ESL: Reading Strategies

From the ESL Student Handbook by Young-Kyung Min, PhD

The more in-depth reading you do, the more in-depth writing you will eventually do. Here are some practical reading strategies you can use. 

You will be required to do a large amount of reading for each class. One of the main differences between high school writing and college writing is that in college you are required to demonstrate your in-depth understanding of the assigned readings through your writing. Reading and writing cannot be separated from each other: the more in-depth reading you do, the more in-depth writing you will eventually do. Thus, it is critical to improve your reading comprehension ability. Here are some strategies you can use.

Before Reading

You should explore the context of the reading before you begin to read the text. If you jump into reading the text line by line, you will get bored quickly and find it difficult to get the main ideas of the text. Your instructors will emphasize the importance of critical reading rather than just reading. How is “critical reading” different from just “reading”? As the concept “critical” suggests, critical reading highlights your active engagement in the reading process by asking questions such as: 

“What is the main message the author wanted to convey through the reading?”

“Who is the main audience of this text?”

“What is the author’s main intention to write this text?”

“What do I already know about the topic?”

“Are there any readings I have done in the past that are related to the topic?”

“Have I done any other readings by the same author?”

“Have I done similar readings in other courses?

“Why did the instructor assign this reading?” 

These questions will help you stay focused during your reading process. If you are not familiar with the topic, you can check out a youtube video or Wikipedia to develop a working knowledge on the topic. Once you have a better understanding of the topic, skim through the reading before you start to read line by line. Skimming means you read something very quickly to get the main ideas of the reading. Look at the headings, subheadings, guiding questions, visual illustrations, anecdotes, appendices, etc.

When you come across unfamiliar words, you should not always look them up in a dictionary. English is a very context-sensitive language. One word has multiple meanings, and the meaning changes depending on the context in which the word is used. Trying to learn the meaning of a new word by guessing from contextual clues is a useful skill to develop. Contextual clues may appear in the same sentence where the word is used or in the preceding or following sentences. Inference skills can ultimately lead to a better retention of words.

During Reading

Write as you read! As you write in the margins or on sticky notes underlining certain words or sentences, you become more actively engaged in your reading process (writings in the margins are called “annotations”). Annotating while you read can give you multiple benefits. The annotation process can help you recognize the patterns or methods of argument used by the author in the article, which will eventually help you develop your own argumentation style. The more in-depth reading you do, the more in-depth writing you can do.

The annotation process can also improve your ability to synthesize and integrate the readings into your writing. Remember that source use and synthesis skills are essential for your college career and beyond. You can also use the notes you’ve made during the reading as the basis for class participation. See the section on Speaking for further information.

After Reading

As soon as you are finished with the reading, try to jot down the immediate thoughts that come to your mind. Think about the author’s main message and the author’s main intention. If you cannot come up with your own reactions, try to summarize the main ideas of the reading first. Summary writing is always an essential skill to develop for your college education.

Then, check the specific requirements of the assignment. Make sure you fully understand how you are supposed to use the readings in your paper (see if you should react to particular passages in the readings or if you should interpret the main ideas of the readings in relation to your own personal experiences).

If it’s a reading response assignment, you will often be asked to analyze the author’s argumentation, evaluate the evidence (or data) the author used in developing his/her argument, come up with an example that illustrates the key ideas of the reading, or apply the key ideas of the reading to a specific context. Thus, it is crucial that you are actively engaged during your reading process and make earnest efforts to move beyond the summary level for reading assignments. The concepts of “critical reading”, “close reading”, “analytical reading”, and “reflective reading” all highlight the importance of your active engagement in the reading process.

Reading on a Hard Copy vs. Reading from the Screen

There is a huge difference between reading your paper on the computer screen and reading the same text on a hard copy. Your mind will be much more actively engaged when you read on a hard copy with a pen in your hand. It is also much easier for you to check out the connections of your ideas both at the paragraph level and at the essay level on a hard copy rather than on the computer screen. 

Because of the advancement of computer technology, we are used to processing information on the computer screen. Although it is still possible for you to annotate the readings on the computer screen, there is a huge difference between reading the material on the computer screen and reading the material on a hard copy holding a pen in your hand. Therefore, you should print out the readings whenever possible instead of reading from the screen. You can print out a certain number of pages for free in public libraries (e.g. the King County Public Libraries 75 pages per week) as long as you have a library card. Further information about a public library card can be found here

Reading Group

It is a great idea to form a reading group with students who are taking the same course with you. It will help you not only to improve your understanding of the material but also to get to know your classmates. Many international students have difficulty understanding lectures. Reading group meetings will be a great opportunity for you to connect the readings with the concept or ideas that you could not completely understand during the lecture. You can also ask for help to better understand certain concepts you are struggling with or simply check pronunciations of certain words. Remember that your group members can be a very important part of your enculturation process in the US.  So, try to engage in social and academic activities with them as opportunities arise. This will be helpful not only to expand your knowledge of the English language but also to enhance your awareness of the culture of the US and the US university life as well.

Reading Skills & Writing & Communication Center

If there are certain concepts or terms that you do not completely understand, you can always bring your questions about your readings to the Writing & Communication Center! The tutors at the Writing & Communication Center can help you understand the meanings of the concepts and the cultural context of your readings. Remember that the more in-depth reading you do, the more in-depth writing you will eventually do.

Created by Young-Kyung Min, PhD



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Lecuturer, Education Program