Better reading – look for the clues


in TOEFL, Tools & Techniques

When you read to improve your English, you want to read for pleasure. You want to choose something that’s easy and interesting, that allows you to “get lost” in what you’re reading and forget that it’s English. But sometimes you must read to learn, for example, on the TOEFL exam. What do you do then?

Reading to learn

Many students read to learn by focusing their attention on the words and ideas and trying to memorize them by reading their assignments several times. One of my students told me that she read every chapter in her textbook 7 or 8 times to try to be sure she could remember the information for the test. This kind of reading to learn, which depends on what we call rote memorization, isn’t very effective. In fact, it doesn’t work well at all, especially when you consider the time and hard work it demands.

There’s a much better way to read when you want, or need, to learn. It’s based on a simple but important research-based principle: “we learn by solving problems….” Learning comes as the result of finding answers to questions, not by trying to concentrate on the facts. The only time rote memorization works very well is when we need to memorize something like the multiplication tables in mathematics or periodic tables in chemistry.

Mortimer Adler, who wrote How to Read a Book wrote this: “A good reader is active in his [or her] efforts to understand. Any book is a problem, a puzzle. The reader’s attitude is that of a detective looking for clues to its basic ideas and alert for anything that will make them clearer.”

How to be an active reader

Let’s use a paragraph from a practice exercise in Barron’s TOEFL iBT (2007) to illustrate how you can be an active reader. Take a minute to read it.

Aboriginal People – Although the first inhabitants of Australia have been identified by physical characteristics, culture, language, and locale, none of these attributes truly establishes a person as a member of the Aboriginal People. Because the Aboriginal groups settled in various geographical areas and developed customs and lifestyles that reflected the resources available to them, there is great diversity among those groups, including more than 200 linguistic varieties. Probably the most striking comparison is that of the Aboriginal People who inhabit the desert terrain of the Australian Outback with those who live along the coast. Clearly, their societies have developed very different cultures. According to the Department of Education, the best way to establish identity as a member of the Aboriginal People is to be identified and accepted as such by the Aboriginal community.

If I had to read this paragraph, here’s what I’d do:

1. Pause a moment when I see the title to ask myself“what do I already know about the Aboriginals?” Asking that question and thinking about for only a few seconds helps focus my attention on what is coming.

2. Notice that the first sentence tells me that the traditional ways we identify groups of people – where they live, their culture, their language – don’t work with the Aboriginals.

3. Ask two questions: Why don’t the tradition methods work? What does work? Now I have questions to answer, or problems to solve, so I scan the text, look for answers, and quickly find them.

One of the reasons I can be confident doing this is that the first sentence of a paragraph – called the topic sentence – is like a thesis statement for the paragraph and gives us the main idea; the rest of the paragraph adds supporting ideas. I’m using what I know about writing to be a better reader.

4. Discover that the traditional ways we identify groups of people don’t work with the Aboriginals because they’re too diverse (middle of sentence 2).

5. Discover that the best way to identify someone as an Aboriginal is to ask other Aboriginals (last sentence): “…the best way to establish identity as a member of the Aboriginal People is to be identified and accepted as such by the Aboriginal community.”

By asking the two questions at the end of the first sentence and scanning the rest of the text for the answers, rather than trying to read every word in the paragraph, I quickly discover the three key ideas of the paragraph:

    • The traditional ways of identifying groups of people don’t work with Aboriginals (main idea).
    • They don’t work because Aboriginals are too diverse (supporting idea).
    • One way that does work to identify someone as an Aboriginal is to ask other Aboriginals (supporting idea).
By the way, these three ideas are what you need from the paragraph to answer the TOEFL practice question this example was taken from.

Final thoughts

You may need to practice a while to become comfortable reading this way. But if you take the time to learn how to read actively, you’ll discover that you learn more in less time and remember it better.

Warren Ediger

References: Adler (1972) How to read a book; Krashen (2003) Explorations in language acquisition and use.

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J. Henrique November 18, 2011

One more good article Mr. Ediger. As always you gave us good advices. I think my reading can be improved a lot yet and you helped me to improve a little more. Thanks.

David Monteiro November 28, 2011

Hi, dear Warren!

As always, one more great article!! I think there are no words to describe how much your method and advice are effective and efficient. I’m always delighted by the way you help us get rid of those backward acts wrongly obtained mainly in traditional schools and throughout our lives. Sincerely, thanks to YOU, I’ve regained pleasure in reading even in my mother language. (I do at least 2 hours of reading, per day, and I only read what I fancy and that’s that! Your advice! Remember? heheh…) I’m always trying to act exactly as you say and I am happy to do it! By doing so, my English abilities improved in an undescribable, surprising way!!

I’d also like you to advise me on this: I CAN’T read mentally; I always do it out loud and it is unconscious. I say that because people often tell me to stop doing that. (Just imagine how much it may bother the victims around me.) So I ask: Do you think that besides annoying people, it also slows down the natural process of understanding? What do you say about it?

Thanks a lot for everything!

David Monteiro (Bahia – Brazil)

Warren Ediger November 28, 2011

David – Dr. Frank Smith makes the point that “When you read silently you can get directly to the business of reading, which is making sense of print. …you don’t have to bother with the sounds – the sense is in the meaning [of the words], not in the sounds.”

I see a couple of problems in the habit of reading aloud: (1) it slows you down; (2) it focuses your attention on words rather than ideas. Think back to what I wrote a couple of weeks ago about meaning coming in “chunks” of words. As a good reader scans the text, he or she often picks up the meaning from chunks of words without processing each word individually. Reading aloud makes this difficult, if not impossible.

You might want to consider reading texts that are very easy so your eyes can move quickly over the words and avoid the habit of looking individually at each word. Once you begin to get out of that habit, you can move back into more difficult texts.

J. Henrique December 1, 2011

Wow! That’s great! One more Brazilian here. I thinks there’s a lot of Brazilian readers following your blog Warren.

Warren Ediger December 1, 2011

You’re right; and I’m delighted to have them! I looked at the numbers earlier today: almost 250 Brazilians have stopped by during the last 10 days. Only two countries – U.S. and Russia – have more.

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