Reading Skills for Academic Study
Summarising & note-taking
One of the most important aspects of reading for academic study is reading so you can make use of the ideas of other people. This is important as you need to show that you have understood the materials you have read and that you can use their ideas and findings in your own way. In fact, this is an essential skill for every student. Spack (1988, p. 42) has pointed out that the most important skill a student can engage in is "the complex activity to write from other texts", which is "a major part of their academic experience." It is very important when you do this to make sure you use your own words, unless you are quoting. You must make it clear when the words or ideas that you are using are your own and when they are taken from another writer. You must not use another person's words or ideas as if they were your own: this is Plagiarism and plagiarism is regarded as a very serious offence.
A summary is a shortened version of a text. It contains the main points in the text and is written in your own words. It is a mixture of reducing a long text to a short text and selecting relevant information. A good summary shows that you have understood the text.
Look at this example:
The amphibia, which is the animal class to which our frogs and toads belong, were the first animals to crawl from the sea and inhabit the earth.
The first animals to leave the sea and live on dry land were the amphibia.
The phrase "which is the animal class to which our frogs and toads belong" is an example, not a main point, and can be deleted. The rest of the text is rewritten in your own words.
Try this exercise: Exercise.
The following stages may be useful:
- Read and understand the text carefully.
- Think about the purpose of the text.
- Ask what the author's purpose is in writing the text?
- What is your purpose in writing your summary?
- Are you summarising to support your points?
- Or are you summarising so you can criticise the work before you introduce your main points?
- Select the relevant information. This depends on your purpose.
- Find the main ideas - what is important.
- They may be found in topic sentences.
- Distinguish between main and subsidiary information.
- Delete most details and examples, unimportant information, anecdotes, examples, illustrations, data etc.
- Find alternative words/synonyms for these words/phrases - do not change specialised vocabulary and common words.
- Change the structure of the text.
- Identify the meaning relationships between the words/ideas - e.g. cause/effect, generalisation, contrast. Look at Paragraphs Signalling for more information. Express these relationships in a different way.
- Change the grammar of the text: rearrange words and sentences, change nouns to verbs, adjectives to adverbs, etc., break up long sentences, combine short sentences.
- Simplify the text. Reduce complex sentences to simple sentences, simple sentences to phrases, phrases to single words.
- Rewrite the main ideas in complete sentences. Combine your notes into a piece of continuous writing. Use conjunctions and adverbs such as 'therefore', 'however', 'although', 'since', to show the connections between the ideas.
- Check your work.
- Make sure your purpose is clear.
- Make sure the meaning is the same.
- Make sure the style is your own.
- People whose professional activity lies in the field of politics are not, on the whole, conspicuous for their respect for factual accuracy.
Politicians often lie.
- Failure to assimilate an adequate quantity of solid food over an extended period of time is absolutely certain to lead, in due course, to a fatal conclusion.
If you do not eat, you die.
- The climatic conditions prevailing in the British Isles show a pattern of alternating and unpredictable periods of dry and wet weather, accompanied by a similarly irregular cycle of temperature changes.
British weather is changeable.
- It is undeniable that the large majority of non-native learners of English experience a number of problems in attempting to master the phonetic patterns of the language.
Many learners find English pronunciation difficult.
- Tea, whether of the China or Indian variety, is well known to be high on the list of those beverages which are most frequently drunk by the inhabitants of the British Isles.
The British drink a large amount of tea.
- It is not uncommon to encounter sentences which, though they contain a great number of words and are constructed in a highly complex way, none the less turn out on inspection to convey very little meaning of any kind.
Some long and complicated sentences mean very little.
- One of the most noticeable phenomena in any big city, such as London or Paris, is the steadily increasing number of petrol-driven vehicles, some in private ownership, others belonging to the public transport system, which congest the roads and render rapid movement more difficult year by year.
Big cities have growing traffic problems.
Example 1: Reading: Volcanic Islands
Example 2 and Exercise: Reading: Progress in Samoa
A synthesis is a combination, usually a shortened version, of several texts made into one. It contains the important points in the text and is written in your own words.
To make a synthesis you need to find suitable sources, and then to select the relevant parts in those sources. You will then use your paraphrase and summary skills to write the information in your own words. The information from all the sources has to fit together into one continuous text.
The following stages may be useful:
- Find texts that are suitable for your assignment.
- Read and understand the texts.
- Find the relevant ideas in the texts. Mark them in some way - write them down, underline them or highlight them.
- Make sure you identify the meaning relationships between the words/ideas.
- Read what you have marked very carefully.
- Organise the information you have. You could give all similar ideas in different texts the same number or letter or colour.
- Transfer all the information on to one piece of paper. Write down all similar information together.
- Paraphrase and Summarise as necessary.
- Check your notes with your original texts for accuracy and relevance.
- Combine your notes into one continuous text.
Example 1: Protecting Rainforests