Using Reading Skills to Analyze Subject-Specific Content

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

Almost every academic subject involves reading, but the purpose of the reading may be different depending on the subject and the reading material. Skilled readers know how to determine the author's purpose and ask useful questions in order to get the most out of a reading assignment.

Make the Most of Your Reading

We've all had this experience: you've been assigned to read A Tale of Two Cities for literature class and have read every last page but, when you go to write an essay about it, you only remember that there was something about a war in there. Or, you stay up the night before your biology test, dutifully highlighting every important word in the textbook, but don't remember any of it the next day.

Pretty much every academic subject involves reading, but you need to know how to apply your reading skills and read purposefully to get the most out of it. First, you need to determine the author's purpose for writing it and your purpose for reading it, and then you need to be able to engage with the reading by asking yourself the appropriate questions.

Why Did the Author Write It?

Whenever you are assigned a reading, you should ask yourself a simple question: 'Why does this book (or journal article, or blog post, or whatever it may be) exist?' Books don't just fall magically from the sky to be assigned by teachers. They are all written for a purpose.

For example, A Tale of Two Cities is a work of literature that Charles Dickens wrote to comment on the human condition and create an emotional impact on his readers. Your biology textbook was most likely written by a biology professor, or professors, with the purpose of informing students about the basic concepts of biology. An opinion column in the local newspaper about immigration was written to convince you to agree with the author's point of view.

So, when you get assigned a reading assignment, ask yourself what genre of reading it is and why the author wrote it? Was it to evoke an emotional response? Was it to teach freshmen the parts of a cell? Was it to argue for building a wall along the U.S. border? If you know why the author wrote it, you will have a better understanding of how to approach it and what questions to ask.

Why Are You Reading It?

Just like books don't fall from the sky already written, teachers don't just randomly assign books because they take joy in torturing students (well, most don't). So you need to ask yourself why you're reading the book, and 'because the teacher told me to' isn't a good enough answer.

If you are assigned to read a chapter of your biology textbook on the parts of a cell, it is because the teacher wants you to know the parts of a cell, so remembering specific terms is going to be important. In this case, it might be good to break out the highlighter and mark the important items you may be asked to remember on a test. But, reading to memorize facts like this is only one purpose of reading.

Perhaps your writing teacher assigned that column on immigration not because he wants you to memorize the technical terms in it, but because he wants you to write an essay in response that disagrees with the article's viewpoint. In this case, you wouldn't want to highlight key terms, but instead mark the arguments the author makes in favor of his thesis. Then you can determine if those arguments are sound or not.

Sometimes there can be multiple purposes for the same piece of writing. Did your English teacher assign A Tale of Two Centuries because you are studying the form of nineteenth century novels? Or did your history teacher assign it in order to analyze its portrayal of the French Revolution?

Ask Good Questions

As you can see, reading skills largely comes down to asking questions. But, after you answer the questions of why the author wrote it and why you are reading it, it's now time to really start asking questions.

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