By this point in your education, you know there is a difference between skimming something and reading critically for full understanding. While critical reading is more difficult, there are actions you can take before, during, and after reading to make it easier.
Writing before you read is a good way to access (bring to the surface) what you already know about the subject. If you do this, what you read will seem more familiar; you will find it easier to make connections between what you already know and the new information you're reading. Next time you have a reading assignment, take 5-10 minutes to freewrite about the subject of the chapter, article or book before you read.
Previewing what you're going to read is another strategy that will help you better understand what you're reading. Previewing involves systematically looking over a text before you read it. Pay particular attention to publication information (Where was this originally published? Who is its audience? Who is the author and what do you know about him or her?), title, subheadings or section headings, introduction (this can range from a paragraph to several pages, depending on the length of the text) and conclusion. Taking a few minutes to preview what you're about to read can give you a sense of the text as a whole, and, again, it will make what you read seem more familiar.
While you read:
Annotating means writing on the text as you read it. This is an excellent way to check and note your understanding of what you read. (If you're not comfortable writing in a book - or if you're using a library source - make a photocopy before you begin reading.) Annotating involves much more than just highlighting a few key phrases. When you annotate, you can: mark the thesis and main points of the text, circle key terms and/or unfamiliar words, write your questions or reactions in the margins, mark confusing sections of the text (so that you can find and re-read them later), and much more.
Making a two-column log is another way to record your reactions to a text as you read. To make a two-column log, take a sheet of paper (or a page in your notebook) and draw a vertical line down the middle of the page. On the left side of the line, note significant or interesting passages from the text you're reading. On the right side of the line, record your reactions. Your reactions might include questions about the passage, personal experience that relates to the passage, or agreements and/or disagreements with the point the author is making. This strategy is particularly helpful in preparing for a summary/response assignment.
Summarizing is an excellent way to check your comprehension of what you've read. If you can re-state the main ideas of something you've read, in your own words, you've come a long way towards fully understanding the text. See the section on "Summarizing" later in this packet for more on this.
Re-reading is not just something that people who don't understand a text do - most effective readers re-read at least parts of a text, often more than once! Rather than reading the piece straight through two or three times, try re-reading sections that you've marked as particularly important or difficult. Then, once you've worked through those tough sections, go back and see how they fit into the piece as a whole.
Discussing the text with others is another great way to learn more about your reading. If you have friends in the same class, see if they're willing to sit down and talk to you about what you've both read. By all means, participate in your class discussions of the reading. One useful strategy is to come up with a list of questions that you hope will be answered in class discussion. Then, if one of those questions doesn't come up, ask the class yourself.
For more on reading, see the Writing Guide on critical reading.