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Critical Reading Strategies

Reading Difficult Material

The readings you encounter in college will often be challenging in terms of vocabuary, sentence structure, and concept. Reading such texts requires patience, concentration, and strategy. Without an effective mental attitude and reading strategy, you are likely to end up lost and frustrated. Reading specialists have come up with many helpful approaches to critical reading, for example KWL, or "Know, Want to Know, Learned"; and SQ3R, or "Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review." And of course, annotating, or marking up a text with questions, highlights, underlines, and notes also helps readers better understand and remember a text.

We begin this course with some easy texts, but then in Unit 2, you will read a pretty difficult text, "The Monument and the Bungalow," by Peirce Lewis. Lewis is writing for fellow academics in this essay, but the essay is not out of reach for college students. I chose this text for its difficulty and for Lewis' very thoughtful explanation of a field of study that may be new to you: the study of "cultural" landscapes. I expect you to be a bit frustrated at first, but to learn that you have the skills that you need to make sense of this essay: to find its main idea, to see the reason for the various supporting points in the essay, and to see why the ideas in the text are powerful. To help you through this text, and college level reading, generally, I have a few suggestions for reading that may help. Some of these suggestions you will have heard before in other English classes, but some may be new to you, so please read through this entire lesson.

  1. Preview the text. Look at the title and think about it. Really. Why is the Lewis essay called "The Monument and the Bungalow"? Think about that before you read, guessing what the words might refer to. Then think about the title again at the end of the essay, asking yourself how the title captures something at the center of the essay (which is what a good title is supposed to do, right?)

    Also preview the length. What are the different parts of the essay? Guess at how the parts might be important to the text as a whole. If there are headings, you might even list them on a piece of paper to keep the big picture in mind as you read.

    In the video below, I demonstrate my own preview of the essay "The Monument and the Bungalow." It is about 8.5 minutes long—I know, that is LONG, but it will give you a good overview of the essay as well as a sense of how useful previewing is in improving your comprehension of a text.

  2. Read the text in chunks. A longer, more complex work has many supporting elements. To understand the main point of the essay, readers need to work to understand why the author chose to include each supporting element of the essay, i.e., how that section is designed to advance the reader's understanding of the thesis. Asking lots of questions while reading each section will help you understand the work as a whole. For example, readers should ask "What is going on in this section? Why is it here? How does it help me better understand the main argument? How does one section lead into the next section? How are the sections related?" Asking lots of questions and then stepping back from the text to reflect on possible answers is excellent technique to improve your understanding.

  3. Take notes. I recommend that you print out the essay, underline key ideas, and take notes in the margins. Also, make an effort to summarize each section. Figure out what you think the point of each section is and, more importantly, how that section helps the reader better understand the thesis.

  4. Step back and put it all together. See how much you remember. Think about what you have learned and what is most significant about what you have read. Then think about how this reading might be important in your studies (or in this course) overall.