September 9, 2009

Five Steps to Help You Understand What the Heck You’re Reading!

“I don’t talk things, sir. I talk the meaning of things. I sit here and know I’m alive.”  -Professor Faber from Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury.


Introduction: We all have different backgrounds and cultures; we all have different experiences in our lives. To be frank, some are born with a silver spoon in their mouth, and others are born with a spoon full of heroine raging through their bloodstream. We cannot control where we come from. Studies have made it clear that children whose parents read to them on a regular basis from infancy will be more successful than their peers whose parents were unable to give the same attention. While we cannot choose our beginnings, there is a time in our lives when we are able to take control of our destiny, and it is much earlier than many people realize. In our modern world, literacy is not only essential for success; it is a minimum skill needed to just get by in life. Just knowing how to read is not good enough anymore, there needs to be genuine comprehension of what you are reading. For those children who grew up with books, reading comprehension seems to come natural. Just like a child growing up by the sea. She will seem to have a natural inclination towards swimming, but another child who lives inland usually has the same ability, just not the same opportunities to get in the water. Would we ever tell the second child she has no hope for learning how to swim? Of course not; it may be harder for her to train her muscles and lungs to work in the water, but with enough effort and time, she can successfully learn how to swim, and do it well. So it is with reading comprehension. It is a skill that has become second nature to many, but it is just a skill that can be learned by almost anyone willing to put the time and effort to train the neurons in their brain to fire up the imagination and the inquiry that leads to better understanding of a text. No matter what level of education you have, reading can still be a daunting task at times. If you or someone you love has struggled with reading in the past, take heart! Following are some relatively easy skills you can learn which will help you comprehend and understand almost anything you are confronted with. After enough practice, these skills will become second nature, and you’ll use them without even thinking about them. For now, keep this checklist with you and take it out anytime you feel intimidated by what you are reading.


STEP 1: What are you reading? Sounds simple, but you need to determine what kind of literature you’re reading before you even crack open the text. Following are various genres of writing that authors use to express themselves. You should have a basic understanding of the following literary terms, and you should be able to identify what you are reading just by looking at the form. Is it fiction or nonfiction? Is it a narrative, drama, poetry, or an essay? If it is an essay, is it expository or persuasive? If you don’t know the definition of any of these terms, look them up! When good readers can’t guess the meaning of the content through context clues, they will take the time to find out something they don’t understand in the text from other sources. Is it time consuming? Yes. But once you have gained the knowledge, you won’t have to research it again. It is worth your time.


STEP 2: What is the background and history of the work and/or its author? You will need to know something about the culture and history of the setting or topic of the work you are reading. If you are reading a novel set in Japan during the 1940’s, the more you know about Japanese culture and about World War II, the better you will understand the story, and the more you will enjoy it. A good example of the confusion that a lack of understanding of a culture or time period can cause is in the movie Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. In an effort to get an A on a history presentation in a class they neglected all year, these guys stumble through time and wreck havoc while they try to collect important historical figures. They often end up in a lot of trouble and come close to death because they are clueless about the customs of the times and places they visit. You won’t risk death if you don’t read up on the background of a novel, but the lack of understanding can sometimes kill your enjoyment of what may be an excellent story. Often it is through fiction that we learn about different cultures and time periods; that is fine, but you must take the information with a grain of salt and realize that writers have prejudices and take liberties in their interpretations.

Likewise, knowing something about the author can really help you to understand what his/her main point is. For instance, if you learn an author is a dedicated communist before you read his work, you will be able to pick up anything antidemocratic more quickly. Writers are good with words; that is why they write, but they are not always the most intelligent source on the subject they write on. It is important to read everything with an open mind and a willingness to learn a new perspective, but at the same time, you should also always be “reading between the lines” and making thoughtful decisions to accept or reject what the writer is putting down on paper. Knowing the author’s angle beforehand will help you prevent being fooled by half truths and twisted thinking through elegant and passionate words. Think this step is not worth the time? Consider Hitler and the intelligent Germans who were swayed into the Nazi Party through his speeches and his interpretation of history.


STEP 3: Observation. You’ve heard it said, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” but it’s a good place to start. The problem is you can’t stop there; you need to dig deeper. Find out as much information as you can before you even start reading. With most texts you should be able to answer the 5 W’s and H just by taking in a good observation of the work. What are the 5 W’s and H? Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? First of all, skim all the titles, headings and bold print in the table of contents and throughout. This will give you a basic idea of what the book is going to be talking about. Next, look at all the pictures and charts in the book. Pictures, graphs and charts are carefully chosen for a reason; they are there to complement the content and enhance your understanding of it, yet many people just ignore them. Lastly, you should read the summaries that are printed on the back cover or inside the book jacket. We all like to get to the movies early to catch the new previews. Movie previews are meant to spark your interest and give you a good idea of the content of the film. Advertisers want to give you just enough information to draw you in and get you to spend your money on another show. Summaries on book covers are the same; without revealing the plot, they will introduce you to the major characters and give you a hint of the conflicts they may be facing. Will our heroes survive?!? 


STEP 4: Interpretation: Now you are finally ready to begin reading. Once you start the book you need to constantly be monitoring your understanding. The biggest question to ask is “WHY?” What is the author’s purpose for writing the text in the first place? What does the author want you to know or experience through his/her work? Following are three techniques you can use to find the answers:

  • Personal Connection. The best way to find the answer to these questions is to make personal connections with the work. What do you already know about the topic? What kind of experiences have you had that are similar to the characters in the story? What are your current beliefs? Find a way for your experiences in life to relate to the topic and main ideas. For instance, we’ve all been rejected by the opposite sex at one time or another, if the author is breaking the heart of one of his characters, allow yourself to experience the pain he/she is feeling. If the main character has obstacles to overcome, think of specific struggles you have been through and cheer him on.
  • Visualizing. Another skill you’ll want to practice is visualizing. This is simply forming word pictures in your mind. When an author is describing a tree, don’t just logically know what a tree is, but spend the time imagining what that tree actually looks like. Picture this: the branches gently swaying in the wind, as a few of the leaves, with faint hints of yellow and red, lazily float and find their way to the ground. The first sign that school would be upon us soon… Many people have told me that they just find reading to be boring. In my opinion, they are just not using their imagination. If all you can see when you read is black words on a white page, that is painfully boring! You have to look deeper into the meaning of the words and truly imagine what is being written. If it takes you longer to read that way, so what? Reading a good book is like eating a good steak, you need to slowly chew on the soft meat and savor the taste of the spices dancing on your tongue as the juices run throughout your mouth. Mmmm. Steak. Visualization is often essential to fully understanding a work.
  • Prediction. Last, but not least, you should always be trying to predict what is going to happen next. When we watch a movie, we are always trying to figure out how it’s going to end: Will the guy get the girl? Who is going to survive and who is going to get killed off? Books are no different. Because I like to read, I know most of the plot formulas that authors use when they write. Some of my friends hate to watch a movie with me because I can usually predict the end half way through it. I’ve pretty much learned to keep my mouth shut! (Two movies that managed to trick me: The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense.)  Prediction is an easy skill to master with stories, but it works just as well with nonfiction. When you are reading about science, try to imagine and predict what the next steps of a formula are going to be. If you are reading a persuasive essay, try to predict what the final argument will be, especially if you disagree; you’ll need to counter argue. The bottom line is, if you are trying to figure out what is going to happen, you are thinking about what has already happened, and thinking about the text is essential to understanding it.


STEP 5: Evaluation/Application. This begins during reading, but often can’t be fully completed until you are finished the work. First, you need to discover what the major themes, or most important ideas of the work are: find those life lessons and timeless truths hidden between the lines. Next, you need to ask, “How does this apply to my life?” We live in a time of unprecedented stimulation. Many people will give up reading a text just because they are not constantly feeling pleasure from it. It is true that good writers will leave you wanting to read more, and their skill with their craft will determine whether you make it to the end of their work, but a positive reading experience doesn’t always keep your brain stimulated at a high level. More often the stimulation is slow and subtle. Have you learned a new skill or gained useful information? Does the work change the way you feel about the topic, or has it reinforced your beliefs? If it has any impact at all, you can give the work a positive evaluation. It was worth your time. When you are reading for pleasure or self-interest, this stage may only take place in the form of deep thinking. You may find yourself washing the dishes or mowing the lawn and mulling over something you read that in the moment didn’t have much of an impact, but now you can’t get that phrase out of your mind. When you take the time to think about and evaluate what you’ve read after you’ve finished reading it, you are well on your way to comprehending it. The next step is to apply what you have learned to your life. Maybe you’ve read a novel set in Mexico and you fell in love with the culture, so you try an authentic Mexican Restaurant. After that, you begin planning your vacation to experience the culture first hand. Or you’ve been raised to believe a certain doctrine all your life that you just accepted as truth. You read an article that challenges your belief; you spend many sleepless nights trying to figure out what to believe, so you do more research on the subject and hear both sides of the argument. Whatever the outcome, whether you change your beliefs or become more grounded in them, you are still better off from the inner struggle; you have grown as a person. The most important thing to consider is how the material has enhanced your life. Did it increase your knowledge, provide an experience, change/reinforce your beliefs, or all the above? If you can answer yes to any of these questions you have had a successful experience with a book.


Conclusion: This is the reason we read, simply because reading causes us to think and evaluate life. Reading forces us to discover new ideas and new worlds. It opens our minds to the endless possibilities, and in the overwhelming process of the search, we begin to see a path develop towards something like truth, if not truth itself. If your source of information is dominated by quick sound bites on internet searches or talking heads in their endless cycle of shouting matches, you will never learn to truly think for yourself about the issues, because you don’t give yourself the time needed to think. If your source of entertainment is dominated by visual stimulations of graphic sex, longer action scenes, and insulting, crude humor, you will never develop the full potential of what true feelings are meant to mature into, because you will never allow yourself to move past emotional adolescence through the wisdom and experience of others. Movies and documentaries have the potential to offer thought provoking issues and ideas that can move your soul and cause you to think, but in our pleasure obsessed society this kind of media is hard to find, and the stimulation fizzles out and falls flat. True stimulation that lasts longer than the moment is more likely to be found in a book.

Peter L Richardson



What’s in a word?
What’s in a rhyme?
Is it the silent tick-tock of time?
Are they definition, description or meaning?
Are they truth, fact or seeming?
A word is empty without sight.
The sun is darkness without light.

Peter L Richardson


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