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Reading is usually the core activity of any study.

Lectures are often guides to your reading which highlight important issues for active reading

Reading difficult books

Reading academic books is not the same as reading a light novel. You will not pick the academic book up, begin at the beginning and be carried through by the power of the narrative to the end

You will need to think about how you read. This will often involve reading only parts of the book very carefully and analysing what you read - possibly by making notes in your own words about what it is saying.

Most books include clues on:

  • how to get an overall picture of what they are about without reading them right through.

  • how to read them a bit at a time, rather than all at once, and dig out what you want from them.

Look at

The title This may summarise the book

The blurb This is the material on the back or just inside the cover. It is probably not written by the author, but on an academic book it may be a good introduction.

The contents list This gives you a survey of what the book is about and points you to the parts that you may be most interested in.

The index This points you to pages throughout the book that you may be most interested in.

The first and/or last paragraphs of chapters. Academic authors often summarise the chapter at the beginning or the end.

The first and/or last chapters Sometimes these summarise the book.

Any introduction Introductions can be useful. Remember, however that if they are written by someone other than the author, it is his or her interpretation of the book you are reading.

A well known analysis of reading activities called SQ3R may help you:

SQ3R (SQ and three Rs)

stands for:
Survey, Question, Read, Recall, Review

Survey: Skim the book to get an overall idea of its structure, purpose, contents, style, etc. Think about why it has the title it has. Read any introductory blurb on the cover or end papers. Read the contents list and think about the chapter headings. Look at illustrations. See if there are summaries at the beginning or end of chapters.

Questions: Form some questions in your mind for which you want or expect to find answers in reading the book.

Read: Read straight through the material, or part of it, trying to focus on the main points and not getting bogged down in too much detail. Some people skim read first by reading the first sentence of each paragraph.

Recall: Shut the book and try to remember what you have just read; make a brief note of each point. Make a note of points you do not feel clear about.

Review: Go through what you have read again and complete and clarify your notes so that they will be comprehensible later.

Active Reading

 The best study reading is active. Passive reading is just reading to see what the book has to say. Active reading is looking for what you want to find in a book.

 Give yourself a purpose.
The point of forming questions is to have some definite expectation of what you are going to do by reading.

 You need to remember some points from what you read. Make a definite effort to recall the important points about what you have read, and clarify points that you are uncertain about.

 You need to select your reading. Reading a book from cover to cover is not a frequent academic activity. More often the reader selects the important or relevant passages.

Notes on reading

Notetaking is part of active reading.

"When reading "difficult books", I write notes as I go along. This helps me understand what I am reading as I have to think about it to produce the notes. Also, wehn re-reading parts of the book for information, I am able to read my notes - which are clear and I understand." (Psychology student)

There are different kinds of notes that will be produced by your reading. For example, the notes that you make with the book shut (to recall the main points) will be different from careful notes of what a book actually says that you may make with the intention of making quotations.

Notes are taken to help you take mental possession of what you are reading and so that you can return to them later to recall information they contain. That is to say, the actual process of notetaking has value as learning, and the notes that you take have value as a record.

The kind of notes you take on books will be affected by:

 Who owns the book
 Where you are
 What you want notes for

There is one rule, however, that applies to most circumstances: Record the bibliographic details of the books you read. You should always note the author's name, the title of the book, the date of publication and the publisher. When you make notes from the book you should note the page numbers.

Some imaginary situations to illustrate the variety of notetaking on books:
riding on a bus   using a computer   in bed with a cold   somewhere you can write easily   all over the place

Notes on a cheap paperback you own - made riding on a bus - to focus on the relevant points and be able to recall them.

Your "notes" may be no more than a pencil line highlighting significant quotes. Marking quotes is not just preparing for quoting the book in an essay, it helps you to find your way around the book when you next read it. Passages identified on a bus journey might later be copied to a computer file. This can be a useful way of summarising the book and/or composing an entry in your database. If you need to put markers down to find your way around books that you have borrowed (or do not want to mark for some other reason) it can be done with slips of paper used as bookmarks.

Notes from a library book - made somewhere you can use a computer - in order to retain relevant parts for future use

If you are reading books in a library you may take notes by photocopying pages which you later file. Photocopies can be marked. (Is it necessary to tell you that library books must not be marked?). If you can use a computer in the library (and have a floppy disk with you), you may want to make direct entries into a file. You may, for example, want to record the bibliographic details of books you are looking at, significant quotations and their references, or chapter headings to remind you what the book covers.

Notes on borrowed books - made in bed because you are ill - in order to compare the arguments of the books' authors.

Let us hope you are well enough to hold a pad of A4 paper and a pencil. You have the books that need comparing, but you are only up to reading one book, and only for short periods. You have noted the issues on which you want to compare and have planned to make notes on separate sheets for each book. You can do so in whatever spurts of energy you can find. You can compare the notes on the separate sheets from time to time, highlighting points of comparison. When you are better you can sit down at a desk with the sheets and the books and sort your notes into an organised comparison.

Notes from difficult reading - made somewhere you can write easily - to provide you with a digest of the book/s.

You may want substantial notes on certain books. You could start a page by writing the bibliographic details at the top and then enter notes as you read. Each note could start with the page number. If this becomes your normal pattern of reading and notetaking, you will be able to organise your notes in a file by the book they are about. If you leave a margin on both sides of the paper you will be able to add crossreferences to other books in your collection of notes on books.

Summarising a difficult, but important book - with notes made in different places - in order to get a good grasp of what the book is about.

This is where notetaking becomes creative composition. It is hard work, and very rewarding.

The book could be one that you have to study in depth for your course, or that you believe is important for some other reason.

Set yourself the task of writing a review that will really communicate what the book is about.

Carry the book around with you and read it whenever you can. Whenever you have a useful idea that captures an aspect of the book, write it down on a scrap of paper or the back of your hand.

As you begin to feel you understand the book (or part of it) draft and redraft the review on a sheet of A4 or a computer. It may help you to impose a limit on the length of the review: one paragraph for example.

[At the time I wrote the above, I was struggling to write a one paragraph review - using these methods. Click here to read it. You will notice that I have changed the one long paragraph into several short ones. One does this to make web writing easier to read.]

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active reading

book notes

lecture notes

listening to lectures

organise notes

reading notes

Survey, Question, Read, Recall, Review





use notes

value notes

student tips:

"I tend to switch off after a while. Then I realise that I have not taken in anything of relevance. I have developed a way of getting round this that has worked for me so far. I break down the text and write it in ways I feel I can understand, before reading again in its full context." Natasha Asare

"As other people may find a difficult text hard, working together and going through it together may make it easier to understand". Akcan Hussein

"Books are my passion, so it is frustrating when they are difficult to read. I now know that with some books I have to take one section at a time and go over it until I understand it, then move onto the next section." Monique Murdock