Reading aloud for a sense of distance

Reading aloud for a sense of distance

Amanda Mitchison

For three years, I have been advising students to edit an essay by printing it out and reading it aloud to somebody while marking the bits that don’t work. I tell them that I have someone I read all my work to. She is a novelist in her eighties. Sometimes I read out a sentence that seemed perfectly reasonable when I was writing it, but when I say it out loud it’s a horror. It might be clunky, ill-judged, out of character or lose the dramatic tension in a scene. Usually my friend doesn’t say anything—she doesn’t need to. When I glance up, she is just looking at me over her glasses.

Until now, I thought this ‘reading aloud’ technique – which so many RLF Consultant Fellows recommend – was merely about gaining distance from your work. Of course, your listener will point out when a part doesn’t make sense or is repetitive or boring. But 90 per cent of the work is done by you, hearing yourself read your own piece. I advise my students to read to someone else because it is weird to read out loud to an empty room, and if you do so, your voice will fizzle away to nothing after a couple of paragraphs. You need that little element of performance.

Recently, while reading a new book to my friend, I realised something deeper and subtler is also going on. Yes, you as the reader are doing most of the work, and the process of reading aloud does give you an extra notch of distance away from your own writing. But I now believe that a type of imaginative transference is also taking place. When you read aloud to somebody else, you put yourself in their shoes. You enter a slightly different cast of consciousness, listening in sympathy with them and hearing your work as they would hear it. For once, you are truly outside your own writing. You have, in effect, become your own best critic.

19 March 2020


Keep a critical prompts notebook

Keep a critical prompts notebook

Thinking critically involves asking questions. Academic researchers who have been reading material from their field for years do this automatically. To help you adopt the same questioning mind as a student, it can be useful to keep a list of critical prompts — questions to ask every time you encounter a new text. When reading a paper, you might ask: ‘Was the method the best choice to test the hypothesis?’ or ‘Does the conclusion follow on logically from the research?’ Keep a notebook to record these questions and try to add to the list every time you read for an assignment. You might not use all the questions every time you analyse a text, but they will help to remind you of all the different ways you can evaluate what the author is saying.

Dr Anna Barker
16 May 2019

Reading for an overview

Reading for an overview

Reading in university libraryHow can you quickly grasp the essence of an article and work out if it will be useful to you? First, read the abstract, which summarises the article. Check the introduction and then the conclusion. If the content appears relevant, now scan the topic sentences; the topic sentence is the first sentence of every paragraph, where the author makes their point. Reading through the topic sentences will allow you to see the flow of the argument through the article. Once you have gone through this process, you will know if it is worth reading the content in more depth or discarding the article and taking your search elsewhere.

Cath Senker
1 November 2017

How to read a scientific research paper

How to read a scientific research paper

Recently, I was lead author of a University of Bath online resource called Evaluating Scientific Research Literature. Aimed at helping science undergraduates read academic papers more critically, we involved postgraduates in designing it and undergraduates in testing it. I interviewed the authors of academic papers to reveal their motivations for writing them, and to offer guidance to students on how best to read them. Our project team learnt a great deal, and I gained insights that will help me write the second edition of my book on academic writing.

Our key insight? There is no single good way to read a scientific research paper. It depends why you’re reading it, your level of familiarity with the content, and your reading preferences.

If you’re a first-year undergraduate writing an essay, and you are using the paper as one of many information sources, you might focus on the introduction and conclusion, perhaps studying any figures or tables in the results section and reading the discussion. If you’re a final-year student designing your own research project, you might pay particular attention to the method section, to inform your practice. The emphasis of your reading changes depending on your level of knowledge and what you’re seeking to do.

One thing we advise all students to do if they’re thinking of reading a paper is to skim it first. This means going through the paper at speed, to gain an overview — a mental map if you will. Pay attention to the beginnings and ends – of the paper as a whole (title, abstract, introduction and conclusion), the sections (key paragraphs near the beginning and end of sections) and of the paragraphs themselves. Briefly study any figures and tables. As you go through, you can note important parts that you will need to read in greater detail.

Something we all agreed on: do not simply read a paper once slowly all the way through. That is very inefficient. You end up reading everything at a similar speed, whether it is relevant or not. Much better is to decide why you’re reading the paper before or after skimming it, and then read it to meet that purpose. You might not read the whole paper but just the parts that are relevant to your task. You may wish to read those important parts two or three times, while annotating and/or making notes, to make sure you’ve got everything you need. That way, you will meet your purpose and most likely gain a good grasp of the paper.

A final word: as an undergraduate it is unrealistic to expect to understand everything you read. One of the project’s professors talked about still not understanding some papers and he’s been researching for more than 20 years!

12 April 2017