Reading involves the almost automatic processing and understanding of text at several levels:
- The vocabulary and the meaning(s) carried by the words
- the sentences and the way phrases and clauses are connected within a sentence, with the signals for this given by the punctuation;
- the paragraphs - the order of the ideas, the type of ideas and the linking of ideas
Other aspects of writing that also carry meaning, and which we often interpret almost unconsciously are:
Whilst past, present and future tenses are easy to identify and their meaning is obvious and interpreted at an automatic level, there is additional information that can be reached through analysing the use of some of the progressive (or imperfect) tenses.
These forms of the verb convey information about whether an action is continuous, complete or incomplete, in progress or habitual. The examples given here are to help you identify these tenses and the accompanying meaning of the tense so that you do this during reading.
In this form of verb the helping verbs am, is, are, was, were, be and been are combined with the -ing form of the action word.
Present progressive (it is happening now)
I am writing my essay in the library.
She is studying for her exams.
The students are measuring the strength of the new type of rope.
Past progressive (it was ongoing but has finished)
I was just finishing my last question when the supervisor said to stop writing.
You were writing very fast.
The students were listening to their tutor and were writing notes about the discussion.
Future progressive (it will be ongoing, but has not happened yet)
I shall be taking four papers next semester.
You will be aiming for high grades if you wish to do an Honours course next year.
She will be looking for a job when she gets to Tasmania.
Perfect tense describes an action that has been ‘perfected’ or completed. They use the helping verbs has, have and had to convey the time period with the -ed form of the action verb.
This expresses two meanings:
The action starts and finishes in the past, at an unspecified time.
I have located all the references I need to complete my assignment. (“Finding the references” finished at some unspecified time in the past and writing can start.)
They have made a power point presentation to accompany their talk.
I have drawn up a plan and (have) put it on the wall, so that everyone knows when to pack up their equipment.
The action starts in the past and is understood to be ongoing.
I have written three pages of my assignment so far. (I started writing at some unspecified time in the past and I am still writing.)
He has found Google Scholar an excellent source of academic material.
This tense/construction describes an action that occurred in the past, before another past action
All the students had submitted their assignments before the 5 p.m. deadline expired.
I had made summaries of the first five topics before the lecturer told us that the test was on topics 3-8.
This tense describes actions that will start and end in the future.
All going well, by the end of next semester I will have completed my degree.
The students will have finished tea by 7 p.m.
The contact course will be held in the first week of July.
Progressive + Perfect tense
The helping verbs have, has and had combine with the -ing form of the action verb
I have been writing my assignment since 10 o'clock.
He has been spending hours on the internet researching the topic.
They had been studying for their exams all morning.
She had been practising her talk as the oral presentations have to be done this week.
She will have been travelling for 12 hours by the time she arrives.
They will have been monitoring the changes in appearance for three months by the end of the experiment.
The report states that by next week Mr Williams will have been working without a contract for six months.
For more information, see Ministry of Education (1996) and Wong (2002).
Words can take on different meanings depending on the words they are associated with in a certain context. In the following combinations the word white takes on a different meaning because of the noun it is describing.
Because of these common ‘connections’ between words, the presence of some words can help the reader infer more information about others.
For example, in the sentence “The limburger had a rancid smell”, the use of the word “rancid” implies that “limburger” is a dairy product, since rancid is usually used in place of rotten or bad to describe butter, cheese, or milk. We do not usually talk of rancid houses, wine, vegetables or fruit.
Some phrases are found together so much that they carry a particular meaning. Contemporary examples are:
global warming, fish and chips, third world, head start, cup of tea, hard drive, special needs.
Instances also exist where a writer has used an unexpected combination of words and this can interrupt the flow of reading as you decide on the intent of author's choice of words.
Different types of imagery are used in different types of writing. Students studying the arts will frequently find and need to analyse the meanings of these forms of writing. Metaphors, similes, personification and analogies are probably the most common and are used to create comparisons.
In academic writing the most common is the use of analogy. Authors liken the (abstract) concepts or models they are explaining to real life or more common experiences so that their readers can use the structure or sequence of this to understand the new theoretical construct.
Autors use other writing features to create tone or additional effects and meaning. As with imagery, students, especially arts students, will need to determine the reasons for and effects of different features.
When reading easy text all of these aspects of English come together and we understand almost immediately what the author is saying, why they are saying it, and why they have chosen to write it in a certain way.
With more dense or difficult writings, you will need to pause and think about the images being conveyed, the style of the text and how these relate to the author's purpose(s).
Understanding readings results from interpreting the combination of all the text's features. Literal comprehension is the basic meaning carried by the words, but more important are the inferential or implicit meanings that are carried by the words and the way they are used by the author.
To infer you need to be able to make connections between your own general (or prior) knowledge of both content and text so that the author's full purpose and intent is recognised.
- author's purpose and intent
- author's assumptions
- the effect of the author's choice of evidence
- the completeness of the author's information
- the effect of their choice of sources (of evidence)
- reasons for ambiguity
- the bias (if any)
- the presence of stereotyping or propaganda
- judgements about events
- judgements about characters and their motivations
- reasons for and effects of literary devices
See also critical reading.
Preview a reading before starting to read in-depth (skimming)
Read in sections (no more than 20 minutes at a time)
Look for signals in the text. Authors often include word signals to link their points. Look for words such as “firstly”, “next”, “also”, “additionally”, and “finally”, as these help you find the ‘building blocks’ of the author's point of view.
In this paragraph the topic sentence refers to ‘certain characteristics’. Three out the four listed are ‘cued’ by signal words.
A new product will move through the early stages of the life cycle more quickly when it has certain characteristics. For example, the greater the comparative advantage of a new product over those already on the market, the more rapidly its sales will increase. Sales growth is also more rapid when the product is simple to use and its advantages are easy to communicate. If the product can be tried on a limited basis, without much risk to the customer, then it can usually be introduced more quickly. Finally, if the product is compatible with the values and experiences of target customers, those customers are likely to buy it more readily.
(McCarthy, Perreault, & Quester, 1997, p. 315)
Underline or mark points you may need to use later
Read with a pencil and make margin notes about your thoughts.
Jotting margin comments as you read can help you process and put this author's ideas into the context of the whole topic. Using a note-taking strategy (e.g. mapping or charting) may help you with this, particularly if you need to see the differences between the views of one author and another.
Understanding everything can be difficult with new subject areas, and if you think that you are not fully comprehending a reading on a topic then consciously use one of the in-depth reading strategies so that you make yourself reflect on the author's message section by section.
At the end of a paragraph or section, look away from the page and ask yourself questions about what you have just read. Try to ask yourself at least three questions. To make yourself dig through the layers of meaning ask different types of questions:
- literal questions allow you to identify the facts
- inferential questions allow you to add in meaning about the author's point of view
- evaluative questions allow you to “place” this reading by relating its ideas to the ideas put forward in other readings on the same topic
- application questions check whether you can relate this topic to a contemporary or specific situation
This example is from a history book on Māori newspapers in the 19th century. The paragraph introduces a section of the book which overviews newspapers written in Māori. At first reading, the paragraph simply discloses what seems to be a brief history of this newspaper. However, a closer reading of this paragraph will show how the language used is intended to convey the author's meaning:
Te Karere Maori (The Maori Messenger) was the government's principal Māori-language newspaper, and was produced by the staff of the Native Department. Like some other Māori-language newspapers, Te Karere Maori forms part of a larger genealogy, having descended from the government's original Te Karere o Niu Tirene which first appeared in 1842. Notwithstanding its diminutive dimensions and the duplication of content due to its bilingual form, it was the most significant of the newspapers, appearing monthly or bi-monthly with few exceptions from 1855 to 1863. For nine months in 1861 it was temporarily rebranded as Te Manuhiri Tuarangi but, in reality, its content and management displayed a seamless continuity.
(Paterson, 2006, p. 19)
Questions and analysis
The first sentence of this paragraph provides the topic that this paragraph will discuss / enlarge on / provide evidence for. In other words, it says that Te Karere Maori was a newspaper written in Māori by the New Zealand government of the time. Here is your first comprehension cue: why would a government publish a newspaper in the Maori language? Who is its intended audience? Whose point of view is it likely to be presenting?
The second sentence of the paragraph states that this newspaper “forms part of a larger genealogy”. In other words, the newspaper has a history linking back to an earlier government newspaper for Maori that appeared in 1842. Understanding this sentence quickly is partly dependent on knowing that the word ‘genealogy’ means a line of descent from a common ancestor. The author uses the words “having descended from the government's original Te Karere o Niu Tirene which first appeared in 1842” to emphasise his meaning. This may lead you to ask why this is significant. As 1842 is mentioned does it relate in any way to the three articles of the Treaty of Waitangi?
The rest of paragraph goes on to describe the various forms of the paper. The third sentence suggests that Te Karere Maori was the most significant of the Māori-language newspapers, but this raises questions for the reader as the passage does not give many reasons for this. We are told it appeared monthly or two-monthly from 1855 to 1863 and that it was written in Māori and English. Why do you suppose this was? What else was happening in New Zealand at the time? For example, would its significance relate to the discontent among many Māori about increasing pressure to dispose of their land to the government? Did the settler-led parliament set up in the 1850s and increased immigration have anything to do with this? Answers to these questions could well be found further on in this book, or you may have already read material that explores these issues.
The final sentence in this paragraph gives one last point - that despite name changes - “in reality, its content and management displayed a seamless continuity”. What do the words ‘content and management’ imply? What do you understand by “a seamless continuity”? Why does the author use the word “rebranded”? Notice that although the author is writing about something that happened a long time ago, very contemporary (business) language is used. Is this important? This last sentence also carries a strong inference from the author not only about the way this newspaper was written, but also how the title may have been changed to accommodate the changing attitudes of its readers. So who was reading this newspaper and why? Who were the most literate people among Māori in the 1840s? 1850s? 1860s?
From this paragraph readers can learn not only that there was a Māori newspaper called Te Karere Maori, but also who wrote it. They will understand that during the 1850s and early 1860s this newspaper took on a greater importance than its earlier versions. They will also learn that the newspaper was printed in English and Māori, and that although the content of the paper did not change much (in the author's opinion), the title, for some reason, did. Who the intended audience was, and why the newspaper was produced on behalf of the government is implied but not stated.
This paragraph, therefore, assumes a certain amount of prior knowledge of nineteenth century New Zealand history on the part of its readers.
The following passage from fiction, although written by an academic, is intended for a general audience. In particular, the author is using a style of writing that is not in general use today, but reflects a more archaic style in order to enhance the plot and setting of its characters.
So the third day of their pursuit began. During all its long hours of cloud and fitful sun they hardly paused, not striding, now running, as if no weariness could quench the fire that burned them. They seldom spoke. Over the wide solitude they passed and their elven-cloaks faded against the background of the grey-green fields; even in the cool sunlight of midday few but elvish eyes would have marked them, until they were close at hand. Often in their hearts they thanked the Lady of Lorien for the gift of lembas, for they could eat of it and find new strength even as they ran.
(Tolkien, 1954, pp. 28-29)
Questions and analysis
Can you detect the way in which the sentences in this paragraph are written? In academic writing for an academic audience today, we tend to write sentences in the following order: subject, verb, object + adverbial phrase. However, a closer reading of the paragraph shows that in many of the sentences this order is reversed. For example, the second sentence places the adverbial phrase (describing when something happened) first, before the subject (they). Similarly, the third sentence also follows this grammatical format. What is the effect of this structure - what do we find out about the hobbits and their feelings? Note that we can easily infer some of these feelings as we, too, will at times have been unable to speak because we have been running so much or our concentration is elsewhere.
Look also at the imagery of light in the text: cloud and fitful sun, fire that burned, contrasted with cool sunlight, wide solitude, and grey green fields. Contrast this with images of strength: they hardly paused, not striding, now running, no weariness, new strength. The words ”wide solitude“ and ”the gift of lembas“ suggest that without the latter, they would be lucky to survive their journey. All of this imagery implies that their journey is dangerous and difficult. What meaning do adjectives such as “elvish” and “elven” imply? And note we can infer that the gift of lembas too seems to have a magical quality.
If you were using material from Tolkien's novel as an example in an essay, you might be doing so in one of two ways. The first way might be for an English paper on the topic of fiction. In this case the imagery and sentence construction (syntax) would be important to demonstrate how Tolkien uses this to provide the ancient setting for the flight of the group of hobbits across a barren plain and to describe how they felt while doing so.
However, if this were non-fiction and you were paraphrasing this passage to use it in a paper on geography or anthropology, it might read like this:
Groups who were forced to cross the immense desert were fortunate to survive the journey without adequate food supplies and a speedy crossing.
Reflect again when you have completed the whole chapter, reading, or handout to trace the links from beginning to end.
References and further reading
Ministry of Education. (1996). Exploring language: A handbook for teachers. Wellington, New Zealand: Learning Media. [Massey Library link]
McCarthy, E. J., Perreault, W. D., & Quester P. G. (1997). Basic marketing: A managerial approach. Sydney, Australia: McGraw-Hill Australia. [Massey Library link]
Paterson, L. (2006). Colonial discourses: Niupepa Maori 1855-1863. Dunedin, New Zealand: Otago University Press. [Massey Library link]
Tolkien, J. R. R. (1954) The lord of the rings: The two towers. London, England: Allen & Unwin.
Wong, L. (2002). Paragraph essentials: A writing guide. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin. [Massey Library link]