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HOW TO READ EFFECTIVELY

(Excerpt from Writing for Sociology. 2nd ed. CA: Department of Sociology, University of
California Berkeley, 2011.)

Reading well is one of the most important skills you will develop in college/graduate
school. If you don’t understand a given text, you will have a hard time explaining it in a
paper or essay. Incredible writing skills don’t make a difference if you can’t grasp the
reading. The following strategies help you identify the main points, recall what you’ve
read, and analyze the authors’ main points and assumptions.
Being a critical reader means questioning the perspectives, assumptions, and
evidence behind the author’s argument. We need to train our minds to ask certain
questions and look for clues so we can separate essential points from less important ones.
The process of critical reading is similar to reverse engineering–your task entails breaking
the argument into its parts to see how the pieces fit together.
The following key questions will help you to understand the logic or structure of
an author’s argument. Asking yourself these questions as you read should also help you
isolate the parts of the book or article you should pay close attention to from those that
you can skim.

I. Summary, or “What does the text say?”


1. What is the question being asked and answered in this book? In other words, what is
the author’s problem or puzzle?
Explicitly formulating a question that “frames” the book, in ONE sentence, with a
question mark at the end, is perhaps the most important thing you can do to
further your understanding of a text. The challenge is to come up with a
formulation neither so broad nor so narrow that it misses the book’s essence.
2. What is the author’s main argument or thesis?
Identifying this preliminary answer to the question you just formulated will help
you to grasp the thread that runs through the whole book and ties everything
together.
3. What claims does the author present to support the thesis?
What is important here is not that you recapitulate all the details of a book or
other text, but rather that you identify the sub-arguments that relate back to the
central question. Suppose, for example, that the author spends a chapter or section
discussing XYZ. What does XYZ tell us about the question that frames the book or
text?
4. What are the author’s conclusions?
Look for ways the author relates the argument of the book or text to broader
debates about the subject. According to the author, what are the implications of
the claims made in the text?

II. Analysis, or “What does the text mean?”


1. Upon what assumptions does the author’s main argument rest?
Looking for the assumptions underlying the study—both explicit and implicit—
helps evaluate the author’s claims. Consider whether or not you agree with the
author’s assumptions.
2. What evidence does the author use to support the argument?
Notice the author’s evidence and what is omitted. Identifying missing pieces can
be an important part of your reading.
3. Is the argument persuasive?
Think about whether the evidence matches the claims and whether other kinds of
evidence would give different results. Is the argument logical, well-reasoned, fair,
balanced, and consistent?
4. How might you critique the author’s argument?
Your job as a critical reader is to evaluate the argument and evidence the author
presents. Would the author’s argument hold if applied to a different, comparable
case? Can you identify cases where the author’s argument is useful in explaining an
observable phenomenon in the social world and cases where it might be less
useful?

III. So what, or “Why does the text matter?”


1. What is the author’s agenda?
People write books and articles for a variety of purposes—to inform, amuse,
persuade, and/or goad into action. In sociology, authors are often engaging in
political and/or theoretical debates with other writers.
2. How does the book relate to other readings you have done for the course? To
readings for other courses? To debates about families? To the world around you?
Once you have summarized and evaluated the text, think about it in a larger
context. How does it make you think differently about families, gender, the state
or other topics? What further questions does it inspire?

Get Messy!
Coming up with a system to keep track of what you read will make your life much easier
in the long run. The particulars of the system don’t really matter, as long as you can go
back later and understand why you did what you did. Some students like to write short
comments in the margins that summarize each paragraph.
Don’t go overboard with highlights and underlines! If you highlight every other
sentence, you’re not reading critically and you’re not producing helpful references for
yourself. Underline, highlight or otherwise identify only the key points, questions, and
arguments in a reading.