Academic Reading Skills

Reading academically

Academic reading requires skills beyond what are necessary to read for information or entertainment.  Many students enter community college knowing how to read and write but not knowing how to read and write academically.  These students can be seen “straining at the boundaries of their ability, trying to move into the unfamiliar, to approximate a kind of writing they can’t yet command” (Rose, 188).  Academic reading asks the student to do more than read the words, it requires the reader to comprehend the text, identify and remember key points, and think critically about the text.  As with any practice, the more a reader reads, the better they become but simply reading is not enough.  Students need to be taught skills in academic reading; to enhance their reading comprehension and to improve their writing skills or they will not be able to succeed in college level courses.

Active reading skills

Academic reading instruction can be broken down into seven essential skills: “understanding vocabulary in context, recognizing main ideas, identifying supporting details, understanding transition words, recognizing patterns of organization, making inferences, and evaluating arguments” (Langan, v).

Vocabulary

Students in remedial reading do not generally possess a large academic vocabulary and it can be difficult to comprehend texts even at the level of individual words.  Skilled readers encounter unfamiliar words in texts without much problem.  They mentally bypass the word, look it up in the dictionary, or know how to find meaning through the context.  When students do not possess these skills, encountering new words can be frustrating and instead of reading improving their vocabulary, it reinforces their aversion of reading.  Since understanding vocabulary is essential to comprehension, academic vocabulary is explicitly taught as part of the curriculum and learning vocabulary through context is the first skill introduced to students.

Learning words through context is beneficial for a variety of reasons.  It saves the reader time and frustration since they are not stopping to look the words up in a dictionary.  It helps to increase their vocabulary simply by actively reading because once a word is understood in context, it becomes a part of the reader’s working vocabulary.  Finally, it helps give the reader shades of meaning.  Unlike dictionary definitions which show the actual meaning of the word, context shows the subtle implied meanings beyond the definition.

Vocabulary is not typically learned from referencing dictionaries; it is learned through the context in text and speech.  Skilled readers automatically absorb new vocabulary as they read but remedial readers often must be taught this often-unnoticed skill.  New vocabulary can be learned by looking for examples, synonyms, or antonyms within the sentence but, when those are not present, readers can look for clues in context to give meaning to new words.  With example, the author will use the new word then give at least one example of the word, like dwelling might have the following examples in the same sentence: hut, igloo, mansion, and cave.  When an author uses a synonym, they will use a new word and a word that is like that word in the same or adjacent sentence.  This technique is often done to give variations in speech, but it is also a helpful tool for learning new words.  A third way is the use of antonyms, it is just like synonyms but it with an added step.  The sentence or sentences used with an antonym will use the new word and a word that is its opposite and often include a reversal transition word like but, however, unlike, or yet.   The last type of context clue is to use the general sense of the sentence to figure out the unknown word.  Langan writes “sometimes it takes a bit more detective work to puzzle out the meaning of an unfamiliar word.  In such cases, you must draw conclusions based on the information given with the word.  Asking yourself questions about the passage may help you make a fairly accurate guess” (31). This is any context clue that doesn’t fall into the first three of the categories.  Since using context clues is a form of inference, I feel it is natural to extend the practice to larger readings and introduce making inferences next in the curriculum.

Making Inferences

“An inference is a statement about the unknown made on the basis of the known.” S.I Hayakawa

Making inferences is a formal way to say to read between the lines. “When you “read between the lines,” you pick up ideas that are not directly stated in what you are reading.  These implied ideas are often important for a full understanding of what an author means” (Langan, 273).  Skilled readers practice inferencing, or draw conclusions, in conversations and reading naturally but for some struggling readers, this skill must be taught, practiced, and routinely applied.  Making inferences can be done using three steps: first, use information from the text, next, use prior knowledge like background information and experience with the topic, and finally, don’t go with the first inference – investigate other possibilities before deciding on the conclusion.  For the last step, it is good to explain how differences in prior knowledge or reasoning can result in differing conclusions.  This helps students to understand how learning builds on more learning and how different perspectives can create differing results when reading.

Key Words – List, addition, and reversal shift words

The third skill addressed in the reading curriculum is to learn to identify key words and utilize them to gain understanding.  There are three types of key words that can be helpful for students to identify: list words, addition words, and reverse shift words.  List words signify that a list of details is coming and include words and phrases like: a few advantages, several reasons, three outcomes, or various kinds.  List words are important to identify because they often inform the reader of the main idea and what to look for with supporting details.  With the sentence “There are three ways to trim a spruce tree.”  The reader is made aware that the sentences following this one are going to be about three ways to trim a spruce tree.  They can make a title for the notes “ways to trim a spruce” and confidently know they are looking for three supporting details.  By identifying the list word, the reader can identify the main idea of the paragraph and can anticipate what material will be relevant for their notes.  The second type of key word is an addition word.  Addition words signal the addition of a supporting detail and include words and phrases like: another, finally, third, or furthermore.  Addition words are helpful for finding major details but also show students how to make their own writing easier to understand.  The last key words are the reversal shift words like yet, but, or however that signal that the writer is going to modify or reverse the previous idea.  Many times, when a main idea sentence appears in the second or third sentence, it will include a reversal transition word.  Many students struggle with identifying main ideas and supporting details and teaching them about key words before teaching them to find main ideas and supporting details is a way to help them identify these important elements.

Identifying the Main Idea

The most important skill to learn for reading comprehension is finding the main idea.  The main idea of a text is the topic and point; “the general comment or point the author wants to make about the topic.  It’s the overall message readers are expected to take from a reading” (Flemming, 184). To find the main idea, the reader should first look for the general statement, next they should figure out the topic to determine the point, and finally the reader can look for key words like list words to find the main idea and addition words to identify major details.  To look for the general statement, the reader needs to look for the statement that is vague enough to cover the rest of the paragraph.  If the sentence is supported by the rest of the paragraph, then it is the main idea sentence.

Although there is an emphasis in looking for a topic sentence in many of the texts I have encountered, the practice isn’t as beneficial for understanding as identifying the topic and point and rewriting the main idea.  The topic is what the passage is about and can be expressed in few words.  Finding the topic can help a reader to assess what point the author is making about the topic and the main idea.  Another way to find the main idea is to look for key words.  List words signal to the reader that a list of items will follow.  Sentences containing list words should be carefully looked at to see if they may be the main idea sentence.  Also, if the main idea sentence includes a list word, that list word is often a clue to finding the details that support the point – the supporting details.

Rewriting Topic Sentences

It is important for the students to rewrite the notes so that they process them and understand them better.  Looking for a topic sentence is passive reading, determining the main idea is active.  Another reason a student should practice rewriting the main idea instead of relying on finding a topic sentence is that not all paragraphs contain a main idea sentence.  When the main idea isn’t directly stated, the reader must infer the implied main idea.  “Inferring implied main ideas is a two-step process.  First, you need to understand what each sentence contributes to your knowledge of the topic.  Next, you need to ask yourself what all the sentences combine to imply as a group.  The answer to that question is the implied main idea of the paragraph” (Flemming, 326).  If students are already in the practice of thinking of the main idea as a general statement that includes the topic and the point of the paragraph instead of looking for the main idea sentence, the transition to implied main ideas will not be as difficult.

Implied Main Ideas

When paragraphs do not contain a topic sentence, they have implied main ideas, meaning the reader must determine the main idea for themselves.  There are five types of paragraphs that are likely to imply rather than state the main idea.  These are paragraphs that list a bunch of facts but leave the conclusion open for the reader, paragraphs that open with a question and the main idea is the answer to that question based on the support of the paragraph but isn’t stated, paragraphs that offer competing viewpoints and neither viewpoint is made to be more important than the other, paragraphs that offer compare and contrast for two topics, and paragraphs that describe a study or several studies and leave it to the reader to determine the meaning of the research results.  Since there is no topic sentence, the students may question themselves or try to make one of the sentences work for a topic sentence instead of focusing on topic, point, and understanding the main idea.

Supporting Details

Once the main idea is found, the next step is to see how the author supports that idea for comprehension but also to determine if the argument is logical and relevant.  Supporting details are the facts, examples, reasons, steps, results, or other evidence that develop the main idea. With supporting details, relationship is introduced, the main idea is explained with the major details which are clarified even further by the minor details.  Introduction to this relationship between the ideas is a good time to show students how to take notes so they can access the information for class.

The Langan texts teach the students to take notes using outlines, mapping, and summarizing.  With outlining and mapping, the students are taught to pay attention to key words and focus on the relationship of the main idea and supporting details and with summarizing the focus is paraphrasing but both are ways of processing the information.  It is important to teach students a variety of note taking strategy including specific techniques for texts depending on their patterns of organization because not all note taking should be the same and not all students process text in the same way. Determining the relationship between the ideas and the patterns of those relationships helps the students to gain comprehension, remain active with the text, and gives the student the most efficient way to take notes.

Patterns of Organization

Looking at the structure of a text is a beneficial for understanding it and knowing how to take notes. “Recognizing the structure of prose is a great aid for students in comprehending and recalling text material.  Students who can perceive the structure that binds the ideas in text will understand and remember ideas much better than if they are viewed only as separate entities” (Readence, Bean, and Baldwin, 147).  There are many patterns of organization, or ways of presenting the material.  The type of relationship can help the reader identify supporting details and aid them with knowing what note taking strategies would be most effective.  There are six basic patterns of organization students will most likely encounter in their textbooks.  These patterns are definition and example, time order, basic list, comparison and contrast, cause and effect, and classification.

The first pattern of organization, definition and example, is probably the easiest to identify.  With this pattern, a specific word is introduced, defined, and examples are given.  The first sentence usually introduces the word, gives its definition, and is the main idea of the paragraph.  To take notes on this form of paragraph, it is important to write the term with its complete definition and include any of the details that are helpful for clarifying the definition.  The main idea is to write and understand the word in the context of the larger text.

The second pattern of organization is time order.  One of the most important things to remember about time order paragraphs is that order matters.  These paragraphs usually show a series of steps or a sequence that must be followed in a specific order.  To take notes on paragraphs that use this pattern of organization, the reader needs to list and describe the individual steps that make up a clearly identified process.

The third type of pattern is a basic list.  With a basic list, the order doesn’t matter, only the main idea and supporting details.  To take notes on this form of writing, the reader simply needs to state the main idea and any supporting details that clarify the main idea often as a list.

Compare and contrast is the fourth pattern often seen in textbooks.  Paragraphs can be comparison, about how are two topics are the same, contrast, how are they different, or as more often seen, a mixture of compare and contrast.  The best way to take notes for this pattern is to write the things being compared and/or contrasted and list their similarities and/or differences.  A t-chart or box divided into four boxes are often effective graphic organizers for these paragraphs.

The fifth common pattern of organization found in textbooks is cause and effect.  Cause and effect relationships show how events cause other events.  To take notes for this pattern, the student needs to show the specific causes and effects from the paragraph and how they are related.  An efficient way to do that is to use bubble maps with the central cause or effect surrounded by the results or as a chain of causes and effect events.

The final common pattern for organization found in textbooks is classification.  Classification explains how a larger group is broken into smaller subgroups and gives information about those subgroups.  To take notes on this pattern, the reader should include the name of the larger group that is going to be broken down, the names of the subgroups, and a brief description of each subgroup.

These are the six most common patterns students will encounter while reading academically.  Identifying the relationships within a text will help readers have a better understanding and take notes more effectively.  The intertextual relationship helps with comprehension but there is another relationship to consider when reading academically and that is between the reader and the text, what I like to refer to as the readlationship.  Relationships in the text help the reader know how to take notes but recognizing the readlationship with a text helps the student to know how to approach and read a text.

Readlationships

Reading academically means to read for a purpose.  The reader’s purpose determines the amount of time a reader needs to take with a text.  The time spent with a text is a relationship between the text and the reader.  The more time spent with a text, the deeper the relationship will become.  I call these relationships with the text, readlationships and have identified four levels of readlationships to guide the student on how to interact with the text.  Each level can be associated to human relationships to aid students in understanding the rules for relationship and each has a different way to actively read.  These are the four readlationships: assistant, colleague, friend, and love.

The first level readlationship is an assistant relationship.   When a person needs to purchase gas or get groceries; they go in, pay, and leave.  Rarely is there anything more than a transactional conversation, there just isn’t enough time.  The relationship is just that of assistance, like when a student just needs to go in, get their information, and get out. Students don’t need to spend as much time with all texts to get their information.  Active reading takes time, but academic reading recognizes that sometimes, readers need to have skills to digest information quickly.  Students learn how to use key words to process texts and find the information they need for class without using additional time.  With effective scanning techniques, students can process less important texts more quickly.

The second form of readlationship is a colleague.  Here, the reader is spending more time with a text, getting to know it by working with it.  This is where the student will need to use the skills taught in the class and practice active reading skills.  Just like coworkers, the students may or may not enjoy the text, but they will need to become familiar enough to work with the text.

After working with a text, a student may want to befriend it and know more about it.  With a friend readlationship, the reader will spend more time with the text and read other materials to learn more.  This is where to introduce how to look for outside resources and to follow the text for more information.  It would also be a good time to visit the library or talk about research for classes.

The last readlationship is more rare, love.  When a person falls in love with a text, they will actively seek to learn more.  Beyond merely seeking outside resources, the reader will want to know anything they can about the text.  This readlationship takes time and internal desire to know more.  Like love with a person, this readlationship transcends the mind and touches the heart, it is beyond academic reading and cannot be taught.  When a person loves a text enough to study it in this way, they become an expert on the text.

By understanding the various depths of readlationships in reading, the skilled reader will know how to approach a text for class.  Learning how to approach the text is almost as important as knowing how to process it as far as efficiency. The skilled reader knows the level of engagement necessary for each text, knows how to comprehend the text, knows the relationships of the text, and the final skill, how to evaluate the text.

Critical reading

After all the basics are covered for academic reading, the final skills to introduce are how to read critically and evaluate an argument.  To read critically, the reader needs to think beyond the text to the author’s mind as it was written.  To evaluate the text, the reader can determine the author’s purpose for writing, the tone, possible biases, soundness of arguments, and look for any errors in reasoning.  Taking these steps will lead the reader to go from an active reader to a critical reader.

Tone and Purpose

            The tone is the feeling of a text and purpose is the reason it was written.  Skilled readers can identify these elements to see beyond the words on the page and into the mind of the writer.  Whether it is angry, interested, or matter-of-fact, the tone will show the feeling that the author is attempting to convey.  Tone can be tricky since there are so many possible answers, but it is important to get at least a general sense of the mood of the writing.  Determining the tone helps uncover the author’s main purpose for writing and possible biases.

Writers have a purpose for writing, either to inform, persuade, or entertain an audience.  When a writer’s purpose is to inform, the information presented is simply to give the reader knowledge on a person, issue, or idea.  Nothing is being promoted or argued, information is being transmitted.  In persuasive writing, the writer openly expresses their biases but supports their argument with well-chosen facts.  The purpose of persuasive writing is to sway the reader into the opinion of the writer.  The last purpose for writing is entertainment; some writers simply write to entertain readers.  Of these types of writing, it is important to look more closely at persuasive writing to evaluate the argument.

Evaluating an Argument

In college, it isn’t enough to understand and remember an argument.  Academic reading requires that the student think critically about the text and evaluate the author’s argument, both for organization and content.  When evaluating an argument, the first thing a reader wants to do is make a judgement or take a position in the argument but the first thing a reader should do is evaluate the argument.  To evaluate an argument, the critical reader can identify and evaluate the author’s biases and identify and evaluate the elements of the argument.

Biases

The author’s opinions about a topic are their biases.  It is important to identify these opinions to see if the author’s biases are well tempered and solidly supported.  In an academic argument, it is acceptable to point out errors in the opposition’s reasoning but not to become so emotionally charged that the opposition isn’t even represented as an acceptable option. For an argument to be sound, the opinions need to be solidly reasoned through strong support.

Elements for argument

When learning the essentials of academic reading, the students learned to identify the main idea and supporting details of a text.  In an argument, these elements need to be looked at critically to evaluate the soundness of the argument.  A good argument will have the author’s position clearly stated as the main idea and the support will be both relevant and adequate.  A well-written argument can be admired even when the reader does not agree with the author’s conclusion of the support.  However, when the support isn’t relevant or enough, the author has made a poor argument.

There are three ways an argument can be inadequate: the support can be lacking, the author can be trying to manipulate the reader, or they can simply have errors in their reasoning.  When the support is off topic or lacking, it causes the argument to be weak.  Irrelevant support takes up space on the page but doesn’t contribute to the argument while hasty generalizations or lack of support can also cause the argument to fall short.

Authors sometimes use propaganda techniques in their arguments to manipulate the reader.  Critical readers need to learn about these practices in order not to be misled into falling for them.  There are many ways authors will manipulate the audience.  Advertisers use these methods in a much more obvious way which makes ads a good way to teach propaganda because it’s easier to spot and incorporates visual aids and everyday life.  An example of a propaganda technique is glittering generality.  This is when the author says something that sounds great but isn’t saying anything of substance.  A popular example for this is the motto for the rainbow-colored candies, Skittles, to “taste the rainbow.”  It sounds good, a bit exciting and whimsical but it doesn’t really mean anything.  It is pretty fluff made to entice the reader without providing any reasoning or fact. Propaganda techniques all ignore the issue and try to use emotional appeals instead of solid reasoning.

There are two types of errors in reasoning, those that ignore the issue, like propaganda, and those that oversimplify the issue.  Propaganda is an intentional form of ignoring the issue but some of these errors are unintentional.  An example of an error in reasoning that ignores the issue is circular reasoning.  With circular reasoning, the author tries to use the point as the support.  For example, a person might argue that they need a raise because they are not paid enough.  An unskilled reader may agree but the skilled reader sees that the author is not giving a reason.  To make an argument, the author can’t just restate their position in different words, they must give support.  Arguments that oversimplify the issue are a bit more difficult to spot because they contain elements of the issue.  A common error that oversimplifies the issue is offering false alternatives, “either/or.”  Issues are rarely binary, but many authors present only two alternatives and try to win the argument by default instead of sound support while ignoring the possibility of other alternatives.  By recognizing the author’s purpose, tone, biases, and critically examining the main idea and supporting details the skilled reader will be prepared to take their own position on the text.  Also, by examining reading so critically will strengthen their writing skills and ability to present an argument.

Teaching students to read academically will improve their ability to succeed in almost every other class.  The skills may need to be practiced and relearned to be mastered but mastery of these skills is crucial to get the most of the out of the academic college experience.  To get the most out of the transformational college experience, there is another side to this curriculum which is the focus of the next chapter.

Works Cited

Flemming, Laraine. Reading for Results. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1998. Print.

Langan, John. College Reading Essentials. Townsend Press Book Center, 2018. Print.

Readence, John. Bean, Thomas W., Baldwin, R. Scott. Content Area Literacy: an Integrated Approach. Kendall Hunt, 2017.

Rose, M. (1989), Lives on the boundary: The struggles and achievements of America’s underprepared. New York: Free Press.  

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