6: Reading tips

Preparing your dissertation, thesis, or research report is not just about research and academic writing; there is a lot of reading that goes into putting together an effective document. It does not matter what discipline you are focused on at University - reading will take up a significant portion of your time. The important part here is being able to read quickly while still understanding and retaining what you are reading so you can apply it to what you will write.

Now, you may be thinking that this seems like an impossible task. After all, the source material is not exactly what you would call 'light' reading. If anything, it is pretty heavy when you look at the pile of books, journals, research papers, statistics and reviews in front of you all written in an academic style. However, there are ways to attack this type of reading in an organised and efficient way that will save you time.

Like other chapters in this book, we have broken the chapter down into key topics so you can read and apply advice as you go rather than waiting until you have read the entire chapter. The main topics in this chapter include:

  • How to look at a source's organisation to find the most critical information within;
  • How to examine the structure of the writing within each source; and
  • How to use speed-reading techniques to cover more reading at a faster rate.

Chapter 6 contents:

6: Dissertation and thesis reading tips

6.1: Source structure

Before you start to examine your sources, an important starting point is to determine what your reading goals are so that you can focus on these before you start the actual reading process. For example, are you:

  • Looking for a specific type of information?
  • Trying to identity a certain point or perspective?
  • Going to be taking notes as you read?
  • Attempting to appreciate the author's style and approach?
  • Identifying key statistical data and quantitative evidence?

The answers to these questions will help you get your mind focused on achieving that goal as you read.

When you approach your academic reading, the first place to examine is the overall organisation of a source, including its structure, arrangement of content, and other key elements that you can locate by asking yourself these questions that align with the overall structure of most sources:

  • In looking at the title, does it look as though it fits with your area of research in terms of keywords?
  • In relation to the authors, are they well-known as experts in this particular field?
  • If there is an abstract or a summary on the inside cover of the book, does this indicate that it would relate to what you are researching?
  • In terms of the publication date, is it fairly recent and do you have the most current edition of the book?
  • In reviewing the table of contents, is there detailed and relevant coverage of the subject area and concepts you are researching?
  • If there is an index, do the entries relate to your main keywords?
  • In skimming the references list, is it comprehensive and again use research that is relevant to what you are studying?
  • In looking at the bigger picture related to the source, does it seem fairly easy to read and navigate with subheadings and visual material that can help you absorb what you will be reading?

The answers to these questions will help you determine if you can still use the source as well as mentally prepare you for the sections that appear to need more of your focus and perhaps a slower reading pace.

Before we move onto the next section on examining the actual content, we wanted to let you know that this chapter is primarily focused on reading even though we did note that one of your goals might include simultaneous note taking. To provide some assistance with taking notes, Chapter 8 will be dedicated to tips and tricks that will help you tackle this task associated with your dissertation, thesis, or research report.

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6.2: Writing structure

Once you have looked at the bigger picture of what you will be reading, then it is time to focus more on the content's structure to help you get the most understanding in the least amount of time. Just like the recommendations we have made with essays and with any academic writing, what you read as source material will typically follow a similar pattern - introduction, body, and conclusion.

Similarly, each of those paragraphs has a topic sentence, which signals what the paragraph is about. These provide clues about the viewpoint and argument that will make up that paragraph. By looking out for these sign posts, you can focus on finding the most important information within that writing as quickly as possible.

To use this throughout a source, here is a good game plan to establish the substance within while not spending too much time on the parts that do not apply to your research:

  • Focus on reading all the topic sentences for each paragraph.
  • Scan the text for keywords you have that relate to your subject matter, which may even lead you to disregard some of the topic sentences and paragraphs. You can do this by scanning all headings and subheadings.
  • Be on the lookout for sign post words that are related to the keywords but that also indicate that the author has marked this section as particularly important, including the main findings and conclusions. This will also help you understand how the author has organised their argument.

As you do this for each source, think of yourself as a de-coder, looking for specific clues that will get you to the information you need quickly and effectively so you can move onto the next source and repeat the same process.

And, speaking of quick, what can make your academic reading process even faster is if you master some speed reading techniques so you can read and absorb even more in a condensed amount of time. Our next section gives you the top tips for speed reading techniques.

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6.3: Speed reading techniques

One technique to help you get more done in less time is speed reading, which was created in the United States by American educator Evelyn Wood. With her technique, many people were able to read hundreds of words per minute and retain what they were reading! Since the 1950s, when it was developed, many students, business people, and politicians have employed speed reading techniques to get them through lengthy documents in a short time. Now, it's your turn to learn how.

What makes reading this fast possible is that readers are not looking at words as separate but are taking in chunks of words with their peripheral vision while still staring straight at the centre of the page. By doing this, the reader's eye is taking a picture of word clusters for processing by the brain. For example, one sentence in speed reading takes four flashes instead of ten, saving time and moving the reader along at a much faster rate down the page.

For those that may feel more comfortable, you can also do what is called finger tracing where you run your finger below each line you are reading to train your eye to move faster. You can also use a bookmark placed below the line to help the eye from jumping down too many lines. There are also other exercises that you can do to improve your eye movements and speed of reading.

There are other things you can do to improve your reading speed:

  • Reduce distractions, including any background noise.
  • Don't use sub-vocalisation, sounding out words as you would do if read aloud.
  • Take a break and get some rest.
  • Use eye glasses if you find your eyes are getting tired or the letters are blurry.
  • Improve the lighting around where you are reading, which can also reduce any potential for eye strain.
  • Scan for key pieces of information as noted previously, including signpost words and keywords that relate to your subject matter and the main topic of the source.

While you might think you will not retain as much information at speed reading, researchers have found that those that read slowly actually retain a lot less than those who speed read. This just gives you another reason why speed reading is good to master.

To make sure that the speed you are gaining through these techniques is working in relation to what you understand about what you are reading, you need to incorporate certain comprehension tests. One of these is called the SQ3R Method, which means Survey, Question, Read, Recall and Review. Here's how it works:

  • Survey: Read the first paragraph of the source or chapter of the book and then the last paragraph. Then, read the topic sentences to the paragraphs in-between those. If there are headings and sub-headings, read these as well as look at any diagrams, graphs, or tables.
  • Question: Ask yourself what you already know about the topic, what the author is most likely going to discuss, and what you need to find out.
  • Read: Read the entire section and then go back to the questioning stage to consider your initial answers. From there, go back and look at signpost words and keywords, but do not get hung up on words you do not know.
  • Recall: Step away from the source and any notes to see if you can remember what you read and find patterns. Then, go back to the source and see if you recalled the information quickly. If not, go back and repeat the process.
  • Review: Take a break and then come back and try to recall the main points again.

Check out the next and last section to our chapter on academic reading before you move on to see what is next. It offers a wrap-up of what we have offered throughout the chapter and makes a great check-list.

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Chapter 6: In Summary

Practical Reading Tips and What's Next?

Now that you have had an opportunity to practice some of the reading and speed reading techniques we have offered up in this chapter, here is a check-list to help you remember everything that we recommended. The section ends with some thoughts about transitioning from reading to what's next, which is analysing the source material that you have read for your dissertation, thesis, or research report.

Here are our top tips for academic reading:

  • Know your goals and stay focused on them. This means you do not have to read everything in each source. Once you recognise what you are looking for, you will be able to stay focused on locating that content.
  • Adjust your reading speed, depending upon the type of source. For example, you will be able to read a newspaper article at a faster rate than a scholarly journal article. Make use of that ability.
  • Get a handle on the general theme and idea of each source before focusing on the complex aspects. You can come back and review new words or concepts you are unfamiliar with just in case you need to go look them up for further clarification.
  • Take breaks regularly so your eyes and brain do not get overtired. Once they are tired, your ability to read fast not to mention your capability to retain any of it will decrease rapidly. However, a break away from the reading will refresh both eyes and brain and put your concentration level back at optimum.
  • Follow-up with other references of interest in your sources. Make a note to look them up after finishing your reading on that source so you can get more related information or key data that will expand on a certain part of your research.

As you go through your reading for your dissertation, thesis, or research report, here are some of the things you can try next before moving on to analysing the sources:

  • Track your reading speed to see where you are at so you can determine if any of the speed reading techniques mentioned here could help you pick up the pace.
  • Practice the techniques listed in this chapter to help you improve the speed and comprehension of your reading.
  • Focus on the visual reading cues we mentioned here like signpost words, keyword, scanning and skimming as these will help you tackle the next phase of your work - analysing and evaluating the source material.

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