Learning to read properly: Good for prep, great for academics?

My eldest child just started prep this year. It was an excellent transition for her from 3-half-days-a-week of kindergarten to full-time schooling.

One of the first signs through which we acknowledged her new learning path was that she started bringing readers home.

Just like that, she started to read.

Being an avid reader and proselytizer of books and reading in general, I’m not sure what I expected. More fanfare that she’d taken a step towards what I hope will be an endless source of engagement, fun, curiosity and satisfaction? A dramatic drum-roll before she formally read her first word? Suffice it to say, it was very normal.

She brought home her little reader. I sat with her. She jumped straight in with sounding out letters and blurting out words as she found the rhythm of the (often) repetitive and patterned text (e.g. The cow likes the grass. The dog likes the bone. The cat likes the milk, etc). She’d often speed ahead with the next page, not reading at all but guessing what the sentence would be by the picture.

This sometimes doesn’t work, of course, because the ‘penguin’ is a ‘bird’, or the ‘mother’ is a ‘farmer’ or ‘teacher’.

When she flies through a little reader, though, she’s very happy, but I can’t help thinking that she hasn’t actually been reading. I know, I know! It all builds textual engagement and, while she may not be reading per se, it feeds her comprehension and context skills. She’s been regularly reading for about two  months now.

The things I’ve learned from watching her learn to read reminded and clarified for me the skills that are necessary in academic research no matter what stage you’re at:

1. Don’t assume you know what’s there – read it fresh.

I know that I’ve sometimes been a lazy researcher. When I see that X has quoted Y, I occasionally assume that I’ll know what Y is saying just because X has written about those issues before.

Reading it properly can lay bare my expectations about what takes place in certain fields, or from theorists I’d assumed would write about things in a set way. Flying past the texts with these kinds of assumptions in place wastes your time; you’re not really investing that time in understanding what’s being said.

2. Push your boundaries for the material.

There’s no point reading theory or content that’s what you already know. Of course, sometimes it’s hard to know that the article or book is what you already know before you’ve read it! What I mean is: look for the energetic edges of the field, not the much-covered middle ground.

Go ahead and read the foundational texts for your field, but cultivate the ability to scan for new perspectives and contrasts, no matter who it comes from (see #1 about reading things/writers fresh!).

3. Build the blocks of your knowledge.

You won’t become an expert overnight, and the best academics I know never think they know enough. Becoming genuinely versed in a field takes time. There are no two ways about it.

For a doctorate, you immerse yourself in the thesis and its research for many years. It’s often said that this is the only time that you’ll ever know material that thoroughly. Once you graduate and start having to juggle multiple jobs, priorities and politics, the intensity of information absorption you developed from your PhD days gets diffused. If you move into a new area, giving that material time to gain traction in your thinking and for the new theoretical frameworks to operate is important. There’s nothing worse than seeing a piece of work that’s transparently dabbling in an area.

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Learning to read is never just about the words in front of you. It’s also about learning the context of the words, the patterns of language and confirming expectations about what comes next.

In research and academia, it’s similar: you’re learning the context and patterns of your field, which are essential in establishing a profile and speaking/writing the ‘language’ of your discipline for conferences and publications. This University of Melbourne academic development document, “Reading Strategies,” goes into detail about the logistics of reading properly in academia.

There is a major difference, however, between knowing how to ‘read’ academic texts and fields, and fully understanding theoretical nuance and methodological innovation. I’ve read work by scholars who are very good at presenting an up-to-date article that touches on all the key issues in the field and flagging that this is where the momentum in research lies. The piece looks good, but the authors have failed to insert any of their own insight and direction into the writing.

And there’s the big jump between reading as just an average reader, and reading as an academic researcher: as a researcher, you’re taking part in the reading/synthesis/writing dynamic, and reading is one of the ways you look for opportunities to converse with the work of others.

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