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Steps to Success » Reluctant Readers

Shortcuts to Understand and Navigate a Text

Being asked to read a longer work of fiction independently can be an intimidating prospect and students can sometimes feel that they don’t know how to approach this task – that they will never finish the book, or worse, that they can’t begin. Here are some tips and shortcuts that will help you understand and navigate a text more easily.

Break your reading into manageable pieces

As the saying goes, ‘There’s only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.’ This means that every task that seems daunting can be accomplished gradually, one step at a time, and it applies to your reading too. Set aside a certain amount of time to read each day (this could be as little as 15 or 20 minutes), and have a target to reach within this time (perhaps a chapter or two). If you can read regularly in this way, you’ll soon be sailing through books.

Reading for meaning

You want to be able to move quite quickly through the story without stopping or getting stuck. One way to do this is to make sure that you are reading for meaning, rather than trying to read the text too closely. Reading for meaning simply involves knowing what happens in the story and understanding who the main characters are. Often, teachers will give you a text in class and ask you to look at it very closely and identify or analyse literary techniques. This type of analytical reading is good for looking at a short extract, but reading a whole book in this way would be far too slow and difficult. Remember, the first time you read a book, you are only trying to get a general understanding of the story and characters. If you keep this in mind as you read, your reading speed should increase.

Don’t stop for every unknown word

Equally, you don’t have to stop to look up every single word you don’t know. Sometimes you will be able to understand the general meaning of a sentence without knowing the exact meaning of every word. At other times, you can use context clues to figure the general meaning of the tricky words out. If you understand enough to keep going, that’s great.

Use post-it notes and annotation

One way to help you navigate a text is to mark important parts of the story. You might want to stick a post-it note or coloured tag on a page where a key event takes place, or where you really enjoy the description or dialogue. You can do this quickly as you read through. If you own the book, you can make a very short note in the margin or at the top of the page. Your markings will act like a map of the story, allowing you to find the parts you like again later when you need them. In this way, you can return to the important scenes any time you like and look at them in a bit more detail.

Don’t forget back cover copy, titles, and the chapter list

Looking at these parts of a book is a bit like taking a step back and being able to see the whole structure at once. Back cover copy is a great shortcut to who the main characters are, the setting, and the main problem of the story; knowing these key elements before you start can speed your progress and ensure you don’t feel lost. Chapter titles often help you to predict what might happen in the next few pages, and they help you to see how episodes and events fit together as part of the overall story.

Remember, don’t look too closely on your first reading, have confidence and power through!