Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Need To Speed Read

What I hear from students every day is that they cannot keep up with the reading in college courses. The problem seems worse for non-English majors. At least English majors have a history of reading to draw upon when facing assignments. The common problem among all students, though, is the amount of reading versus time. How does one keep up with the demands of reading in college?

The need to consume and digest information is the heart and soul of college course work. The trick is to dive into the work and hopefully, like working out a muscle, the ability to read and understand information will become a stronger skill the more one practices. One must realize that not all reading is created or assigned equally. We read for different purposes, depending on the subject and need. Reading for English class is different from any other reading one does. When reading history or science, information and facts are most important. It might be possible to skim through the chapters, capturing the pertinent data in notes. The purpose of the writing is to convey factual information. Also, the teacher might cover the selected material in a lecture during the class session, thereby making the reading a reinforcement of class material. If one skims the reading before the lecture, taking good notes during the class will serve to cement the material in the brain.

When reading for English class, one is reading for depth and nuance, character motivation, and the subtleties of the human experience. To do this correctly, a student must actively read the text and plan on rereading it as many times as necessary to understand all that is present in the words. Even if the professor lectures on the novel or poem, he expects the students to have read it and come to their own understandings before the class. This is why English majors might have a leg up on the competition. Reading is a way of life, and if one is used to being a reader, no matter what her major, she will be able to cope with the demands of intensive reading for a course.

When one is assigned a piece to read for homework with the intention to study and learn the content, it is not enough to simply read it through. One must understand it, consider it, and synthesize its nuances and meanings. The task of the student is to develop critical skills of analysis so that one can create meaning from a work without the teacher’s help. In factual material, the writer intends a meaning; in a literary work, the intention might have a more subconscious basis. Either way, a student must be able to discover the writer’s message. Reading is not a passive act; it is a creative “working with” the material being studied.

The basic rule in all of this is that to create a meaning from a piece of writing or art requires that the reader pay attention, respond, reflect, and understand the writing as a critic would. A reader makes active assessments and judgments about the writing, and his view is valid only if he has truly put thought and effort into the reading. After a class discussion or talk with the instructor, notes can be updated and revised. No one is asking for a snap analysis. Analyzing and thinking critically about a work of art requires focus and diligence, with plenty of revision along the way. At some point, however, a reader must come to conclusions about what is read, and that is the goal of the analysis.

There is a method to studying that has worked for other students and scholars. It is called the SQ3R method. [S]urvey the material, reading carefully. [Q]uestion everything one doesn’t understand and try to develop answers to the questions. [R]eread the work again, looking for missed facts and details. [R]ewrite the major points in one’s own words using detailed description and analytical terms. [R]eview the major points before going to class.

Of course, all notes should be kept in a notebook or binder, and be dated and organized. Underline and highlight the text, and make notes in the margins of the books. Annotating while reading keeps the reader alert and focused. Note thoughts, impressions, and feelings regarding the reading as one moves through the text. Always develop concrete reasons and analysis for inferences and conclusions, and find text to support all assertions.

Now, let’s focus on reading for English class exclusively. In many cases, a course might cover a book per week. I remember a course I took on English writer, Charles Dickens. Since many of his novels are very long and involve many characters and subplots, I needed to read and study more than 1000 pages per week. I survived only by carrying the novels with me everywhere I went. I read in the bathroom, on elevators, while waiting for appointments, and while patrolling a mall parking lot as a security guard. My body was present, but my mind was off in Victorian England for eighteen weeks.

Reading a novel takes a commitment, an honest desire to see the story through whatever twists and turns arise in the narrative. Therefore, a reader must remember and be cognizant of plot points, characters, and events as well as the subtler aspects of the text such as theme, symbolism, and figurative language. When assigned a section of the book, a student should read the pages carefully, making note of important characters, events, and if possible, themes or symbols used by the author to convey meaning. Taking notes while reading is a necessity. One must sink into the narrative world and live there because the more active the reader imagines what he is reading, the richer the experience.

Plays will be read as literature in most English classes, with a de-emphasis on performance and an increased focus on the words, themes, and cultural relevance of a particular work. The need to understand character motivation, scene, and plot points will be more like the study of a novel. A student should try to read the play through in one sitting and then work through the text again at a slower pace to understand and appreciate the nuances of character, plot, and theme. When reading a play, focus on dialogue, stage directions, plot points, acts and scenes, climaxes of action, character motivation, and of course, symbolism and themes.

Poetry is an incredibly skillful literature. One must say something deep and meaningful using a few words, often in a distinct rhythm and rhyme scheme, and structured within a common form such as a sonnet or haiku. To study a poem, one should read it through once for a general flavor. To fully comprehend and synthesize a poem, one must read it line by line, carefully working through the words and images. A poem might seem to be just a few words or lines, but its possible meanings and interpretations might make up a book length essay. When assigned a poem to read for homework, do not think of it as a five minute job. While it might take longer to read a few chapters of a novel, a poem makes up for brevity with depth and intensity. It might help when studying a poem to write notes on the page of the book next to the text of the poem. What should one look for in a poem? First look for diction (word choice), imagery, symbolism, themes, references, and allusions to other works of literature.

Essays, biographies, memoirs, and subject books are tremendously popular and also may be assigned to students in English classes. These works of nonfiction incorporate novelistic techniques into their pages. The stories are often told like novels, and often with a first person narrator. There is suspense and tension, as well as plot, character, dialogue, themes, and even symbolism.

To be a good, fast reader takes relentless practice and diligence. There are no shortcuts. Years ago, a woman named Evelyn Wood pioneered a speed reading program that she developed from watching how successful people read mountains of material quickly. Does her method work? Yes, and no, because while it is possible to learn to read faster, if one is reading for depth and analysis, the pace must naturally slow down. To consume information, much the way people read on the internet, speed is important. But to understand layered material like a novel or poem, speed is not all it is cracked up to be. Sometimes, like slow cooking, taking time with a text allows the flavor to come through and leads to a more enjoyable experience for the reader, even if it is only a homework assignment.


  1. Great post, Paul. I liked your reference to the SQ3R method. I'm taking a class in literary strategies for teachers & our textbok covers this method. What I've learned from this class is that there any many things teachers at the K-12 level can do across the curriculum to help students connect with the reading material and become active, rather than passive in their reading.

  2. Thanks for the comment and the validation. It is always good to hear from colleagues. With so much to compete with for student attention, we need to continue to find ways to engage students with literature. Bottom line, some kids are just naturally into reading; others present more of a challenge. We need to keep trying because given the right book and right kid, a whole world can open up.


I would love to know who is commenting. Therefore, please use the selections below to identify yourself. Anonymous is so impersonal. If you do not have a blog or Google account, use the Name/URL selection. Thanks.