is practicing her hobby. The books she uses in her classes are written very clearly and are really quite interesting. The only thing that is different is that sometimes she has to do a written exercise for the school assignment. To Sally that seems like a small price to pay for the opportunity to read another book about something new and interesting.
Reading assignments come more easily for Sally than for most other students. First of all, she has read so many books and learned so many new words that the whole experience feels very natural to her. Also, Sally usually only has to do an assigned reading one time because she understands just about everything the first time through. Sally has more fun reading than most students because she really knows how to read a book.
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The reason I have told you this story is to suggest that reading books can be fun, and that there are certain methods you can use to get the most out of them. When picking up a book, your first impulse might be to jump right in and start reading from the first page. Unfortunately, this is the wrong way to go about it because you are probably going to miss a lot of information, or have a hard time organizing it. There are several things you need to do first to get the most out of a book. You need to think about what you are doing, and then take a couple of important steps. Like Sally, you need to learn the proper way to read a book.
Before I give you advice on how to read a book, I want to say a few things about what books mean to me. As you might expect, since I am an author, books are very important to me. I like to collect all different types of books, in the same way that many people like to collect other things or follow hobbies. I think I have probably saved every book I have ever had from my earliest years. When I go to book shows, I meet a lot of other authors and they give me autographed copies of their books. I have several bookshelves built into walls in my house to help organize all of these books.
When I walk through my study and look at my books, they give me a special feeling. I can glance at the title of a book, and the main idea of what the book is about immediately comes to my mind. This makes me realize just how much I have learned from all of the books I have read over my lifetime, and how much enjoyment they have given to me. People who write books usually know a lot about a subject, and when they write their thoughts down they have to think very deeply and express themselves very clearly. You probably know from your own experiences that it takes a lot of effort to write something that is worth reading.
There is another point I want to make about books, and it is one that most of us take for granted: Books give us the opportunity to learn about the ideas of great thinkers, even those who have been dead many years. When we read their words, it is almost as if they are sitting in the room right next to us. Without books we could only learn about their ideas through the interpretations of others. If you think about it, you will realize that books are the means by which knowledge has been transmitted across the ages.
Even more important to you, the books you read in school will help you learn more about the subject you are studying and score higher on tests. Teachers will often ask you to do a reading assignment on a subject before they discuss it in the classroom. If you have done your reading ahead of time, you will understand more when the teacher presents it in class. So you see, reading and understanding books is essential if you want to do well in school. Given the importance of books, you want to make sure that you get the most out of them.
Getting Ready to Read
Now, let's suppose that you have just picked up a new textbook for one of your classes, and you are going to do your first reading assignment. You may be anxious to jump right in and start reading, but there are a couple of things you should do beforehand.
The first thing to do is find a spot where you will be able to read in comfort--remember, reading should be a leisurely activity. I like to wear very loose, comfortable clothing, and find a big easy chair where I can relax. You don't want to get too comfortable, however, or you might find yourself dozing off. Some people feel very relaxed reading at their desks, particularly if they are studying math and science and need to write something down. This is really a personal matter, and you will need to decide on the spot that works best for you.
Your reading spot should also be quiet enough so you will not be distracted by other noises in the house.
You will find it easier to read if your reading spot has plenty of light. If you read in a dark corner, you may get tired or even damage your eyes. I find that I stay more alert by reading under fluorescent light than a bright lamp. Try to sit where the light will shine overhead, or over your shoulder, rather than in your eyes.
Now that we have all of that out of the way, let's talk about how to read that new textbook.
Review Before Reading
When you get a new textbook, it is always a good idea to look the book over before actually starting to read it. The complete title on the first page, or title page, will give you a good idea of what the book is about. You should read the short statement about the author at the back of the book to learn something about the author's background and experiences. Next, read the preface or introduction at the beginning of the book to find out why the author wrote the book, and what he or she hopes to accomplish. Following this, look over the table of contents to see the specific subjects that are covered and how they are organized. This approach will give you a good overall idea of what the book is about.
You still need to do that reading assignment that the teacher handed out. Do you just go to the first page and start reading? Not yet--it's still too soon. You should get an overall idea of what the reading assignment is about before actually reading it.
Let's say that the reading assignment is the first chapter in the book. You should quickly flip through all of the pages in the first chapter to see what it contains and how it is organized. As you flip through, look at the major headings, minor headings, summary statements, and conclusions. Pay particular attention to anything in bold print, or any graphs, pictures, or equations in the chapter.
By skimming through the chapter in this manner, you have obtained a good idea of how it is organized and what it contains. You have just sent a lot of information to your mind, so you will understand and remember more when you start reading the chapter. This is because you will have an idea of what is coming next, how it fits in with what you have already read, and how everything fits together to tell the whole story. Always preview your reading assignments in this way before actually reading them.
Now you're ready to actually start reading the assignment. If you are wondering whether you just start at the beginning and read all of the way to the end, you need to know that there is a whole lot more to it than that. How you read the book will determine how much you get out of, it!
Ask Questions as You Read
The main thing to remember in reading a book is that you need to be an "active" reader, not a "passive" reader. Do you know the difference between the two, and which description applies to you?
A passive reader may read all of the words, but does not think or concentrate deeply about what they mean. This type of reader does not try to figure out what the author is trying to say, does not relate one sentence or thought to another, and does not compare the ideas to his or her own experiences. Passive readers do not ask any questions--they are just trying to get the assignment done so they can go on to something else they would rather be doing. As a result, their attention starts to drift, and they find themselves thinking about anything other than what they are reading--such as, what am I going to do after school with my friends? Who's going to win the ball game tonight? I wonder if that movie I am going to see is any good? Passive readers don't enjoy what they read, and they sure don't get much out of it, either.
The active reader will have a much better understanding of what a book is about, and will find the experience very enjoyable. Active readers not only understand each idea presented by the author, they also understand the relationships between the ideas. Understanding is not the same as memorizing, because you can memorize something without understanding it. If you really understand something, you can describe it in your own words and it will mean the same thing that the author said.
The way to reach a high level of understanding about what an author is saying is to ask yourself some important questions while you are reading the book, and try to answer them. For example, you should ask yourself (1) what the book is all about, (2) what it says in detail, and (3) whether the author has said something similar to what your teacher said in class.
The best way to understand what you are reading is to compare it to your own knowledge and experiences. Ask yourself if you have experienced something similar to what you are reading about, or if what you have read changes your view of the world or the way things work. Sometimes this can be difficult, especially if you are reading about something you have not experienced, such as the Vietnam or Gulf Wars. In such cases, you might want to discuss the subject with an adult who has lived through the experience. The important point is that by making these comparisons, it will be easier for you to understand and remember what you have read.
If you want to become a more active reader, you should also ask yourself some critical questions. What do I mean by critical questions? I mean that you should constantly question what the author is saying. For example, see if you can figure out what questions the author is trying to answer, and how he or she goes about answering them. Ask yourself what the author has assumed, and whether his or her statements are based on knowledge, facts, experiences, or opinions.
You should also ask yourself if the author is presenting things fairly, and decide whether you agree or disagree with him or her. If you disagree, is it because the author has not explained things clearly, or perhaps not offered any proof for the statements? You may not know the answers to all of these questions, but asking them--and trying to answer them!--will make you a much better reader.
Sometimes it is difficult to keep everything straight in your head, especially if you are reading about a subject that is complicated. You may find it helpful to jot certain things down on paper as you read, such as points that you want to remember, or questions that you want to think more deeply about. The simple act of writing things down helps many people to understand a subject more fully. You are more likely to do this if you have a pencil and paper on hand when you sit down to read.
Good readers ask themselves questions all of the time, even after they have finished reading. For example, after you have finished a chapter, take a few minutes to quiz yourself on the material presented by the author. Ask yourself the question, "What have I really learned in this chapter, and what are the main ideas I am taking away from it?"
In addition to asking yourself questions, there are several other things you can do to become a more active reader. They all involve trying to understand everything of importance that the author has presented in the book.
Use The Dictionary
If you want to understand what the author is trying to tell you, then you must read and understand all of the words he or she uses in the book. For the rest of your life you will be developing your vocabulary. If you come across words that you do not understand, you should take the time to look up their meaning in the dictionary. Sometimes you can understand what a word means by the way it is used in a sentence. This is helpful, but it is not a substitute for looking words up in the dictionary.
In addition to looking up words that you do not know in the dictionary, here is a simple activity that will help build your vocabulary: Each day, glance through the dictionary and find one word that you don't know. Make a point of mastering one new word a day, and by the end of the year you will have mastered 365 new words. It may help if you write down each new word in a notebook along with relevant information about it.
When you look up a word in the dictionary, take a few minutes to study the information provided. In particular, look at the origin of words (where they came from), how to spell and pronounce them, different parts of speech, and their various meanings. Try to associate the word with something or with an experience in your own life, because this will make it easier to remember the word. If you are looking up technical words for a science class, it is very important to understand their meaning, or you will not be able to understand the idea being discussed.
Looking up words in the dictionary will not only help you understand what the author is trying to say, it will also build your vocabulary. As you learn more words it will be easier to understand other authors, and you will be able to express yourself more clearly when writing essays or answers to exam questions. This will help you in all of your classes, not just English. You should never stop looking up words in the dictionary; I still do it today. Just think, the more words you learn, the fewer you will have to look up in the dictionary later on.
Understanding the Author's Message
If you really want to understand everything the author is trying to tell you, then you have to read everything presented in the book. This means that not only do you have to read the words, you must also study and understand all of the charts, graphs, tables, and pictures in the book. Some students skip over these materials, but this is a big mistake. You should realize that the author put them there for a very good reason, and you may be missing something very important if you skip over them. Charts and graphs complement the text. When you take time to understand these visual aids, you gain a better understanding of what you are reading about.
Even if you have read something very carefully, and looked up words in the dictionary, it may be difficult to understand what the author is trying to say. Some subjects are very complicated, so you may have to dig deeper to understand them.
If this is the case, you may have to reread a book in a different way to figure out what the author is trying to say. One approach is to read more slowly and concentrate on one sentence at a time. One of my favorite sayings is "Learn to read slow--all other graces will follow in their proper places." After you read a sentence, stop for a few seconds and ask yourself what the sentence means. Try to relate the new information to what the author has already covered.
Let me give you an example of this approach. Suppose in your history or government textbook you read that the First Amendment is the source of Americans' freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly. Think carefully about what this means. The author may have already discussed the Bill of Rights, and mentioned that it comprises the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. You may want to refer back to the discussion of the Bill of Rights to compare the First Amendment with the other amendments.
If you still cannot understand what the author is saying, mark the confusing part and skip over it. Read ahead a little bit further and then go back to the part you did not understand; it may now be easier to figure out. Sometimes we can understand ideas by looking at other ideas in a story, in the same way that we can understand words by looking at other words in a sentence.
To become an active reader, you must discover the methods that allow you to learn most effectively. None of us are the same, and different people use different faculties for learning information. Some people learn the most through their sense of vision, others rely on their sense of hearing, and still others find that different senses work the best for them. For example, some students like to read silently to themselves, others prefer to read out loud, and some find that their best way to learn information is to write it down.
I have seen some people use a magic marker or pencil while they are reading, to underline words, highlight ideas, and write questions in the margin. (Of course, you shouldn't be marking up books that do not belong to you.) If you think about it, we all use some combination of our senses to learn new material. You need to find the combination that works the best for you.
How will you know that you are becoming a more active reader? It's really quite simple. You are becoming an active reader when you can figure out the author's next thought or statement before you actually read it. This means that you have figured out what the author is trying to say and you have lined up your thoughts with his or hers.
I also have some things to say about the speed at which you read. I know that everyone wants to read faster because there are a lot of other things they would rather be doing, such as playing sports, watching movies, reading other books, or just goofing off. But it is important to remember that you should never emphasize speed above everything else, because you may end up missing a lot.
A lot of nonsense has been written about speed reading. I have seen advertisements that say they can teach you how to read fast by running your finger down the page. That may be the best way to look someone up in the telephone book, but you are not going to learn very much at that speed. Some even say that they can show you how to read the Bible in a couple of hours using their methods. Forget about all of these gimmicks. Most of the people who emphasize speed are just turning a lot of pages so they can tell their friends how many books they have read, rather than what they have learned from them.
The secret to reading faster, and still understanding what you have read, is to see more words as your eyes move across the page. People who can see a whole word at a time will read faster than people who can only see a letter at a time, and people who can see several words in a phrase at a time will read faster than people who can only see one word at a time. As your eyes move across the page, you occasionally have to stop, so the more words you can see before stopping, the faster you will read.
It should now be obvious why looking up the meaning of words in the dictionary is a good idea. If you have a small vocabulary, you will not be able to read at a smooth and rapid rate. Every time you come across a word that you do not know, you have to stop and try to figure out what it means. It may take you more time in the short run to look up the meaning of the word, but in the long run you will be reading faster because there will not be as many interruptions.
It is also important for you to recognize that some books must be read more slowly than others. If you are reading a light novel, you can usually read it very quickly because you can understand the material as fast as you read it. On the other hand, if you are reading science or math books, you usually have to read them more slowly because the subjects are more complicated. If you hurry on to the next topic without fully understanding the one you are reading, then you are just making things harder for yourself. Fortunately, reading assignments in science and math tend to be shorter than in subjects such as English and history.
As you get more experience in reading, you will read more quickly in a very natural way. Just remember that it is always important to read all of the words the author has written rather than skipping over some of them; otherwise, you may miss part of the author's message. You should never force yourself to read at a faster speed than you can handle naturally, because this can be very unpleasant. It can make you feel uncomfortable or even cause your eyes to get tired. I would advise you not to worry about your reading speed. Read at a rate that allows you to understand all of the material in a comfortable way.
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By now you should have a good idea of what it takes to become an active reader. An active reader is like an explorer going out to learn new things. By becoming an active reader you will be turning the reading experience into an exciting adventure. The more things you know, the better you will be able to enjoy new knowledge because you will have a better understanding of how the world works. As I mentioned to you at the beginning of this chapter, I get a special feeling when I look at all of the books on my bookshelves that I have read. That special feeling comes from knowing that I have made the authors' wisdom part of my own.
Well, now that you know what you need to do to become an active reader, you should quickly preview this entire book and read the rest of it using the new methods you have learned.
To become an active and effective reader:
1. preview a book before actually reading it.
2. continually ask yourself questions,
3. look up new words in the dictionary,
4. read at your own pace.
Copyright © 1999 by Gordon W. Green, Jr., Ph. D.