Does This Sound Like You?
One of the biggest challenges students face, both in high school and in college, is reading. Most students either read every single word they’re assigned or they skim the whole text and just read SparkNotes (or neither—sometimes we all get caught up binging a show on Netflix).
The problem with reading every word is that it takes up so much time. How are you going to close read 250 pages every week? Skimming, on the other hand, saves you time, but leaves you, at best, with a surface-level understanding. So most students end up either overworked or with a superficial grasp of the content (or both, for some of us).
Reading: What’s the Solution?
The solution is to find the middle ground between close reading and skimming. You want to close read the sections that are really valuable and skim everything else. That way, you’ll understand 80% of the text but save yourself hours in the library.
The trick is to find the key sentences and phrases that convey most of the text’s meaning—the needles in the haystack, if you will. Finding those gems is what I want to focus on in this post.
Finding What Is Important, Using ABC
Authors put little signals in their writing to indicate that something is important. I call these signals signposts. Skim through a text and scan for these signals, then slow down and read the surrounding sentence or phrase carefully. The most important and common types of signposts are ABC:
- Abnormal Formatting and Punctuation. If the author put anything into Italics, Bold, underline, or they use certain punctuation like a colon (“:”), semicolon (“;”), em dash (“—”), or exclamation point, (“!”), then you know that the information they’re referring to is important
- Beginnings and Endings. The beginning of a paragraph usually lays out what the paragraph will describe, and the final sentence usually summarizes the paragraph’s main point. The middle is detail and elaboration that may not matter. Pay attention to the beginnings and ends because that’s where the paragraph’s idea is conveyed and summarized.
- Conjugations. Any time an author uses big conjugative words or transition phrases (therefore, however, due to, because of, even though, If… then, by, but, etc.) they will either add something new or explain a crucial detail. These sections are usually vital to the point of the paragraph, so slow down.
Want Some Reading Practice?
Below is a paragraph taken from a Khan academy SAT practice test. Skim the paragraph looking for important signals, then slow down once you see them.
“Traffic congestion isn’t an environmental problem; traffic is. Relieving congestion without doing anything to reduce the total volume of cars can only make the real problem worse. Highway engineers have known for a long time that building new car lanes reduces congestion only temporarily, because the new lanes foster additional driving—a phenomenon called induced traffic. Widening roads makes traffic move faster in the short term, but the improved conditions eventually attract additional drivers and entice current drivers to drive more, and congestion reappears, but with more cars—and that gets people thinking about widening roads again. Moving drivers out of cars and into other forms of transportation can have the same effect, if existing traffic lanes are kept in service: road space begets road use.”
Before you continue reading, ask these two questions: What were the signposts? What was the paragraph about?
For me, there were four signals: the beginning sentence, the second with the first “—”, the second sentence with the “—”, and the last phrase “road space begets road use.”
The beginning (Beginnings and Endings) sentence told me that traffic is what is bad for the environment, not traffic congestion. That idea would probably make more sense in context. But the point is pretty simple: Traffic is the issue.
The first “—” caught my eye (Abnormal Formatting and Punctuation), so I slowed down to read that section more carefully. Now I know that more lanes in traffic lead to more driving. If this point confused me, I would have gone back a little more to reread and understand what was being said.
The second “—” again caught my eye. It’s a long sentence, so I only read from “but with more car… roads again.” Honestly, this sentence is a red-herring. This specific segment doesn’t add anything new, it just reiterates that widening roads doesn’t solve traffic. Sometimes you will see a signpost that looks important but really isn’t. It happens.
The last sentence is what caught my eye the most. It was both the end sentence and the author used a colon (Beginnings and Endings and Abnormal Formatting and Punctuation). Whenever you see two signposts, pay attention. “Road space begets road use” sums up the whole paragraph’s idea. Once I understand those five words, the whole paragraph just becomes a reference of details.
Those sentences and phrases, when combined, gave me most of the paragraph: widening roads is not a good solution to traffic congestion.
It took me about 30 seconds, so my reading speed was close to 300 words per minute! Imagine all the time we can save by focusing on and understanding only what matters.
For more study tips, check out our other blog posts!