Critical Thinking and Learning Site

Effective reading, how to master it.


Most of us know how to read. If the case were different, you’d be memorizing the alphabet, not browsing an article about the effectiveness of reading. But what exactly does “reading” mean? What differentiates the good from the bad reader? Do all books require the same amount of time and effort to be read ? How to master effective reading?

To answer the above questions, we must first decide for what purpose we read. There are two purposes: the first is reading for information, the second is reading for understanding (I have mentioned this again in my previous articles Critical Thinking and Wisdom and About Learning and Mental Models, but this is really important, and I am going to repeat it again and again. When we read a newspaper or a magazine, most of the times this just increases our intake of information. Whether this information is valid or useful is another story, but in any case this kind of reading doesn’t improve our understanding. The latter is only achieved after carefully processing and assimilating said information, drawing conclusions after a critical examination of the data we have collected.

From “How to read a book.”

“Getting more information is learning, and so is coming to understand what you did not understand before. But there is an important difference between these two kinds of learning. To be informed is simply to know that something is the case. To be enlightened is to know, also, what it is all about: why it is the case, what its connections are with other facts, in what respects it is the same, in what respects it is different, and so forth.

This distinction is familiar concerning the difference between being able to remember something and being above to explain it. If you remember what an author says, you have learned something from reading him. But whether it is a fact about the book or a fact about the world that you have heard, you have gained nothing but information if you have exercised only your memory. You have not been enlightened. You can achieve enlightenment only when, in addition to knowing what an author says, you know what he means and why he says it.

Montaigne speaks of “an abecedarian ignorance that precedes knowledge, and a doctoral ignorance that comes after it.” The first is the ignorance of those who, not knowing their ABC’s, can’t read at all. The second is the ignorance of those who have misread many books. They are, as Alexander Pop rightly calls them, full book blockheads, ignorantly read. There have always been literate ignoramuses who have read too widely and not well. The Greeks had a name for such mixture of learning and folly which might be applied to the bookish, but poorly read, of all ages They are all sophomores.”

There are four major levels of reading:

Elementary reading
Inspectional Reading
Analytical Reading
Syntopical Reading

Elementary reading refers to whether you know how to read, regarding recognizing the letters, and understand what a sentence’s literal meaning is. It is what teachers teach us at school. It is the basics; without it, you wouldn’t be able to read this article.

Inspectional reading refers to skimming or pre-reading the book. In inspectional reading, you are trying to create a good understanding of the book. There are two types of Inspectional Reading: systematic skimming or superficial reading.

In Systematic skimming, there are four major steps. 1.Read the title and the preface, the table of contents, 3.check the index, and, 4.if there is one, read the publisher’s blurb. Two additional steps are to a) look at the chapters that seem to be pivotal to the book’s argument and read their summaries, if they exist, and b) look in random pages, and read some paragraphs, maybe the last two or three pages. All these steps will give you a major understanding about the book

The Superficial reading is about books that are hard, that you feel they’re too difficult for your level and you shouldn’t have taken a shot at reading them. The best practice is to read the book through, leaving aside what you do not understand until the end. Pay attention to what you can digest, and do not stop every time you are not able to comprehend something. With this strategy, by the end of the book, your understanding of the matter will have increased significantly, and on a second attempt, you will be more able to obtain knowledge.

Whenever you are reading a book, you major concerns should be to answer the following questions:

What is the book about as a whole? First of all, you must try to discover what is the major theme of the book, and how the author breaks this idea into pieces to explain it.

What is explained in detail and how? You must try to discover the main ideas, assertions, and arguments that constitute the author’s particular message.

Is the book true, as a whole or partly? Once you have answered the first two questions and made your mind about the author, then you can substantially agree or disagree with the author, or leave the question to be answered in the future, after further reading.

What of it? What did you gain from the book, are the information relevant to you, do you need further research about the subject you wished to acquire knowledge, what further actions are you going to take.

Analytical reading is the best reading of a book you can do.

There are some rules in analytical reading which help you answer the previous questions:

Rule 1: You must know what kind of book you are reading, and you should be aware this as earlier in the process as possible; preferably, before you even begin to read.

Rule 2: State the gist of the whole book in a single sentence, or at most in a few sentences (a short paragraph).

Rule 3: Highlight the major parts of the book, and show how these are organized into a whole

Rule 4: Find out what the author’s main points were.

These first four rules help you answer the first basic question about a book.:

“What is this book about.”

1. Classify the book according to type and subject.
2. State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity.
3. Categorize the major parts according to order and relevance, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole.
4. Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve.

The next set of rules help us answer the question:

“What is explained in detail and how?”

5. Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words.
6. Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences.
7. Know the author’s arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, the sequence of the sentences.
8. Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not; and as to the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to address.

The last set of rules help us answer the questions:

“Is it true?” and “What of it?”

9. You must be able to say, with reasonable certainty, “I understand,” before you can reach a conclusion about any one of the following things: “I agree” or ” I disagree” or “I suspend judgment.”

10. When you disagree, do so reasonably, not just for argument’s sake.

11. Respect the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by giving reasons for any critical judgment you make.

All in all, effective reading is -as already mentioned above- inextricably associated with the purpose of reading. Effective, informative reading translates into accessing and reviewing as many sources available, while the effectiveness of reading for understanding demands a careful study of the facts you have established during the informational stage. Make sure you can distinguish between the two.

About the author

By Plato
Critical Thinking and Learning Site

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