Autonomous Language Learning Modules at Helsinki University Language Centre, Finland

ALMS Reading guide

A. How to use this guide
B. The reading process
C. Strategies
D. Reading rate
E. Aspects of the text
F. Reading for learning

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A. How to use this guide
This guide is intended to help you to improve your skills in reading. It tells you a little about the reading process and about the strategies you can use to help you to become a more effective reader of English. There are examples of how you can pick out aspects of the text to help you, and how you can read for content in different ways.

You could start by thinking about your own strategies when you read, and deciding on your aims and objectives. Do this every time you are reading for ALMS. Try to reflect during and after your work on what you are doing, what your problems are and what you have achieved.

Choose your material carefully! If your aim is to develop your vocabulary, take something with relevant subject matter and think about the language before you start. If you are looking to lower your anxiety about reading in English, you could try reading a novel or short story.

When you are reading for content, try not to worry too much about the language (e.g., difficult words). Focus on the key words.

B. The reading process
The reading process could be seen as interaction between reader and text. Reading is a way of processing information where the reader uses his/her knowledge of the world (culture, education, personal experience) and of the subject in order to understand the text. The reader also needs knowledge of the language in question (linguistic competence), including knowledge of words (lexis), grammar (syntax), text patterns and text types (conventions).

Reading also involves interpretation. You, as a student at Helsinki University reading course books in English belong to a community of Finnish students who are carrying out similar tasks. The writer probably had a different audience in mind when he or she wrote the book, and you may bring an interpretation to the text that he or she never imagined.

Ideally, you as a reader are motivated to read and have a real reading purpose (for an exam, for pleasure). The purpose determines the strategies you use. Whatever the text, you have expectations of the content, which may be based on the title (for the content), the author (given your previous knowledge), the source, diagrams and pictures. The active reader constantly makes predictions and guesses, checks his/her understanding and asks questions. S/he also draws conclusions about the content. The more you as a reader anticipate, the less you will worry about the irrelevancies in the text.

C. Strategies
Your reasons for reading will determine the strategies you use. You probably read a newspaper and a course book in different ways. Before you begin reading a course book, you could do some previewing (or surveying): the title, the blurb, the table of contents, the index, illustrations, prefaces, introductions, bibliographies and acknowledgements all give you clues as to what you will find in the text.

Our expectations about the text enable us to make predictions, which in turn help us to interpret the meaning. The better we are at predicting, the less dependent we are on the text itself. Good readers read for meaning, and do not necessarily look at every sentence, phrase or even word in the text.

Skimming (reading quickly to get the main idea) and scanning (looking for specific pieces of information) are useful strategies, particularly if you are used to reading everything in a foreign language word by word. Both enable you to quickly go through the text without paying attention to all parts of it. You will then be able to decide if there is a reason for a more careful reading. This intensive reading involves reading for detail and understanding the text at all levels, and the writer's purpose.

Extensive reading means using any or all of these strategies depending on your interests and needs.

D. Reading rate
Faster reading often increases the comprehension level, and is more efficient. Try increasing your reading rate by timing yourself when you read. Passages of between 500 and 1000 words are well suited for this purpose. You might then ask yourself what the is text about in order to check your understanding. You should notice an increase in your reading rate over time.

E. Aspects of the text
You cannot read meaningfully unless you know the meaning of words. However, it is often unnecessary to understand all the words in a text in order to get the main points or to understand the text as a whole. An essential reading skill is the ability to infer or deduce the meaning of words from their place and function in the sentence, or from the context. It is often enough to guess the general meaning (e.g., negative or positive). Obviously, if you cannot understand a key phrase or sentence, it is then necessary to use a dictionary.

It will help you if you know something about affixation, which refers to the prefixes and suffixes used in English. This, combined with your knowledge about inference, will enable you to deal more successfully with unknown words.

Certain words and phrases, which we could call “signposts”, also signal the meaning of a text. The writer uses them to organize the text and to make his or her points clear. They are called link words or semantic markers, and may be used:
- for listing: firstly, in the first place, secondly, thirdly; my next point is, last, finally, in the end
- for cause and effect: so, therefore, because, as, since, thus
- for giving examples: for instance, for example, let's take...; an example / instance of this is ...
- for relationships of contrast or comparison: but, nevertheless, (and) yet, although, however, on the one hand / on the other hand
- for summing the message up: to summarise, in other words, it amounts to this, if I can just sum up
- for relationships of time: then, next, after that, previously, while, when
- for emphasis: especially, particularly, in particular, essentially, it is worth noting, I would like to direct your attention to
- for re-phrasing or introducing a definition: in other words, that is to say, let me put it this way, to put it another way
- for expressing a condition: if, in case, unless, assuming that supposing that, provided that.

F. Reading for learning

Whenever it is possible, “mess around” with your text as much as you can. Try one or more of the following:
- underline important terms and ideas in the text
- write notes in the margins as reminders of the main points and key ideas
- write short paraphrase statements of the key ideas in the margin (use your own words)
- share your problems with your fellow students: talk about your interpretations, try to find ways of explaining words and ideas
- try the SQ3R technique if you are fond of techniques and systematic ways of doing things: skim, question, read, recall, review (five phases for getting the meaning out of the text gradually). This technique uses many of the ideas given above, and also includes post-reading activities such as recalling and going back over the main points. Review the text by skimming it and the notes you made when you read it
- find various sources and texts that deal with the same topic, and read them in order to memorize the details and vocabulary items. If you are reading an original work, try to get hold of someone else’s interpretation of it. Look for relevant texts in your native language, or more simple material in English
- develop your mind-mapping techniques, either as a pre-reading, sensitising exercise, or as a post-reading activity for reviewing the main points, memorizing vocabulary or producing a summary
- combine reading and writing by summarising the text (in Finnish or English).

Once you have chosen a text to read (using your skimming skills), you could proceed by just reading the first sentences of each paragraph. This will often be enough to give you an idea of the contents as a whole, because English writers tend to use a paragraph structure in which the first sentence is the topic sentence, or it is the topic introducer and the second sentence is the topic sentence. You may then not have to read all of the text. It is worth keeping in mind that not all texts are organized in this way.

Kaija Ervola, Leena Karlsson, Felicity Kjisik, Joan Nordlund. December 2003

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