Corral your impatience: Reading and thinking beyond headlines and sound grabs

active reading

“A capacity and taste for reading gives access to whatever has already been discovered by others.” ~Abraham Lincoln

Lamenting the passing of substance

The attention span of people today has become more limited than ever. It is not a good thing. It brings new meaning to the term “brain dead”.

Television channel surfing is a cliche, and most of us have watched audience members leave seminars early.

Studies show people are too impatient to read a long block of text on a web page.

Research at the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health found that “extensive exposure to social media, television and video games may promote development of brain systems that scan and shift attention at the expense of those that focus attention.

The result is a “sound bite” world in which people expect messages delivered in rapid and stimulating succession

Business leaders, academics and others, fond of the traditionally thorough, detailed coverage of a topic, disdain this modern wave of communicating in short bursts.

At a minimum my hope is that people will focus on substance rather than sound bites.

Reading efficiently by reading intelligently has some helpful tips and I have added some of my own.

Whether they’re project documents, trade journals, blogs, business books or e-books, most of us read regularly as part of our jobs, and to develop our skills and knowledge.

But do you ever read what should be a useful document, yet fail to gain any helpful information from it?

Or, do you have to re-read something several times to get a full understanding of the content?

Strategies that will help you read more effectively

Have a dictionary by your side

With a good dictionary you can do the following:

  •  look up the meaning of an English word you see or hear
  • find the English translation of a word in your language
  • check the spelling of a word
  • check the plural of a noun or past tense of a verb
  • find out other grammatical information about a word
  • find the synonym or antonym of a word
  • look up the collocations of a word
  • check the part of speech of a word
  • find out how to say a word
  • find out about the register of a word
  • find examples of the use of a word in natural language

Think about what you want to know

Before you start reading anything, ask yourself why you’re reading it. Are you reading with a purpose, or just for pleasure? What do you want to know after you’ve read it?

Once you know your purpose, you can examine the resource to see whether it’s going to help you.

For example, with a book, an easy way of doing this is to look at the introduction and the chapter headings. The introduction should let you know who the book is intended for, and what it covers. Chapter headings will give you an overall view of the structure of the subject.

Ask yourself whether the resource meets your needs, and try to work out if it will give you the right amount of knowledge. If you think that the resource isn’t ideal, don’t waste time reading it.

Remember that this also applies to content that you subscribe to, such as journals or magazines, and web-based RSS and social media news feeds – don’t be afraid to prune these resources if you are not getting value from some publishers.

Know how deeply to study the material

Where you only need the shallowest knowledge of a subject, you can skim material. Here you read only chapter headings, introductions, and summaries.

If you need a moderate level of information on a subject, then you can scan the text. This is when you read the chapter introductions and summaries in detail. You can then speed read  the contents of the chapters, picking out and understanding key words and concepts. (When looking at material in this way, it’s often worth paying attention to diagrams and graphs.)

Only when you need full knowledge of a subject is it worth studying the text in detail. Here it’s best to skim the material first to get an overview of the subject. This gives you an understanding of its structure, into which you can then fit the detail gained from a full reading of the material. (SQ3R  is a good technique for getting a deep understanding of a text.)

Read actively

When you’re reading a document or book in detail, it helps if you practice “active reading” by highlighting and underlining key information, and taking notes  as you progress. (Mind Maps  are great for this). This emphasizes information in your mind, and helps you to review important points later.

Doing this also helps you keep your mind focused on the material, and stops you thinking about other things.

Reading individual articles

There are three main types of article in magazines and newspapers:

  • News Articles – these are designed to explain the key points first, and then flesh these out with detail. So, the most important information is presented first, with information being less and less useful as the article progresses.
  • Opinion Articles – these present a point of view. Here the most important information is contained in the introduction and the summary, with the middle of the article containing supporting arguments.
  • Feature Articles – these are written to provide entertainment or background on a subject. Typically the most important information is in the body of the text.

If you know what you want from an article, and recognize its type, you can get information from it quickly and efficiently.

Further reading tips

  • The time when you read a document plays a role in how easy the reading will be, and how much information you’ll retain.If you need to read a text that is tedious, or requires a great deal of concentration, it’s best to tackle it when you have the most energy in the day.
  • Where you read is also important. Reading at night, in bed, doesn’t work for many people because it makes them sleepy (which means that you may not remember the information). Everyone is different, however, so read in a place that’s comfortable, free of distractions, and that has good light – this is important even if you’re reading from a screen.
  • It can be helpful to review the information when you’ve finished reading. When you’re done, write a paragraph that explains, in your own words, what you just learned. Often, putting pen to paper can help strengthen your recall of new information, so that you retain it more effectively.

Reading aloud

Reading aloud is a widely accepted and successful practice in elementary school classrooms.(Allen 2000). The benefits of reading aloud are many, but two benefits are particularly valuable: motivation and vocabulary acquisition (Richardson 2000; Beck, McKeown, and Omanson 1987; Jenkins, Stein, and Wysocki 1984; Nagy, Herman, and Anderson 1985; Robb 2003).

You could use read-aloud strategies to learn new concepts, build vocabulary, and supplement your writing.

Key points

  1. If you want to read more effectively, identify what you want to learn from each resource you read, and know how deeply you want to study the material.
  2. Consider “active reading” by making notes and marking-up the material as you go along.
  3. It’s also useful to know how to study different types of material.
  4. Remember that it takes practice to develop your reading skills – the more you use these strategies, the more effective you’ll become.
  5. Use read-aloud strategies.

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