Reading any book that you’re not 100% interested in can be tough, but when you have to read it as a prescribed text for English it feels like every page is a some kind of cruel and unusual torture – there’s too much information to take in, and what are you supposed to be looking for anyway?
The key to reading an English text effectively and efficiently is to plan how you’re going to read it! This means figuring out:
- how much you aim to read per sitting
- what themes you’ll be looking for; and
- how you’ll be keeping track of things you find – like quotes!
All of this will make it 10 times easier to get the most out of the text, plus you’re far less likely to have to reread it later on.
So let’s start planning for how to read HSC English texts!
Step 1: Choose Your Tools
This is actually a pretty fun way to start because you get to pick out cool stationery to help make the most of your reading!
Most students I’ve worked with have a tendency to just read a text then go back later to find important quotes or sections, which can work. A much more effective way of working however is to actually make note of things in a text as you find them, which you can do in heaps of different ways.
Some students are perfectly happy to mark up their books and like to use highlighters, fun coloured pens or plain pencils and biros to make notes straight onto the page. This makes it super easy to just add notes as you go, plus there’s no chance of a post-it falling out without you noticing!
Of course, a lot of English texts you read will be ones you’ve borrowed from a library, meaning that writing of highlighting in them isn’t the best idea. Plus, some people just don’t like writing in their books! In these cases post-it notes are your absolute best friends, and you can get them in all different colours and sizes based on how you plan to use them.
Image from finalssurvivalguide.tumblr.com
When it comes to actually using these tools there are a few things to keep in mind;
- Brevity – notes in your text should be short and sweet! Try to only fill a single post-it note.
- Colour – using even one or two different colours to categorise your notes will do wonders! Pink for quotes, blue for themes and green for characters was always my go-to.
- Personal – these notes are just for you, so feel free to make them personalised and easy for you to interpret. Use text talk, memes, you name it!
As you go on to read the next few step you’ll notice that I mention essays. A lot. That’s because when you read any text for class you need to remember that you’re eventually going to have to write about the text, so thinking in terms of essays from the get go is the best way to stay motivated to read effectively.
Step 2: Plan Reading Time
There’s no way around it; some, if not all of the books you read as related texts are going to be boring.
Maybe they’re really long, or written in old-fashioned phrasing that makes them dry and hard to read. Maybe it’s not a genre you like, or you find the main character annoying as all hell. Maybe it’s just not your cup of tea!
The fact of the matter is that at least one of the books you read will be a pain in the ass, so learning how to time manage your reading is the best way to prepare for when that happens.
When it comes to planning your reading you’ll want to set it out in regular, equal blocks, but how you decide on the blocks is totally up to you. Usually it’s best to split up blocks by pages rather than time, as some sections of the book may take you longer to read than others. Some of the most common setups are as follows:
Daily – plan to read a set number of pages each day!
Generally you can set yourself a small number of pages (15-20) and still get through the book in a reasonable time.
This is good for if you take a bus or train to school and can use that time for reading.
Weekly – plan to get through a set number of chapters per week!
Some chapters can be very short or very long, so you can also do this by pages (e.g. read 70 pages each week) but generally it’s easier to keep track of chapters.
This method requires a fair bit of motivation, as a lot of people who do this can fall out of the habit of reading and end up getting to the end of the week and realising they only read a few pages!
Time Plan – using key school dates plan out exactly how you’re going to read!
This is the most involved method and generally the best for people who find it hard to keep up regular reading. All you need to do is grab a calendar and mark out your upcoming English lessons and when your exam/assignment on the text will be.
From there count back to a week before your test – this is your absolute reading deadline! You have to finish the book by then to make sure you know the content well enough. If you don’t totally trust yourself to get it done then take it back two weeks to give yourself more buffer time.
Then mark when each of your English lessons is and divide the number of pages in your book by the total number of English lessons between now and your deadline. Now you know exactly how many pages you have to read between each English lesson! If your lessons are unevenly spread out you may want to move some pages around (e.g. read 50 pages between a Monday and Thursday lesson, 10 between a Thursday and Friday lesson). You can also allocate more pages for gaps that include weekends, as you’ll tend to have more time then to read.
There are other methods as well, such as reading for 30 minutes each day or 20 pages before bed each night, but it all depends on your personal preference and how you like to read. Some techniques that can work well also depend on the book and can be pretty odd! For example, when I had to read Frankenstein by Mary Shelley I would just read until it put me to sleep. No, that’s not an exaggeration – the book literally made me drop off about every 35 pages, but hey, I got through it in the end!
When it comes to actually reading the most important time is when you first start reading the book – you really have to stay motivated!
Once you get about half way through you’ll be into the swing enough to finish the book without too much trouble, but the more you put off getting into it the harder it will be to actually make progress.
Step 3: Find Themes
Now we get into the action points – the things you actually need to do and look for while reading the text. I’ve started here with one of the trickiest tasks; finding themes.
There are two ways to find and note themes in any given text and it’s always best to use both in order to get a full, rounded understanding of the text.
- Known themes – these are the themes you already know are in the text or ones that are relevant to your module/area of study.
- Found themes – these are the themes that crop up while you’re reading in the form of ideas or concepts that appear repeatedly in the text even though you weren’t necessarily looking for them
Both types of themes are important, as known themes are key to building strong essays and responses while found themes can show off your understanding of the text later on. In order to actually make note of these themes however you’ll have to make notes in different ways.
Making notes for known themes is fairly simple because you know what you’re looking for. All you need to do is list on a sheet of paper the themes you know are in the text or will be relevant to your study, then actively look for them in the text. This doesn’t mean just flicking through the pages and hoping to find themes however – you need to take a more organic approach.
Do this by simply reading the text and using highlighters, post-its or a pen to mark down any time a quote or section of the text is relevant to one of the known themes. I liked to make my theme list on thin coloured paper and use it as a bookmark so that I always had it handy to remind me of what to look out for, but you can also use post-its or just write your known themes in the back cover of your text.
I sometimes refer to these as ‘hindsight’ themes, because a lot of the time you only realise they’re there after you’ve read the text. Because these aren’t themes you already know you can’t really look for them as you read, so instead you look for them once you’ve completed the text. You could also look for them after each period of reading to make the process a little quicker, though this won’t always work.
The easiest way to find new themes is to simply read the text and make note of any sections/quotes that seem important to the story, characters or overall message of the text. Then when you’ve completed the text go back and look at your notes and see how all these things you picked up on relate to each other – its more common that you think!
Another way to find themes is to be on the lookout for repeated ideas, concepts or phrases in the text and figure out what theme they could relate to. A really good example is ‘the role of women’, as any text with female characters is going to (knowingly or not) say something about the role of women in society or literature. If you notice that a lot of the female characters seem downtrodden or oppressed, maybe the text is saying something about gender inequality. If there are very few or no women in the text, perhaps it’s focused on the necessity of women in society by showing what happens without them.
Essentially you’re looking for themes that are specific to the text and not the topic, which in the end will enhance your essays by showing markers just how well you understand the text. If all else fails you can always just think up a bunch of other themes that don’t necessarily relate to your area of study and see if you can find them in the text – you never know!
Step 4: Explore Characters
This is the best part of reading any text in my opinion. A story can be interesting and have all sorts of twists and turns, but it’s the characters that really make or break a story. Likewise, it’s your understanding of characters that can really make or break your essays.
Not everyone writes essays focused on characters and their symbolism or dynamics and that’s fine! However I’ve found that it’s much easier to get to know a character and then write about them and how they interact with the themes of the text than it is to just go in with themes. By really figuring out who a character is and what the author wants them to represent you’ll have a much easier time of understanding the themes and morals of the text.
The best way to take note of characters while reading a text is to literally just take note of them. Whenever a new or important character is introduced highlight or post-it note their description for future reference. Do the same for important quotes about characters, key lines of character dialogue and interactions between characters. Even though it can seem like a bit much and a bit all over the place, what you’re doing is building up evidence of who the characters are and how the author represents them, which will become really important when writing essays.
From there you want to start building up character profiles. These should be written or typed up separately to your in-text notes (which means they’re going to be a fair deal longer than a few post-its). These notes can be simple dot-point format but they should include the following things;
- Themes – what values, themes or ideas does the character represent?
- Context – is the text’s context important to the character? (e.g. characters written in 1920 will have different values than those written in 2015)
- Descriptions – how are they described in the text? Include visual descriptions (what they look like) as well as character descriptions (their personality, etc.)
- Quotes – what does the character have to say? These can be dialogue or internal thoughts.
You don’t have to make these note beautiful or amazingly formatted, all you’re aiming to do is get all your information in one place so you have a really solid reference sheet for the text’s characters. Naturally you only need to include main characters, but if you want to make sheets for minor characters as well then go for it! Knowing how the little people matter is always useful for setting your essays apart later on.
Step 5: Make Notes
Before you roll your eyes and decide you’re not doing it, hear me out – this step is way simpler than it seems.
I don’t want paragraphs. I don’t want analysis. I don’t even need quotes.
Literally all I want from this step is for you to periodically write down what you think is happening in the text and how it relates to the topic. Simple as that!
The best way to do this is at the end of each chapter or couple of chapters depending on how long they are, or at the end of each week as you read. What you’re really aiming to do is just get your thoughts down on a page as you have them in order to make sure you remember key points in the text and how they made you react. It’s a good idea to do these with your topic or key themes in mind so you can make sure you’re focussing on the important things you’ll later write about in essays, but feel free to include little things too.
What this helps you do is remember key individual moments of the text as well as the overall story as a whole, as well as forcing you to look at things as you read them, rather than just accepting everything in hindsight. This way you’ll be able to look back on all your original thoughts and see how they changed as you read, as well as making sure you didn’t forget any key ideas
At the end these notes will be really useful in two major ways;
When it comes time to make actual notes about the text you’ll already have something to work from, making it much easier to begin your notes. Plus you’ll have a lot of information dumped there that you can just add to and refine.
By reading over your notes you’ll be able to see what themes or ideas stood out the most as you read, even if you didn’t notice them at the time. This again just helps you further your understanding of the text and will end up improving your choices of themes to explore when it comes to essays.
Read the book, duh.
Kidding! But seriously, if you take nothing else from this article just make sure that you really do read the text! Trust me when I say that yes, the teachers can tell when you haven’t read the text, and yes, they can really tell when you just watched the film adaptation. The TV series, The Man in the High Castle, despite sharing the same the same name as the Phillip K Dick novel, The Man in the High Castle, is completely different to the book – it’s that obvious when you’re discussing the film to the novel!
Please, just read the book.
Other than that the biggest thing to remember is that you’re reading the text with the intent of analysing it later, so the most effective way to read is to start analysing from the get-go. This means looking for themes, making character profiles and really digging into what the text is talking about. From there you just need to refine what you already know and you’ll be ready to start writing awesome essays.
So what are you waiting for? Get reading!
Have a question for us?
Maddison Leach completed her HSC in 2014, achieving an ATAR of 98.00 and Band 6 in all her subjects. Having tutored privately for two years before joining Art of Smart, she enjoys helping students through the academic and other aspects of school life, even though it sometimes makes her feel old. Maddison has had a passion for writing since her early teens, having had several short stories published before joining the world of blogging. She’s currently studying a Bachelor of Design at the University of Technology Sydney and spends most of her time trying not to get caught sketching people on trains.