Determine the Message Quickly - No Matter What You are Reading
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Most adults and students read daily. Whether we are checking email
messages, reading books or trying to make sense of directions, we
need to understand the written word quickly. Whenever you read
something, you will get more from your reading if you understand
what is the message of the article, book or email. If you can
understand the main message of a work, you will be able to absorb
more information easily and get more use from what you read.
Pre-Reading: The Key to Reading
Understanding the message of an article, book, email or any other
written message begins before you even begin reading. Most experts
agree that if you want to understand something quickly, you will
want to pre-read. Pre-reading simply means that before you even
start to read something, skim the article, book or text quickly to
get a sense of what you are about to read. Even if you only take a
few seconds to do this, your comprehension will be much better. If
you are looking for just one fact or idea, you can often get the
information you need this way.
Next, you will want to look at the opening or beginning of whatever
you want to read. Glance at the preface, title, introduction and
prologue to gain important clues about the subject of the reading
material. Try to get a good sense of what you will be reading.
Next, look very quickly at any conclusion given. In an article or
email, for example, quickly scan the final paragraph or so. In a
book, look quickly at the final chapter or any afterword. This can
help you get a sense of the author’s final opinion. Most authors
will save their final arguments for the last part of their message,
so the conclusion of any work often has valuable clues for the
Next, look at any visual material and supplemental information the
author gives. Look at any blurbs, tables of contents or epigraph.
In articles, look at pictures and sidebars. In books, glance
through glossaries, appendixes and any boxed text. Look at any
graphs, charts and sidelines the author provides. These allow you
to grasp information quickly.
If you are reading something very important, you might want to go
outside what you are reading to get some background information.
For example, you may want to look up information about the author
and subject in an encyclopedia or online source. Knowing something
about the subject lets you read faster and also makes you aware of
any debates or problems surrounding an issue.
During your pre-reading, you should be asking yourself some
questions such as: Who is the message for? What is the tone? Try to
determine who the author is writing for. This can give you
important clues about what the author is trying to say. Try to
determine whether the author is being sarcastic, casual or witty.
Starting to Read
At this point, you have already done plenty of work and you will
probably have a very good idea of what you are about to read. For
many people, pre-reading seems like a lot of work at first but it
is a stage that is only meant to take a very small amount of time.
Once you begin to actually read, the benefits of pre-reading will
become clear. As you read, you will notice that pre-reading lets
you read much faster because the material is already familiar to
As you start reading, always have a pen and paper at hand. Take
notes as you read. As you read, jot down a word or two that lets
you get a sense of the main points being made. If you are trying to
understand some material that you will need to remember later on,
taking notes as you read will help you remember and keep the
materials clear. If you are reading very complicated or very long
works, even very small notes can help you keep the information
clear in your mind.
As you read straight through, you may start to form your own
opinions and ideas about what you are reading. This is great - it
means that you are reading critically and are making sense of what
Reading does not stop when you reach the final word. In fact, right
after reading, it is important that you take a minute or two to
analyze what you have read. If you do not, you will very quickly
forget what you have just read. Without this crucial post-reading
step, you may also not really understand what you have read.
Once you have put your reading material down, you may want to
reword the main message or argument of what you have just read in
your own words. This will help make the message easier to
understand and remember. Try to write the main message of the work
in one sentence. For very long books, you may need a small
paragraph. However, you want to make this main argument short and
simple, since you are only looking for the author’s main idea.
Next, decide “what’s next?”
Look at the conclusion again and try to
understand where the author leaves you. Are you supposed to
understand something better as a result of reading or are you being
asked to take action? Knowing what is expected of you makes what
you have been reading much clearer. For example, if the author of
an article about animals ends by persuading you to donate to an
animal shelter, then it is likely that what you have just been reading
has tried to convince you how important shelters are.
At this stage, you will want to reflect on what you have read. Put
aside the text for a moment and try to think about what you have
just read. This gives your brain time to process the information.
Are you being asked to believe something or to do something? What
is the purpose of the writing? Understanding the purpose is very
important in trying to determine the message the author is trying
to send. Where possible, you might want to note your observations,
ideas and opinions about the material on a piece of paper. This
helps your mind work out what is being said by the author. It also
gives you something to return to later if you need to remember what
the written material was about.
You will also want to analyze the writing more closely. Is the
author basing the message on any facts or figures? If so, go over
the work and look at the facts and information you are being asked
to accept. Can you verify or believe these facts? If an author is
using facts that you do not trust or cannot verify, then you know
that you need to be suspicious of the authorῬs claims. Are there
any problems with the message? It is fine to agree with a message
but it is even more useful to understand the problem you are having
with a specific message. If you are reading material for a school
paper or essay, being able to define possible problems with a text
helps to make your term paper or school assignments much better,
since it shows your instructor that you have really thought about
the text. If you are reading material in your work, being able to
identify problems helps ensure that you and (possibly) your company
will not make the wrong decisions based on imperfect information.
Returning to the Material
If you are reading something simple, you may be done at this point.
After pre-reading, reading and thinking about the material, you
should have a good idea of what is going on. If you are reading
something important or complicated, though, you may want to return
to the material and look at it in more depth. This will help you
remember and understand what you are reading much more fully. Begin
by reading the material again or skimming the text again. This
helps to imprint ideas in your mind and helps you see ideas or
arguments you have read about.
t this point, you may want to write about what you have read.
Often, writing helps you to understand reading material better and
retain facts for much longer. Depending on what you have been
reading, you may want to write a journal entry, a letter to the
editor or notes in your own words. The format matters less than
what you write. The point of writing about what you are reading is
to reflect on it. Tell yourself on paper what you liked and what
you didn’t like about what you have read. Point out what you found
convincing and what you had trouble believing. Write down whatever
you feel is important about what you have been reading. This will
create a permanent record of your reading and will help you to
really explore the material. Writing about something turns you from
a passive reader to an active learner who actually absorbs
information and ideas. If you think your reading abilities are not
very good, try writing about what you read for a week. You may be
amazed by how much more you remember and understand!
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We forget most of what we read. To keep information and main ideas
in our mind longer, it is important to take action right away in
response to what you have read. For many people, this action can be
as simple as writing about what was just read. However, what you
can do with material can be more than that. If you are reading a
textbook, for example, you may want to study the chapter you are
reading right away, while you still have a good grasp of the main
message. If you are reading an article in a newspaper, you may wish
to contact a business or write to the editor in response to what
you have read. If you have been reading something for work, you may
have to contact a colleague or write a report.
If you really want to make reading more clear and more interesting,
you will want to ask yourself “so what?” whenever you read something.
The point is not to dismiss what you have read but to
really investigate what is significant about the book, article or
email. Anytime we read something, whether it is a textbook or a
magazine article, we are thinking about the way that it applies to
our lives. Once you have read something, try to ask yourself the
significance of the message the author is trying to send. Does the
message have wider implications or does it impact your own life?
Understanding the way that something applies to you immediately
makes the material more relevant, understandable and memorable.
Sometimes, reading is not enough and we are called to do some
research about something we have read. For example, we may get an
email that we find suspicious, so we need to investigate further.
In some cases, we may have to review or summarize a book or article
for someone else. At this stage, we need to not only read what we
have in front of us but do some research.
Most of us today immediately turn to the internet in order to find
information. If we get an email from someone we don’t know, for
example, we may turn to the internet in order to find out who they
are. We may also turn to the internet in order to find out about
books we have been reading. The internet is in fact a great place
to do research. However, you must always make sure that you check
and double-check the information you find online, since it can be
written by almost anyone.
Let’s say, for example, that you read a book about penguins. You decide
to check the author’s credibility online.
How would you go about this? The best way may be to check the official web sites of
both the author and the book publisher. On these pages, you may
read about the author, what books he or she has published and their
education. When checking an author’s credentials, you generally
want to make sure that the author has experience and education in
the field. In your research, for example, you may find that the
author you are interested in has written two books on penguins and
spent part of a year doing university research on penguins in
Antarctica. At this point, you have more assurance that the author is an expert
and can be trusted.
When reading a book, you may also want to find out what others
think of books. The internet is a great way to do this. You can
look at sites such as www.findarticles.com, www.questia.com and The
Internet Public Library in order to find critiques and book
reviews. In general, though, you will not want to just type the
title of the book into a search engine - this will probably only
take you to web sites selling the book. You also want to avoid
simply typing a set of words into a search engine. You will get
lots of hits but many of these will be personal pages that may
contain old information or unreliable facts.
If you want to know what other people like you thought of the book,
a great way to do this is through online forums. Many book lovers
gather on online forums in order to share experiences and ideas
about books. Forums such as the speedreading.com forums allow you
to select the genre you are interested in and ask other forum users
about the book you are reading. You may find that the book is
already being discussed or you may need to post a thread that asks
others what they thought of the book you are reading. Someone who
has read the book may then respond to your question and offer their
own opinions and observations. This can be useful if you are
forming your own opinions of the book and want a fresh perspective.
Of course, if you want to research a specific subject online, you
can also do so. If you read about penguins, you may want to find
out more about them. A great way to do this is to read more books
online. Web sites such as freeonlinebooks.org list free books
online by subject so that you can get free information. Online
libraries and resources can also help. For example,
findarticles.com is a useful site that lists all manner of articles
about every subject. Online libraries such as www.questia.com and
The Internet Public Library will provide you with reliable
information as well and will take you to reliable links that offer
useful information. Most university web sites also have lots of
resources about every topic imaginable.
Obviously, reading to really understand is about much more than simply moving
from sentence to sentence. To better understand how this works, let’s
look at a specific case:
Emily (not her real name) is a first-year college student. She is
taking a college course in Western Civilization and needs to
understand her history textbook well for her exam in two weeks.
Emily decides to follow this plan for reading well. She begins by
prereading her textbook. She notes the table of contents and
realizes that each chapter title corresponds to a unit of study in
the course. She glances through the maps, charts, and illustrations
and is reminded about what she has read. Then, she flips quickly
through the book, looking at the introduction and conclusion of
each chapter and the introduction and conclusion of the book. At
this point, she knows exactly what subjects she needs to cover and
notices that some chapters seem more familiar than others. Right
away, she notes that she will need to study some chapters (such as
the one about the French Revolution) more closely. She is pleased
to see that she is very familiar with the chapters on the world
wars. Before she has even begun reading, then, she has a good idea
of what she needs to study.
Once Emily has gone through her textbook, she begins analyzing her
notes. On different paper, she summarizes each chapter into just a
few words and tries to relate in just a few words how it relates to
other chapters. For example, in her reading, Emily notices that
many of the ideas stemming from the Enlightenment seemed to
influence the French Revolution. Already, Emily begins to
understand more. In order to memorize ideas better, Emily takes
action. She does the practice exercises at the end of each chapter,
writes practice exams she creates for herself and writes about each
of the subjects in her journal. Rather than passively reading her
notes and textbook, she actively works with the material at hand
and finds that she understands more and more.
Emily begins reading, making notes as she reads. She makes more
notes about subjects she knows less about. In a different colored
ink, she jots down her own ideas and facts that she remembers from
her classes. Already, the pre-reading is saving her time, since she
is concentrating on what she needs to learn rather than simply treating
all chapters equally.
Emily decides to do some research. She visits the online web site
of her textbook publisher. There, she discovers a number of links
and even some online multimedia supplements to her textbook! She
reads about a new study that considers Hitler’s childhood and reads
more about the French Revolution. At the Internet Public Library,
she reads more articles. Some of them are written in a simple style
than her textbook and she is able to understand more.
At exam time Emily is well prepared. Rather than blindly reading,
she has actually understood her textbook. Most exciting of all,
since she really absorbed the material, she is unlikely to forget
everything right after the exam. With a good reading strategy you
like Emily can read to understand and remember - no matter what
your reading is for.
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