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Insight: Engage

Reading a text well

This week, Insight writer and English teacher Kylie Nealon explains how to read your texts thoroughly, so that you are prepared to produce your best text analysis.

Having embarked on Unit 4, are you looking at your pairings of texts, searching for ways to read them well but not sure how? Here are a few ideas to help you!



First, you need to read the text quickly. This means that you should be reading for general understanding, rather than looking to analyse in any great detail. While there are many great resources out there that support your textual study, there is no replacement for actually reading the set text.

The purpose of the first read is to get the gist of the story, where it’s set and who it’s about.

TIP: During your first read-through, you should make note of any key characters, themes or quotes that jump out at you; you will examine these moments in more detail in subsequent readings of the text. You could use note-taking programs such as Evernote or Google Docs (or even just a pen and paper) to keep track of your thoughts and ideas, but whichever method you choose, remember to note down page numbers – this will make things much easier when the time comes to revise!


The second read – LOOKING AT THE DETAILS

This second read is all about looking at how you can separate the text into useable parts. Time is precious, so just re-reading the text and doing nothing with it is, to appropriate a quote from Baz Luhrmann, ‘as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum’.

When you come to re-read the text, you need to have your weapons of choice at hand – I would suggest highlighters and sticky notes. These will be the metaphorical swords that you will use to slay the dragon-like comparative task.

In this second read, highlight specific elements of the text (i.e. characters, themes and key quotes) in different colours. (DON’T highlight the whole paragraph/page – this defeats the purpose of singling out significant aspects of the text!)

  • CHARACTER: If a character does something that you think is interesting/unusual/pivotal, run your first colour over it.
  • THEME: If there is an example of a key theme, such as revenge or memory, do the same with your chosen colour for this element.
  • KEY QUOTES: This is where you’ll nab the best written or spoken soundbites to back up the character/theme ideas you’ve identified – highlight these in your brightest colour.

TIP: If you’re not sure about what the themes are, then I’d suggest you consult the excellent array of supplementary resource material available to you. The Insight Text Guides and Insight Comparisons are a great place to start!

TIP: What if, I hear you say, the character says something that is a key quote? Then use either the highlighter for character OR the highlighter for key quotes – but be consistent throughout. If you chop and change, life gets a whole lot more stressful than it needs to be.



Oh yes, a third reading (at least!) is needed. And the reason for this is simple – smart retention. Reading a text a couple of times gives you a nice overview, but to produce a high-scoring response on a text (single or comparative), you need to be able to pull all the threads of the text(s) together to create something that really shows off your knowledge and insight. Each reading will give you a deeper level of understanding, and this is really important because you want to stand out with your interpretation in your SAC and examination.

A third reading of the text should focus on the key moments; so, as you read through the text, pay particular attention to the highlighted portions – these will form the crux of your analysis.

TIP: The first thing that you should do is grab those sticky notes and have them in hand. After you’ve read through a chapter, summarise, on ONE sticky note, what that chapter is about. Then, go back through that chapter and re-read over the parts you’ve highlighted. Repeat the sticky note process for each category of highlighting. At the end of each chapter, you should have four sticky notes, one for each of the following: summary, characters, themes and key quotes. Being concise in your notes now will help you with your responses later.



So, now that you’ve done your reading and highlighting, what next?

To see whether you’ve read a text well, an examiner is going to look for what YOU think – that is, the conclusions you draw about the texts and how you relate them back to the topic on which you’ve chosen to write.

In a chart or mind map, note down the following key pieces of information. This will help you to form your interpretation of the text.

  • The titles of chapters – do they indicate a key theme or character insight?
  • When (in terms of time) does the action shift? What does this indicate about a character’s state of mind / response to an external situation?
  • Where does a character’s voice come through strongly – and why there? Go back to the text and look at your highlighting for characters.
  • What links to society/ideology can you make? Do some research around the time that the text was a) written and b) set. What commonalities and disparities can you see between the author’s context and that of the characters?
  • Note down key vocabulary! Sometimes you may get lucky and score a glossary at the back of the text. Sometimes the vernacular is a little confusing to follow (Made in Dagenham, I’m looking at you!). The more familiar you are with key terms, the more confident you’ll feel with the material and with your analysis.
  • Note down any critiques you may have of the text(s). This isn’t an opportunity to rip a text apart; rather, it’s an opportunity to analyse the construction and effectiveness of voice. For example, in I Am Malala, the switch between the ‘authentic’ voice of Malala and the historical and social context Christina Lamb includes to assist the reader in seeing the ‘bigger picture’ is, at times, quite noticeable. Consider the ‘why’ and ‘where’ of this in the text – and then evaluate the effect on the reader.

TIP: Don’t leave the text alone. While you may feel like hurling it out the window or setting fire to it, you’ll have to hang on to these texts until the end-of-year examination.

How much you remember from a book over time. Timothy Kenney.
Source: Timothy Kenney

If you think back to your Unit 3 text, how much can you remember? If it’s not a lot, then you have time to remedy this. You don’t need to read the text three times over a weekend (though if you feel like you need to, go for it!). English is a marathon, not a sprint. You may hit a wall, but know that if you take one step at a time, you can do this.


Need help with comparing texts? We have an Insight Comparisons guide for all eight text pairs on List 2 for VCE English. Written by experienced English teachers and professional writers with expertise in literature and film criticism, each Insight Comparisons guide includes a detailed study of each of the two texts, and a close analysis of their shared ideas, issues and themes.

Insight Comparisons are produced by Insight Publications, an independent Australian educational publisher.

Photo credit: Vtmila/shutterstock

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