Reading well, not fast

Over the years, when I’ve asked students what their strengths and weaknesses are, many have said that they read too slowly. While I do understand that it can be frustrating to read slowly–especially when one is under the pressure of deadlines–my concern has always been whether a student can read well, not how quickly the student can read.

What do I mean by reading well? I mean reading and noticing. Professional authors–the kind we usually read in any educational situation, whether they’re writing fiction or nonfiction–use words advisedly: they do not ramble, or use unnecessary details, or explain too much. Students sometimes accuse authors of all those things, but those accusations are evidence that the student is missing something important in what the author has included. Sometimes readers (including me) will miss a connection, or will not understand why something is in the piece we’re reading–but always, always, careful reading, and reading with a critical, questioning mind, will reveal what we may not see at first.

When I talk about a “critical” mind, I don’t mean finding fault. Most, if not all, of you will have heard of “critical thinking,” but you may not be entirely sure what that actually means. Primarily, it means that you think, and read, with an open and questioning mind. (If you want some high-falutin’ language about it, suitable for advanced scholars, I highly recommend that you check out the definition of critical thinking on That openness and questioning applies whether you are reading something purely for information or whether you are reading a work of literature for analysis. (Note that reading literature for pleasure doesn’t require any critical thinking at all; you can just read and enjoy and leave it at that.)

As I’ve talked with my students about how to read well, many of them realize they will actually have to read even more slowly than they already to, so they’re sure they are noticing what they read, not just letting it wash throught their brains and wash back out again. But some of the things that slow students down are actually really bad habits, ones it’s important to break.

One bad habit is to stop every time you encounter a new word to look it up. That will not only slow you down, it actually gets in the way of your understanding. My advice is that you circle the word (or jot it down somewhere, if you’re reading something you can’t mark up), and keep reading–but pay attention to context clues that will help you guess what the word might mean. Then, after you finish reading the article or chapter or poem or whatever, go back and look up the words you noted, and see whether your hunch about its meaning was correct. But also make sure the meaning you find makes sense in the context of whatever you’re reading. Many words have multiple definitions, and those definitions can be very different, so keep looking until you find a definition that makes sense.

Then–and this is when things slow down again–reread at least the passage where the word showed up, if not the entire piece, with the meaning you found in your mind. See whether knowing for sure what the word means changes anything.

Don’t skip that step, whatever you do–and don’t assume that what you think you understood from context clues is correct. A student of mine once wrote an entire essay based on a complete misunderstanding of a word. When I pointed out that the word actually meant something very different, he tried to revise by just substituting a better synonym and otherwise leave his essay unchanged–and the result was a meaningless disaster. But you won’t let that happen to you, right? You’ll check yourself against a dictionary. (In fact, if you think you really know what a word means but it seems to not make sense in the context in which you’re reading it, check yourself. You may have incorrectly assumed you knew what it means–or you may be operating knowing only one definition when another is what the author means.)

I know students never have enough time–for just about anything: your lives are crazy-busy all the time. So I know you’re not going to like my next piece of advice, which is to reread. Read the whole thing once, just to get a feel for it, to sort of understand the shape and most important bits. Then reread–and I highly recommend jotting notes in the margins, or on sticky notes, or even on a separate piece of paper, with your notes keyed to what you’re reading, so you can match up note with passage when you go back over things again.

If something doesn’t make sense, don’t just fling your hands in the air and give up. Try to figure out why it doesn’t make sense by asking questions of the words that came before and after the part that confuses you: “I get this part; the author is saying X. And I think I get this next part; I’m pretty sure the author means Y. So if that’s true, then this part in the middle has to connect to them somehow, so could it connect this way? Or maybe this is the connection?” This questioning process–even if you don’t figure it out to your satisfaction–is a crucial part of developing your critical thinking skills.

If everything makes sense but you don’t see how it hangs together, same process. If the author seems to be rambling, dig into the parts that seem to wander away from the main subject and see what the author is working to convey. Is the author adding something to an argument, a detail that illustrates it, or a different point of view, or something that shows that the argument is bigger than might fit in the article your reading? For literature, what are the details doing: do they add to our sense of the setting, or the characters, or tell us something about the interactions among the characters?

If you read with this kind of careful attention, trusting that the author has good reasons to have put every single word in the thing you’re reading, you’ll get a lot more out of your reading than you will if you simply try to read more quickly. I should hasten to say that, even when you read with a critical, inquisitive, open mind, you will still encounter things that you find boring, or difficult to wade through, or simply not to your taste. That’s OK! It’s an unfortunate fact that, as we grow up and live adult lives, we often have to read things, or deal with things, that are boring and difficult and that we just don’t like. But if you learn to read well, you’ll be able to get through such things knowing you are understanding them–and knowing how to reach understanding if you don’t get there at first.

So, slow down. Read carefully. Get comfortable (but not so comfortable that you fall asleep!), and carve out a chunk of time when you can just read and pay attention, without interruptions or distractions. You may be surprised by how much you understand–and how much you even enjoy the process.