Improve Your Reading Skills

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How to Read a Book

Whether you are starting your first semester at Regent or coming to the end of your program, the classic How to Read a Book by Adler and Van Doren (1940) can not only help you get through what may feel like an overwhelming amount of reading, but also have a meaningful learning experience.

Because reading is a practical skill, it is possible to learn how to read better! Adler and Van Doren explain that many percieve reading as passive; they look at a page of words and expect to get knowledge. However, reading is meant to be active. The purpose of this guide is to outline the major principles set forth in How to Read a Book in order to help you develop active reading skills, or reading for learning. Though active reading is work that requires effort and is more taxing than passive reading, it also allows you to get information out of a text more efficiently and effectively and thus waste less time staring at a page without making any progress.

Adler and Van Doren set forth four levels of reading: elementary, inspectional, analytical, and syntopical. Their many categories and subcategories can be helpful when trying to determine specific areas in need of improvement. However, if you feel overwhelmed by the amount of steps, stages, and rules, remember that the important thing is to read actively. For some, these steps will come naturally as a result of years of studying experience, and this guide will function merely as a reminder to keep reading for learning. For others with less experience, this guide may be a useful tool to keep nearby when attempting to improve specific skills or learn how to get in the habit of reading actively.

Level 1: Elementary Reading

Elementary reading is reading for basic meaning. If you are a Regent student whose first language is not English and you need help with aspects of elementary reading like grammar, click here to see the aids that are available to you through the library.

Level Two: Inspectional Reading

Inspectional reading has two steps, systematic skimming and superficial reading. 

Systematic skimming is giving the text a once-over by surveying the title page, preface, table of contents, and publisher's note, and attempting to find the thesis statement. If the text you are reading is useful and will possibly get you the information you are looking for, you can continue systematic skimming by reading the first and last paragraph of the entire book, then the first and last paragraph of each chapter, and then the first and last sentence of each paragraph in each chapter. Remember that skimming is not cheating for the purpose of doing less reading, but rather active work to more efficiently get to the heart of a book when approaching it for the first time. This step will be especially useful when conducting research that requires you to consult a myriad of resources, especially if you do not yet know which sources will be useful for your project.

Superficial reading is working through the entire text without stopping. Something you may want to try in this stage is following your finger as you read. The eyes of an untrained reader fixate five to six times in each line and sometimes jump backwards, so following your finger can help you keep going even if there is a word, sentence, or concept that you do not understand. Though this step may seem tedious, it can be a useful way to experience the overall tone of a book and pick up on recurring themes.

According to Adler and Van Doren, you must complete levels one and two before moving on to levels three and four.

Level 3: Analytical Reading

The three stages of analytical reading can be named, assigned a question that they answer, and broken down into a set of rules. 

Stage 1: Make an outline of the book/“what is the book about as a whole?” 

Rule #1-identify the book’s genre, which determines argumentation

Rule #2-concisely explain the unity of the book in a few sentences by identifying the plot that brings each part of the book together to form one unit

Rule #3-outline the book by identifying the important parts of the plot and showing how they relate to one another and the whole

Rule #4- find out what problems the author was attempting to solve

If we applied this stage to How to Read a Book, our notes would look like this:

  1. Genre: manual, how-to, practice
  2. Main idea: active reading, reading for understanding 
  3. Parts: elementary, inspectional, analytical, syntopical
  4. Problem: people read passively and therefore don’t learn anything; they need to be taught to read actively

Stage 2: Interpret the book’s content/“what is being said in detail, and how?”

Rule #5-identify key words and then understand the meaning of those words as determined by the author

Rule #6-find the important sentences and their propositions 

Rule #7-construct the author’s argument by connecting those propositions

Rule #8-identify the author’s solution as presented in the argument

Stage 3: Critique the book/“is it true?” and “what of it?” 

Rule #9- the reader must understand the author’s argument before the reader can fairly evaluate it, which could mean agreeing, disagreeing, or suspending judgment

Rule #10- the reader must govern their evaluation with reasonableness, rather than let their evaluation be governed by unreasonable emotions in order to merely win an argument 

Rule #11- the reader must give reasons for their evaluation, otherwise their evaluation is mere opinion rather than a fair critique based on understanding. Valid options for disagreeing are that the author's argument is uninformed, misinformed, illogical, or incomplete. 

Level Four: Syntopical Reading

Syntopical reading moves the reader to a position of authority. When attempting to understand a book by reading it analytically, you must respectfully engage in conversation with the author, who has compiled the information that is being discussed. When doing syntopical reading, you become the compiler of the information. After finding the books that may relate to your research area and inspectionally reading them to see if that is indeed the case, there are five steps to follow in order to read syntopically: 

  1. Find relevant passages (which may be relevant not because of the author’s original purpose of the book but because it answers the reader’s formulated question), 
  2. Define the terms that the authors must come to,
  3. Create questions that the authors’ responses can answer, 
  4. Define the issue, and 
  5. Analyze the discussion (by providing a solution)