“If you want to become a skilful reader, you need to learn how to read different topics, genres, and authors. Sure, you might want to start with Duck Dynasty books, but you will want to move on to more demanding subjects such as history, theology, classical novels, and so on. Although we should remain open to learning in many fields, it’s better to choose five or six subjects to keep abreast in, and maybe one or two to really specialize in.”
It’s been a while since I added to my “Tips For New Students” series, so here’s one on the vital topic of reading. I’m not going to get into the “Why” of reading. I’m assuming that you’re a student because you want to study.
1. Start: If you want to be a successful student you have to read. If you’ve never been much of a reader, doing just the bare minimum through High School, then you need to learn how to do it. And there’s no other way of learning how to read than by reading. Don’t start with War & Peace; start with something small and simple, maybe under 100 pages on a topic of interest, and slowly work up to larger and more complex books.
2. Schedule: If you want to develop a reading appetite and aptitude, you need to do it regularly, preferably daily. If you schedule it, maybe 15-30 minutes of reading every day, say at 7 am, within a few weeks it will become an automatic and instinctive habit. Then you can either increase the time 5 minutes a week, or you can add another time in the day. Even if you read only 15 minutes a day you will read between 15-20 books a year!
3. Target: Although some of our reading may be just for leisure and pleasure, usually our reading is for a purpose and therefore should be purposeful. One of the best ways I’ve found for doing this is to set a time limit like 30 minutes and set a target of a specific number of pages. I then record each day how many pages I managed to read. I find this helps me to focus and concentrate my mind much better, and keeps me accountable.
4. Vary: If you want to become a skilful reader, you need to learn how to read different topics, genres, and authors. Sure, you might want to start with Duck Dynasty books, but you will want to move on to more demanding subjects such as history, theology, classical novels, and so on. Although we should remain open to learning in many fields, it’s better to choose five or six subjects to keep abreast in, and maybe one or two to really specialize in. Especially in the area of Christian books, you should vary between reading modern books and the classics that have been around for decades, if not centuries.
5. Double-up: Research has shown that our understanding and recall starts diminishing after about 30 minutes of reading a book. But science has also shown that if we change to another book after 30 minutes, it seems to refresh and refuel our minds and we return to higher levels of comprehension. The reviving effect is especially noticeable when it involves a change of subject as well. That’s why many experienced readers read two or more books at a time and work through them in parallel. Students often find that they can motivate themselves to read a “required” book by rewarding themselves with a chapters from a book of their own choosing.
6. Retain: There’s an ongoing debate about the value of paper books versus their Kindle versions. There does seem to be increasing evidence that paper books help readers retain more of what they learned. On the other hand, there’s the advantage of the Kindle’s highlighting and note-taking abilities. Most of us will probably end up using both electronic and paper books, depending on differences in cost and purpose. The main thing is to work out a method for retaining what we learn by highlighting, marginal notes, summaries, and personal indexing.
7. Pace: We need to adapt our reading style and speed to the nature of what we are reading. For example, if we are reading a book in a field we already know a lot about, it’s unlikely that we will read every word in it. Rather we will skim over much of it and only slow down to read and note more carefully when we come across new material. When reading the best authors, we will ponder every carefully chosen word. If you’re wanting to speed up your reading for certain books,, you may want to learn some of the common speed-reading techniques.
8. Discuss: One of the best ways of learning is to read in partnership with someone else. You both read the same chapters each week and get together to discuss and share what you’ve learned.
9. Concentrate: It’s amazing how much more reading can be done when there is a disciplined focus and a shutting out of all distractions like phones and computers. You also need to find a quiet spot away from possible interruptions from people. Even if you’re not interrupted, if you think you might be, then you will not read at maximum efficiency.
10. Claim: Many successful readers carry a book with them at all times so that they can read the odd paragraph or page here and there as they wait for appointments or have a coffee. They are always looking for small segments of time to claim and use for personal profit.
11. Discern: You shouldn’t just believe everything you read. That’s true of Christian and non-Christian books. You need to read with discernment to separate the true from the false, the wheat from the chaff. The foundation for discernment is reading the Bible. Regular Bible reading will build a biblical worldview and sharpen your critical faculties. You might also want to read good books reviews by reputable reviewers like Tim Challies or on the TGC Reviews website in order to help you develop discernment.
12. Budget: Set apart a specific amount each month for books. This will stop you from overspending, it will help you narrow down to the best books, and it will also “force” you to buy and read books. If your budget is limited, keep your eyes open for Kindle deals which often offer books at a third of the price.
13. Humility: Some people read to boast about their reading. Don’t be the guy (or gal) who has read everything and who makes everyone else feel so stupid.
14. Stop: Don’t keep reading a book just because you’ve started it. There are too few minutes and too many good books out there to waste your reading time on inferior books.
15. Challenge: Force yourself to read above your comfort level now and again in order to stretch your reading muscles and equip you for more strenuous mental exercises.
16. Share: When you’ve read a book, why not give it away to someone else. Or if you’ve really enjoyed a book, why not give a copy to a friend so they can benefit too. Try to be a contagious reader, one who makes other people read. Some people will value your recommendations and maybe start on a lifetime of reading and learning.
17. Stop: You have to stop reading to start reading. By that I mean you’ve got to cut back reading blogs, Facebook, Social Media if you are going to read books.
18. Specialize: Pick a subject and try to read all you can in that area. Pick an author and try to read all he has written. That might be an old author like John Owen or Jonathan Edwards: it might be a modern author like R C Sproul or John Piper.
19. Read about reading: Lastly, read books about reading. The best I’ve come across are:
Lit: A Christian Guide to Reading by Tony Reinke
How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer Adler
Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature by Gene Veith
The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment by Tim Challies.
20. Read the Bible above all!
David Murray is Professor of Old Testament & Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. This article first appeared on his blog, Head Heart Hand, and is used with permission.