Thoughts on Reading Well: Getting the Right Tools



We often do not think about what it means to read well.  In an efficiency- and productivity-conscious world such as ours, we tend to think that reading is one skill acquired in grade school and high school, and that reading well means reading quickly.  If one can read 100 pages and understand what is said in an hour, it would be better to be able to do that in a half-hour, or so the thinking goes.


What such an approach misses is that there are various reading strategies that apply to different kinds of texts, and students often struggle with particularly rich texts, not because they aren’t smart enough to get what they are saying, but rather because they’re not using the right reading strategy.  Reading strategies are like tools; if you can’t unscrew a Philips-head with a flat bit, that has nothing whatsoever to do with your wrist-strength.  It’s that you lack the proper tool. And so it is with reading.


So what are some different reading strategies?


  1. Textbook reading:  This is the mode that most of us practice all the time.  This is the form that will serve us very well on the SAT, but will not necessarily help us in theology, philosophy, or English. This form of reading demands the least effort on the part of the reader.  What is required is a fundamental grasp of grammar – that is, you can make sense of the words and sentences on the page – and a decent short-term memory—you can hold onto the information that the words and sentences convey for a brief period of time.  This is a crucial skill, since it allows us to digest a rather large quantity of information.  It is most useful for fact-based texts, when your object is to learn the information that the text is written to convey. This is the skill we need to read the newspaper, too.  Textbook reading is about extracting information.  If you are reading a work that aims to make a very specific argument, put the Textbook Reading Tool back in the box. You need something with a little more precision.


  1. Synoptic Reading: This mode of reading is close to the first, but it requires a bit more practice to do it well, and you can move more quickly through a text using this skill.  When you know that you do not need to know all the information in a given book, but you need to find out if a given book has anything useful for you, the synoptic reading skill is most useful.  Rather than starting at the beginning and moving to the end, synoptic reading works from the outside to the inside. That is, in this mode it is wise to first look at the Table of Contents (at the beginning) and the Index (at the end) to get a feel for the kinds of topics, ideas, or information this book contains.  Based on your initial evaluation of how useful the book will be for you, dip into a chapter or two. Read the introductory and concluding paragraphs of a chapter or a subsection to see if that will give you the gist.  If the result here is useful, then dip deeper in.  Synoptic Reading requires practical reasoning, i.e., your ability to discern what is useful for the task you have in mind.  Like Textbook reading, synoptic reasoning is about extracting information.  However, because it relies on your ability to select what is really useful in a text, it can be risky to read in this way when you find yourself in a new territory, because you don’t yet know what to look for and what to dismiss.


  1. Critical Reading: Critical Reading is the most important reading skill for you to acquire in college. Some have already been introduced to critical reading in high school, but many have not. As I say, the SAT cannot evaluate this skill, and since much high school education is undertaken with this end in mind, it may be that you’ve never had much practice.  And even if you’ve begun to acquire the skill in high school, you still have more work to do. I am a much better reader now, I think, than I was when I started teaching at Villanova in 1997. And my doctoral advisor is still a better reader than I am. 


Critical reading requires not only for you to understand what information was presented to you, but what the point of telling you all this is.  In other words, in critical reading, you are always involved in a dialogue with the text. Not just what is said, but how it is said, and how this bit of text relates to what precedes it.  Critical reading is about making connections, about calling into question, about tracing the lines of argument and detecting both brilliant insights and hidden mistakes.  It often requires multiple readings of the same text, because you’ll miss things on one pass that you’ll see on a second run.


Critical reading usually requires more than your eyes.  Most good readers I know read with a pencil – and maybe even a ruler – in hand.  Having pencil and ruler allows you to make notes of important passages, but it also allows a more participatory mode of reading, a kind of sustained attention to and interaction with the book.  When I was an upper-level undergraduate and then graduate student, I noticed that many of my mentors had writing on the inside covers, flyleaves, and back pages of their books.  What these readers did, and what I do today when I am engaged in real critical reading, is take notes – roughly an outline, with page numbers noted. I note significant points, the major steps of argument, and my own critical questions in these places.  This practice has at least two advantages. One, it forces me to try to discern and describe the basic structure of the argument in what I’m reading. I forget too easily how the argument moves, step by step, since I tend to get wrapped up in the conclusion.  Writing in this way forces me to slow down and see if I really understand what I am reading.  The second advantage is that, if I ever return to the book – at the end of the semester, or even years later—I have before my eyes a kind of personal Spark Notes to my own reading of the text  (note, sometimes if I return to a text, I see things very differently the first time around. So the Spark Notes analogy isn’t quite right.) 


Lastly, Critical reading is exhausting.  I cannot do serious critical reading for more than 2-3 hours a day, and that’s with a lot of practice at it. But for some this kind of reading is ultimately the most fun, since it allows you to get your whole mind involved, not just the information-processor.


  1. Diversionary Reading: Diversionary reading is beach reading.  For light novels or magazine articles or whatever.  It can go very fast.  I read Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince this summer in 36 hours, and I did not have a pencil.  Diversionary reading lets you get caught up in the story, and in this way, it’s like watching TV, but better, since you’re usually using your own imagination.  But you will find that you cannot hold onto detail in the diversionary mode. You can enjoy it very much, and you’ll remember the basic storyline, but narrative detail will pass out of your brain almost as soon as it enters in.


When I was an undergraduate, I discovered (really much to my own surprise) that it was really useful for me to pick something light and diversionary to read at really busy times – midterms, exam week, etc.  I don’t know exactly why this helps, but my theory is that studying for exams and writing papers gets my mind cranked up, so that I find it difficult to relax without thinking about the subject I am studying – even TV doesn’t quite do it. But light reading can really put my mind in a different frame, occupying it in another direction. And after all, you can only study so much in a day.  Just a thought for you to consider.


  1. Contemplative Reading:  This is a skill that very few of us learn early, and some of us never do, but if we do, it can be very rewarding, not just in school, but in the rest of life as we know it.  Contemplative reading involves finding some text that you trust and love– that you are willing to absorb and soak in.  For some, Scripture is such a text, but not only that.  Some find St. Augustine’s Confessions, Dante’s Divine Comedy, or a favorite novel or short story to play this role.  It’s important to note that this is not just “religious reading.”  Poetry is also something that, if you know you like the poet, you can give yourself over to.  The distinction is this: Contemplative Reading is more about formation  than it is about information. Great texts can shape your habits of mind, sharpen your sense of beauty, even give you a taste of the holy.  There are a few keys to Contemplative Reading.


·         First, don’t read too much.  Contemplative reading is about what the Benedictine monks used to call ruminatio, chewing on little bits to get all the juice out. There’s no hurrying contemplative reading.


·         Second, don’t be afraid to repeat yourself.  Reading the same thing over and over again can’t always give you more information, but it has an effect on you.  It will become part of the ‘furniture of your mind’ that way, and it will affect other things you see and do.


·         Lastly, try memorizing a favorite passage. In the ancient and medieval world, memorization was an essential part of reading. (If you want to see an interesting book on this theme, check out Jonathan Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci) This is a skill that we have lost entirely. In one sense, we don’t need to memorize, because books are cheap and the internet is even cheaper. But that’s only in the sense of information. Memorizing something helps reading be more than information and become formation.


It’s important to see that none of these reading strategies are better or worse than any other.  It’s not a question of good or bad reading, it’s a question of fitting the skill to the task at hand. And it’s not always a question of applying only one skill to a particular text. For example, reading well for Theology 1050 will require having tools 1, 2, and 3 ready to hand, and it will require learning how to switch between them.  For example, reading St. Augustine’s Exposition on Psalm 31 will be deadly and relatively useless if you try to read it in the Textbook Reading mode.  But if you make a first pass through Synoptic reading, you may be able to identify short passages that you can really read carefully in Critical Reading mode.  On the other hand, if you pick up White Noise, I think you’ll find that much of it will read like Diversionary reading, but you’ve got to listen with a ‘third ear’ for things that might require more attention and time. Reading Robert Barron, And Now I See, will be a time when good Textbook Reading will be useful, but again, it should trip a wire in your brain every now and then that will bring you back to a passage for Critical Reading. Last example:  Reading Genesis 1-4 or the Gospel of Mark, we will stick with a relatively short passage of text for a very long time.  This is when repetition will really help you. I suggest, e.g., that you re-read Genesis 1-4 at least three times in the course of our study of it.  For some of you, this may even be contemplative reading, whether or not you’re a Christian, and you’ll be surprised at the insights that contemplative reading can sometimes generate. But at the very least, careful, attentive reading, not just to what is said, but to what is not said, and to the way things are said, will be important.


The biggest difference I have seen in a decade of teaching between a student who enjoys her work and one who just gets it done is in the ability to make use of different reading strategies.  If you only read in Textbook mode, you’ll go too slowly and only get half of what most professors are looking for in an A student.  If you try to read everything critically or contemplatively, you’ll collapse from exhaustion and never make it through the week’s assignments.  But if you make use of all these tools in the proper measure, you’ll find that you work more efficiently, with more fun, and more real learning.


© Copyright Kevin L. Hughes, 2005