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Textbooks and articles and essays, oh my!

Adina Glickman

Lots of students ask about speed reading, looking for instruction or approval. They’re only words, right? If I jam them into my brain at the speed of light, there’s more time for other important things like Econ. Or flirting. Or napping. Or fb.

But I don’t teach speed reading. Here’s why: speed reading is like speed dating. You see a face, you hear a tone of voice, you pick up a vibe, but if you think you really know someone in 5 minutes, you’re kidding yourself. Speed reading is more focused on taking in volume rather than developing a meaningful understanding. It’s frivolously utilitarian.

Many students who want to speed read are attracted to it because they see reading as a task to be accomplished rather than an experience to be engaged in. And compared to the pace of 21st century collegiate existence, reading feels slow. I will address the value of the slow life another time, but for now, let’s talk about how to read actively, effectively, and efficiently.


Every time you read, you’re deepening, expanding, and occasionally correcting your existing knowledge. Thinking about what you already know about the subject before you start reading is like reaching a hand out for the text to grab onto. The meaning of the text will lock into place when it knows where to go, and it can only know if you and your brain sit down and pay attention.

Ask questions

Questions, and their corresponding answers, will help connect what you know with what you’re reading: making sense of this connection is your ultimate goal.

Scan with purpose

Speed reading is based on the idea that some words are unimportant and do not need to be looked at. This is the only part of speed reading I agree with. If you think back to the last thing you read, how much of it was relevant? How much of it was redundant? How much did you already know? When you read a sentence (from above): “I will address the value of the slow life another time, but for now, let’s talk about how to read actively, read effectively, and read efficiently” do you read every word? Not likely, but you get the point.

Be selective about close reading

One of your main tasks as a young adult is to become the owner of what you learn. In 1st grade, your teacher was always right and your textbook held ultimate authority. In 8th grade, you contested the teacher’s authority and your textbook might have held values or interpretations that differed from your own. By college, you are invited to respectfully disagree with your teacher and to think critically about what you read. It is now up to you to determine how to interpret and weigh the relative importance of the words on the page or screen.

Bill of rights and responsibilities for the college reader

  1. You have the right to scan text for the purpose of determining which sections warrant close reading.
  2. You have the right to read the conclusion or last page first.
  3. You have the right to informed decisions about whether text is redundant, or that it covers material you feel you have already mastered.
  4. You have the right to return to a book you didn’t read fully after you graduate.
  5. You have the right to disagree with what you read.
  6. You have the responsibility to ask the text meaningful questions.
  7. You have the responsibility to reflect on what you’ve read to make sense of it.
  8. You have the responsibility to take notes from what you’ve read that will lead you back to your understanding of the material.
  9. You have the responsibility to make strategic decisions about what to read, how to read, when to read, and if to read.
  10. You have the right to slow down.

So stay calm, stay tuned, and feel free to slow down.

Next time: The Pause Button