4: It's not all writing - first comes reading

Writing and reading really go together and there is no way to divide them up, especially when it comes to the academic world ever since you first stepped foot in a classroom. However, just like you may have already discovered in relation to your writing skills, the reading skills you developed to date may not be up to snuff when it comes to university expectations.  Here's what is different:

  • You have an extensive reading list for every class.
  • You have to read a lot more pages every day for every class so that means you need to read faster but still retain everything.
  • You are expected to read more complex material and understand what it all means.
  • You are expected to also do your own independent reading on your subject area whether it is in the library or online.

Obviously, you are not going to be able to read everything there is in your subject area. The university is only ask that you read a reasonable amount, which, in your mind, still might feel as though it is everything out there since you never had this much reading in your life.

By the time you are done with this chapter, you will understand what makes academic reading different as well as how to leverage skills development in this reas for essay writing success!

Chapter 4 contents:

4.1: Academic reading

To help you navigate what will feel like completely new territory, we have put together some tips to help you:

  • Increase your reading - Basically, you have no choice here if you want to get that degree. The quantity of reading can be overwhelming when you see the reading list handed out for each and every class and then realize that, on top of that, you will also be encouraged to take on some secondary reading online and from the library. In this case, while you may not get to every source, take the time to read as much as you can and set a schedule of reading time for each class.
  • Put purpose into your reading - While you may have books and other material where you can escape and let the mind wander, academic reading has a very important purpose that requires your complete attention and focus. Think of this as active reading where you need to mentally participate. To stay on task, you could even consider taking notes while you read, which can save you time later when you may need to find certain points or information for an essay.
  • Revisit your reading - While you may think you do not even have to read some of the books and sources once, you may actually have to come back and revisit certain materials to gain a better understanding or use it for a particular essay. It does not mean you have to read the whole book or article again; the second time around you can skim for what you need and pick out the vital information you are seeking.

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4.2: Using your reading list

The first place to start getting used to your new academic reading pastime is by consulting your reading lists, which will become an integral part of your university success and be the framework for gathering the research you need to write your essays. There are some things you need to know about these reading lists that might make them easier to handle:

  • Your tutor has put together a comprehensive list of books and journal articles that you need for your class. Consider these your main focus for getting the background knowledge you need versus trying to go out on your own and figure out what might be relevant or not.
  • You do not actually have to read every single book or source on the list as many sources are going to have very similar themes and content. If you are not sure, ask your tutor about those that are an absolute must for reading and which ones can be skimmed or consulted.
  • Work from general titles to more specific ones so you can build your knowledge base on a particular subject. Also aim for the titles that are more recent in terms of publication date.
  • Consider borrowing copies from the library or going online to get a used copy of the books if you want to keep them. This will keep your costs down as well.

What happens, though, if finding your reading list materials becomes a challenge? If you cannot find a copy or you are having problems paying for all the extra materials, we have some great ideas to help you alleviate these concerns:

  • Because the library most often only has a few copies, plan ahead by asking early for a copy by putting it on reserve or hold.
  • Use a second hand bookstore or online textbook company where you can find the books at greatly reduced prices.
  • Consider using an online source like Google Books, which often has made the whole copy of the book available, or if you have an e-reader, you can download a copy to your device for very little money.
  • Make copies of a friend's book or ask to borrow their copy. You could even consider getting together with your classmates and creating a borrow system where each person buys one of the books and you do a swap system. Of course, that may take a lot of negotiation and patience.
  • Be honest about what you do though. Do not buy a book only to return it within a week.

And, while you try to just digest your reading list, there is some good and bad news to tell you - it's not enough; you will need to seek other sources of reading and get help from essay experts like us to show you where these gems of knowledge are hiding.

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4.3: Other sources of reading

There has got to be a faster way to figure out just what else you need for your reading besides wandering aimlessly through the library or helping a search engine online returns some titles that fit what you are studying. Of course, there are and that's what this section will discuss.

  • Look at the authors and keywords on your reading list. Use these as the terms for searching the library catalogue as well as using online databases, search engines, and references websites.
  • Your reading list material may also reference author researchers and studies. Take note of these and also look for them at the library or online.
  • In all cases, remember to choose your keywords and terms carefully. Just putting in an author's name like Shakespeare could yield tens of thousands of possible books, articles, and files. Be sure to be specific about what you are looking for in relation to that author that reflects the keywords you have taken from your essay title or prompt.
  • Think about what more closely relates to your essay - is it the books by certain authors or is it really books that are on similar subjects to that author? There is a difference, especially when you are expected to diversify your reference material within your essay to illustrate the scope and breadth of your research.
  • Be sure to stick to using those publications that have the most current dates. Research changes a lot over the course of years and it is important to use the latest information unless, of course, the essay requires you to talk about how perspectives on a particular topic has changed or evolved.
  • Before taking every book and article you think might work, read the summary of the book or the abstract on the article. This will give you a quick sense of what it is about and whether it actually is worth including in your additional reading for your essay.

If all else fails, there is nothing wrong with asking other experts. The librarians are there to help. Their job is to know what the library has for use and which sources could be the most valuable to your particular need. Here are some tips:

  • Get a tour of the library so you know where everything else, what tools are available to help with the research, and what other resources are there to assist you with your studies, including audio or visual material.
  • Get to know the subject specialist librarians on staff in your area and even set up an appointment if you know you have an essay or project coming up where their advice would make it easier.
  • Do not be afraid to ask librarians about online resources. They recognise the growing importance of this arena for research and have often spent time getting familiar with key areas that could help students supplement what is in the library.

In addition to books, there is a lot to be said for academic journals as excellent supplementary reading material. Here's why:

  • There are often more current journal articles than books. With fewer pages and regular publication dates, compared to books, the information can become more readily available.
  • Journal articles tend to be rich with focused content and often include significant data points that can serve as credible arguments for your essay.
  • Journal articles feature abstracts that make quick work of spotting whether that particular study will be useful for your essay.
  • These can be easier to access than books as many are found and can be downloaded from online databases faster and more readily.
  • There is a specific level of quality assurance when it comes to journal articles not found in other types of research. This is because other researchers often have to review the articles before they are approved for publication. This sets them apart in terms of credibility as compared to regular magazines or newspapers.
  • Remember to get all the pertinent information about each journal article as you read it online so you can add it to your reference list or bibliography that will be submitted with your essay.

You may want to consider investing in a subscription to an online database to access these academic journals. Some universities actually provide this service as part of their programme so be sure to ask if you can be given access with a username and password through the university library.

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4.4: Reading techniques

Now that you know what you need to read, the next step is to learn how to do better at the actual reading part of this essay formula. After all, this is not reading for necessarily pleasure purposes; it is more about absorption, understanding, and identification of key information you need for your essay, project, or exam. To keep you motivated to get through what may appear to be mountains of reading, we have put together some tips that will make it as comfortable - and smart - as possible:

  • Like your essay writing environment, your reading environment has to be comfortable and conducive to focus on what you are reading. Of course, you do not want it to be so comfortable that you find yourself snoozing.
  • Use good lighting so that you do not put unnecessary strain on your eyes.
  • Wear glasses if you have problems seeing up close; otherwise, you will struggle or your eyes will get tired quickly.
  • To facilitate your academic reading, look for certain signposts where the most critical information can be found. Think of the articles and books as just really, really long essays because they follow that same pattern of introduction, body, and conclusion with key points at certain places in those paragraphs. Having said that, focus your most reading attention on these areas:
    • Abstract - provides a great summary and signpost to determine the level of priority to the reading of that article or book.
    • First and last paragraphs - offers summary, main points, and conclusions that can help you decide what is most important in that book or article.
    • Index - most academic books have these and help you with locating those important keywords and terms so you can jump straight to specific ideas and learn more about those first and foremost, especially as these areas will have the material you need for your essay.
    • Scan and skim techniques - akin to speed-reading techniques, this is intended to help you find the information you need without spending too much time doing so. Scan for answers to what you have questions for and skim to hit the details of interest usually found in illustrations, charts, and subheads.

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4.4.1: Best reading techniques

There is a formula and technique to apply to your academic reading that can help you succeed in this critical stage of your essay writing experience. Each technique is action-oriented and destined to help you produce positive results when it comes to improving your academic reading skills:

  • Survey the material to get an idea of what you are going to read. This includes looking at the abstract, subheads, illustrations, tables or even conclusions.
  • Question what you need to find out from what you are about to read in relation to your studies and your essay title. Have specific keywords and concepts in mind that you want answers to.
  • Read with focus at the speed that you can and even re-read those areas where you feel you need more clarification.
  • Be critical of what you read so that you can deepen the mental connection you are making with that reading. Ask questions while you are reading:
    • What is the main argument?
    • Is it credible, objective, or bias?
    • Do the examples and applications used mean something?
    • Are there facts, opinions, or both?
    • Are there any contradictions or assumptions?
    • Is there quantitative data used?
    • What are the findings and conclusions?
    • How does this reading integrate with what you already know or have read on this subject?
    • Recall and reflect on what you read so you can add meaning, application, and real world sense to make it resonate for you so that it becomes clear how it will fit within your essay or even just your understanding of that topic or subject area.
    • Review anything that you need to so that the ideas stick and create the level o meaning you need to create value within your essay or essay exam.

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4.1.2: Online reading tips

If you plan to read any materials online, we have some other suggestions because while all reading might seem like it would be the same, you will find online reading is quite different for the brain and for you. Here are some quick tips to make the most of online reading opportunities:

  • You can become tired more quickly looking at a computer screen versus a book or physical journal. That's because of the glare from the screen, how you may be sitting, and the distance between you and what you are reading. To make it easier, get up every 20 minutes or so and step away from the computer screen. Consider having glasses, which will help eye strain. And, if you can, invest in a good chair that provides excellent back and neck support so you are not hunched over.
  • Unlike a book or magazine where you can highlight or underline, you are reading onscreen so it is not possible. Instead, take notes on a pad. If you can copy and paste into a Word document, that could help but be very careful as you do not want to forget that these were someone else's words and then end up inadvertently committing plagiarism. Also, always take note of all the source information while you do this so you can save time later when you need to construct your bibliography or reference list.
  • You may find it more difficult to skim and scan with online reading materials so it could end up taking more time. Be patient and just allot yourself more time for this process, especially considering the fact that you will need to get up and move more often as well.
  • Consider printing some of the material so you can read it that way or re-read it later on. Of course, as a student, this becomes a budget consideration. You may want to check about splitting the cost of printing with other students in your class that could use the same printed material for their essays.

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4.1.3: Speed reading tips

One of the easiest ways to get through all that reading is to work on your speed reading techniques - but also retain the information while blasting through words at a high rate of speed. Your brain is an incredible machine that, when trained and maintenance properly, can memorise even when reading quickly.

  • Practice makes faster: the more often you read, the faster you get.
  • Train your eyes: often, our eyes tend to wander backwards to what we just read, but what you need to do to go faster is keep them set on going forward. You may have to use your finger to follow the text to give your eye something to follow, but eventually your eyes will get used to moving ahead rather than being caught up in making sure that what had already been covered made sense. You just need to make sure that the finger moves quickly!
  • Do not read with your lips or speak it in your head. This will slow the process of reading immensely and not allow for you to become immersed in what you are reading.
  • Do not spend time trying to memorise what your reading; trust that your brain has got your back here and is filing away the information and processing it as you are taking it in. Let the reading flow just as we gave you techniques about letting writing flow. Trust your brain; it knows what it is doing. Save the reflection for after the speed reading is done and you are taking a walk or doing something else where you can think about what you just read.
  • Chunk the words together rather than focusing on letters or fixating on a couple of words. By chunking more of it together, you can go faster because you are putting greater distance between what you think you can understand and what your brain is really capable of digesting for you.
  • Do not get frustrated as you may need to vary your reading speed, depending on what you are reading. There may be some material that is complex and requires that you slow down. Let that happen, if necessary, to make sure you get the most out of the reading experience. You can make up time on other material that is not as challenging to digest. Over time, you will be able to also pick up speed on the more complex material.

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Chapter 4: In summary

In summarising this chapter, here are some key questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you know the difference between reading and academic reading?
  • Have you studied your reading list and asked tutor for priority reading?
  • Do you know your way around the library and introduced yourself to the librarians, including the librarian who specialises in your area of study?
  • Have you created an environment for academic reading?
  • Are you practicing your reading and speeding reading techniques?
  • Do you know how to read online versus a book or journal article?
  • Can you stay motivated to make it through the mountain of reading that defines university life?
  • Are you ready to move onto a detailed strategy for conducting online research? Good, because that's what the next chapter is about.

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