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Before trying to discuss or write about what you have encountered in an assigned reading, take time to follow the ten suggestions below, or at least as many of them as you can. If you skip all or most of them, your comments on what you have read will turn out to be shallow, vague, unclear, inaccurate, or perhaps even meaningless. A reading journal or notebook is a place to put information and thoughts on paper. You can type them into your computer, especially convenient if you have a laptop, so that you can print them out later. Getting ideas and details into writing is a good habit for a college student to cultivate. And then when you come to class or try to answer questions for a homework assignment, you will be well prepared. See suggestion #10 on the third page of this list. To participate effectively in classroom discussions, it is important have your reading journal or notebook in front of you; you will be more likely to make intelligent contributions to the conversation. And finally, be prepared to read aloud in class, as well as to discuss what you were attempting to express, and to share any discoveries, questions, or problems you may have had in the process. Reading academically is the first step toward writing academically. 1. READ THE ASSIGNMENT AT LEAST TWICE. Read and then reread the assigned essay, article, or chapter of a book. At least two readings are necessary to begin to get a fairly good grasp of a college-level text. You may have to go over some difficult passages several times to work out what the author is stating or implying. It is never safe to assume that a full understanding can be achieved without working hard on what an author is stating, implying, suggesting, and challenging the reader to consider. 2. INVESTIGATE THE AUTHOR AND THE CONTEXT. Learn some facts about the author and think about their relevance to what you are reading. Do any facts shed light on the substance or style of what you have read? Jot down some basics, such as the author’s gender, year of birth, country of origin, occupation, achievements, places he or she has traveled and lived, etc. Knowing information like this could help a lot in a discussion or writing exercise, or exam. Also, notice where, when, and why the work was first published. If it first appeared in a magazine or newspaper, what audience regularly reads it. What was the purpose behind the publication of this work? What was the motivation of the author or the publisher? Also think about whether the passage of time could influence the way we regard the piece. Are the facts no longer valid? Have attitudes or values changed? Does the author’s tone seem dated or outof-place by today’s standards? 3. KNOW THE VOCABULARY, REFERENCES, AND ALLUSIONS. Look up words and references. As a college student, you are responsible for knowing the definitions of words and the significance of allusions. You may need to consult more than one dictionary or other reference books in the library. Or you can do your research online. Two helpful sites are www.reference.com (where you can find dictionaries and many other reference works) and www.bartleby.com (which has many excellent reference sources). Both are free. But it is important to remember that your work is not done when you have located the meaning of a word or allusion. You must then go back to the text and consider how the word has been used by the author. Frequently, there are several meanings for a word, so you must figure out which one best fits the author’s intent and purpose. And don’t forget that authors sometimes use words figuratively, so the author’s actual meaning may not be stated in any dictionary. And of course you also have to think about the author’s intent after identifying an allusion or reference to a person, place, event, myth, work of literature, song, painting, sculpture, and so on (the list is very long). For example, when an author refers to something as “Kafkaeque” and you find out this alludes to the literary works of Franz Kafka, you have to read a bit about the ideas and feelings generated by those works and then fit that information into the text to grasp how it illuminates the author’s intent. Another good example is found Toni Morrison’s novel Sula. A curious reader will wonder why one of her main characters is called Shadrack. A little research
To get the most of out college-level material. You may have to stop when you come to something that seems difficult to understand. Try to grasp the way the text moves from point to point. evidence. NOTICE THE OVERALL STRUCTURE AND METHODS OF DEVELOPMENT. but ask yourself how it invites consideration of its significance. weirdly expressed. or even totally illogical. authors often want readers to pick up on the “subtext. Try to outline the stages of development in the text.” ideas that are implied rather than directly stated. and cause/effect. White. By paying attention to connotations. Tone can often suggest how we are meant to interpret the overall meaning and purpose of the text. be sure to think about what they imply. what their life experiences have taught them. Authors are often playful in the way they express ideas.How to Keep a Reading Journal page 2 reveals that there is a Bible story about someone with a name spelled almost the same. offering us a chance to feel.) 6. We also need to be sensitive to literary techniques such as irony. classification or division. For example. DON’T OVERLOOK HUMOR. but full understanding requires reading the whole essay again and then pondering the implications of this imaginative phrase. imagery and the many kinds of figurative language. Ask yourself how all of these related to each other. and knowing a bit about this Bible story sheds light on Morrison’s theme and purpose. or thesis. Metaphors and similes usually have the power to evoke emotions. wordplay. Many things you will read in college are not blandly serious or dully solemn. 8. and notice how the conclusion is reached. They might also show their frustration or anger in harsh jokes. and the closing paragraphs. If it is an explicit argument. look for other rhetorical methods. 4. Good authors often use language inventively. When you spot figures of speech. Later in the essay we read about “a certain pride of bitterness. think about the title. and the purpose of the text. sometimes you don’t need information. comparison or contrast. But this process works only if we as readers are willing to allow their words to resonate inside us. Mark such passage in the margin. AND EXAGGERATION. look for reasons. Style and tone result from the author’s choice of words that have strong connotations or figurative meaning. such as narration. To find the main idea.” and again we have to pause to allow the conflicting connotations work on us. especially the very last sentence. it may appear very odd or even nonsensical (see suggestion number 8 below). you can sense an author’s tone (his or her emotional attitude toward the subject) and be in a better position to make inferences and to attempt an interpretation of the author’s implied meaning. in “Fifth Avenue. the opening paragraphs. (For longer texts. IDENTIFY THE AUTHOR’S THESIS AND PURPOSE. irony or sarcasm can change your understanding of what you read.B. 7. For example. Uptown. surprising. such as metaphors and similes. WIT.” Reading on helps to explain this figure of speech. A comic turn might seem incongruous. process analysis. DON’T OVERLOOK THE “ODD STUFF”—IT’S USUALLY IMPORTANT. A good reader is constantly aware that authors may not mean what they say. CONSIDER THE AUTHOR’S STYLE AND TONE. If the structure does not seem to be overtly argumentative. you just need to think and draw inferences.” James Baldwin writes that in the neighborhood where he grew up there “are immense human gaps. Record your impressions of the author’s style and tone in your reading journal. definition. like craters. upsetting. paradoxical. Even the very last word can change the way we are meant to understand a written work. However. description. we must be willing to spend the time and effort necessary. read “Once More to the Lake” by E. and also copy them into your journal or notebook. For each “oddity” you find. trying to explain the impact on the author’s meaning. Focus on passages that seem particularly unusual. assumptions. 5. try to explain why it could be important or worth the . and these emotions are closely related to the author’s main idea and purpose. this often demands a lot of time and effort. Baldwin wants us to absorb the ironic contrast between “pride” and “bitterness” so that we begin to gain some of the insight he wants us to discover. not merely to know. the important turning points. For example. Shadrach instead of Shadrack. A reader shouldn’t be surprised to come across comic passages. even in a discussion of a serious topic.
Here are two broad questions to start with: • • • What is the significance of this author’s view of the topic? How does this author’s vision enlarge our understanding of human nature? How could this author’s ideas change the way I see the world? Many students like to keep a “double entry” journal. Tan was shouting at his boss in her impeccable broken English.” (62) Paraphrases. you paraphrase. interpret. (For help with summarizing and paraphrasing. I could do some research and find out.How to Keep a Reading Journal page 3 reader’s attention. Don’t avoid the “hardest” parts of a text.”) 10. and implications (summary).” Quoted Passages “… the real Mrs.” “…my mother’s English almost had an effect on limiting my possibilities in life.” 9. AND FEELINGS. You may also respond by expressing your feelings and ideas. See “How to Paraphrase. In the right column. I happened to be rebellious in nature and enjoy the challenge of disproving assumptions made about me. In your hunt for the author’s thesis. and the last paragraph and the last sentence of all. argument.” (64) She doesn’t seem “rebellious” in this essay. IDEAS. your agreement or disagreement. Here is a brief example of how a student might record and respond to passages from Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue. If it baffles you. Being able to write an accurate summary or paraphrase of what you have read is essential for full understanding of the author’s ideas and way of supporting those ideas. What a loss! That could be me—maybe I would be able to write well if my early experiences with English had been different. download “How to Summarize” and “How to Paraphrase. Any thought that is triggered by the passage is worth writing down. But maybe some of her other writings tell about that side of her. you quote important or interesting passages in the text. Putting something last is a way for authors to give it emphasis. QUESTIONS. Questions. No details show her being rebellious or disobeying her mother. which has two side-by-side columns. “Fortunately. purpose. Let one thought lead to another and get them on paper or type them directly into a computer. and they often save the most important thing for last. even if it’s not “correct.” (62) Amazing that this great writer might not have written anything. Always include the thoughts that occur to you as you are reading and as you consider the implications of what you are reading. They are also the passages most in need of paraphrasing. explore the source of your confusion. and idea. DO SOME SUMMARIZING AND PARAPHRASING. or speculate about the author’s meaning. Comments How can broken English be called “impeccable”? Maybe she means it’s perfect for communicating her anger. closely examine the last sentence of each paragraph. the last paragraphs of each section. It is important to put an author’s key statements into your own choice of words and sentence structure (paraphrase) and to sum up an author’s overall purpose. In the left column. RECORD YOUR OWN REACTIONS. and that last thing can change the meaning of the whole work. . They are often the key to the author’s main attitude.
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