Special Education · Study Skills


Another blog in my study skills series.

I’ll he honest here. I always had real difficulties with writing at speed, note-taking and revision technique at school and as an undergraduate, but books and reading have always been a joy. Well, except when we moved to County Durham when I was 5 and the teacher terrified me into regression by slapping my hand with a ruler if I mispronounced a word. (It was hard enough going from South-Walian to Geordie overnight without the corporal punishment)

Why read? That’s what my sister would ask. (She didn’t read a book for pleasure until after she had left school) She would be off playing ball games with the rest of the family, or re-building a stone wall with my dad, and I’d always have my nose in a book. To be honest, it’s possible that my love affair with books was, in part at least, about avoiding the things I struggled with. Like ball sense, or avoiding injury…

Earlier blogs offer tips and tricks to help with comprehension and using questions to develop related skills.

So, why read?

For many people, it’s a leisure pastime, and a real pleasure. But for those who struggle for any reason, it can be a chore. Still, for now, at least, it’s often an unavoidable part of learning at school and beyond, to research and to revise.

It’s hard to make yourself do something that’s difficult and that you don’t enjoy, but it’s worth remembering that reading, like most things, improves with practice, time and frequency. As reading becomes quicker and easier, it leaves more time for other things – even if that just means more revision or research.

Before you start, get rid of any possible distractions. Turn off your notifications (check out the Hold app), make or find a clear space.

Reading ruiners

If you get headaches or your eyes get tired and itchy when you have to read, or if you find the text blurs, try to avoid having to read new material when you aren’t fresh. Get your eyes tested and/or make sure your prescription, if you have one, is up to date. If you get seasonal hay-fever, make sure you stock up on your preferred remedy and take preventative measures. Difficulties with tracking, visual stress and visual processing will all make things harder, so don’t wait for things to get difficult before putting on your glasses, grabbing your overlay or changing the background colour and font of digital media to suit you.

Densely printed text can be challenging, especially if it’s packed with technical terms and academic language. If there’s an accessible version available, use that. Students of subjects including English literature, theology and philosophy will be thrilled to learn that many classics are available in digital format via Project Gutenberg. The Dolphin Easy Reader tablet app has access to this (as well as 20 other sources) so you can use text-to-speech that highlights if you want to read along. You can choose the colour, font size and style, and the speed of playback. It can also read PDFs and you can cut and paste text from anywhere if you don’t have access to built-in or other text-to-speech software in Office 365 or Google (check out Claro Apps).

Baddeley & Hitch, 1974

If working memory weaknesses mean you can’t remember what you’ve read, make notes as you read. Keep a note-pad handy, write your thoughts into a note-making grid or use layers of inference, record voice-memos or use post-its. I keep a selection of post-its in different colours and sizes:

  • small ones to quickly find an important page;
  • medium ones to write short notes or draw an arrow pointing to the text I want to find again;
  • oversize ones to write longer notes, maybe reminding myself to check another source.

When you finish reading a chapter (or a section, story or poem), summarise it. You can use the two-column template for this. Finally, once you have read and understood, reread the text to help yourself remember it.

Technical and academic language is another factor that can make unfamiliar texts seem completely incomprehensible. Many textbooks will have a glossary at the end of each chapter or at the back of the book. It can be helpful to scan this to refer back to as you read – either print it out or keep it visible on a phone or tablet. There are lots of scanning apps, such as OneNote and Evernote – try a few out and find your favourite. You can also use the two-column template to make your own. All of this helps consolidate your learning as well as developing your skills for deeper reading of difficult texts.

Another trick for those unfamiliar words is to highlight them or note them down when you read them. You can check their meaning before re-reading the text in full, make this extra bit of research part of your original in-depth read through, or wait until you finish reading and then look them up. This could be another use for those over-sized post-its. If you have or create a PDF document, you can add virtual post-it notes as you go along.

Lightening the load

If you are reading to revise, but there is content you still haven’t learnt fully, try reading the most familiar or easiest sections to consolidate your background knowledge before ploughing into the heavy-duty stuff. The next thing to do is work out what you actually need to read – use the contents page to find the sections that are going to be most relevant to your learning.

Superficial reading

Start by looking at each paragraph you will need to read – if it’s a few pages, do this for the whole document, but if it’s a longer chapter, you might find it easier to limit yourself to one double-page spread at a time. Quickly read the parts that look easiest (don’t worry about reference or footnotes at this stage). If you don’t recognise a word, or you’re not sure how to say it, and you need it to understand the sentence, in a digital document you can look it up by right-clicking. In a paper document, mark the section or word with a post-it so it’s easy to find if you need to look it up later. There may be something later in the document that explains things for you. After the first superficial reading, go back to the parts that you skipped and look up anything that still isn’t clear. The next time, you should be able to manage the text from start to finish.

Skim reading

This is what you might use when you need to choose which texts to read, or where to start your revision or research. Start with texts that are most relevant or accessible, and be prepared to choose a different text if the one you have is not working for you. Skim reading is useful to get an overview. This can be possible by looking at tables, illustrations and diagrams and their labels, section headings and sub-headings and their first sentences.

A few things to look out for when choosing a text:

  • Don’t make assumptions based on a title – these are sometimes not as relevant to the content as you would think!
  • Read the blurb, try a search using Google Books and have a look at the synopsis and reviews on Amazon.
  • Check the index at the back for key dates, points and terminology to make sure these are fully relevant to your study needs.
  • Look at the contents page and check that the chapters cover your needs in the right amount of detail – sometimes too much can be as bad as not enough!
  • Often people don’t read a book’s introduction and jump straight into the main chapters. This can be a mistake, as the introduction sometimes acts as a roadmap to the whole book, and reading it could save you time in the long run.

Once you’ve done all of that, you might be ready to dive into the chapters that are most important for your work, or you might still read selectively and superficially. To do that, try reading the introductory paragraph, abstract or thesis statement. You’ll also want to read the closing section and conclusions. Some people find they can then make a judgement about whether to read the full article or chapter, but often it will be necessary to scan paragraphs and sections before deciding.

By now, you should be ready for careful re-reading in full. This will help develop a more in-depth understanding of the text, whether it’s to inform your own writing, or for exam revision. If you have time, the final stage could involve creating mind-maps or flashcards from the information, or writing yourself questions to answer and summarising the text (another use for the two-column template ), or to test your own memory and understanding.

This is just a quick overview – different techniques will suit different subjects and different people. For more ideas, check out the reading list.

More blogs related to study skills can be found here.

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Further reading:

Bircher, R. (2014) Revise GCSE: Study Skills Guide. London:Pearson.

Hargreaves, S. and Crabb, J. (eds) (2016) Study Skills for Students with Dyslexia: Support for Specific Learning Differences, 3rd Edition. London:Sage.

Kirby, A. (2013) How to Succeed in College or University; a Guide for Students, Educators and Parents. London: Souvenir Press.

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