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Pre-Writing Strategies Tutorial » Readings

Gathering Ideas from Readings

Most writing assignments require you to formulate your own thesis or position on topics and issues, and you support your view with evidence from books, journals, and other reliable sources. This section will suggest some strategies that can help you to become a more active and critical reader of academic prose.

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Active and Critical Reading

Reading is a two-way communication process between you and an author. To be an active reader, learn to "talk" directly to the author in your mind and in your notes.

Record your comments and reactions to authors' key ideas only as they relate to your emerging thesis—one problem many students have is that they jot down ideas without a focus. One way to avoid this is to develop a preliminary thesis early in your research, after the first two or three sources. Then, be discriminative in what you read; let each new reading build on the ideas you got from your first readings, and discard anything that doesn't directly help you in developing your thesis. You don't have to read entire books—use the index, and read only the chapters or pages you need.

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Finding Good Sources

Start with your textbook or the sources recommended by your professor, and use the bibliographies in these books to find the titles of more books and articles. But you don't have to know an author or titles beforehand in order to find good sources; sometimes the most fruitful sources are the ones you find all by yourself.

Using the Library

Learn to use the library cataloguing system to search for books by subject matter. Try York's Library Research Roadmap Tutorial: it covers the research process from deciding on a topic, to locating sources and preparing your bibliography.

A regular Library search usually will locate only books. You can often get at the most current writing on your topic by searching for articles published in journals. The York Libraries eResources page lets you search a number of online periodical databases for the humanities and social sciences by subject matter (and even cross-reference two subjects, like "greenhouse effect" and "Canada"). One advantage of these indices is that they will show you brief descriptions (or abstracts) of articles; some of them even allow you to read the full text of the article online.

Using the Internet

Learn to search the Internet for non-traditional sources of information. You may find Web pages or active discussion groups related to your topic. Keep in mind, however, that the Internet is not simply an online library: take care to ask critical questions about the information that you find there, including how it got to be there, and what this means in terms of its validity as a source for your paper. Scholarly writing is best found through Library resources; however, there may be a place in your paper for other types of writing, as long as you are able to clearly show that you understand what kinds of sources you are using, and why.

Try the Library's Web Research Tutorial to learn more about locating and critically assessing sources on the Internet.

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Questions to Ask About Your Sources

An active reader constantly questions what he/she is reading. Some of the questions you might ask yourself are listed here. Not all of these questions will be relevant for every source and topic; answer only the questions that relate directly to your emerging thesis, and ignore the rest.

A good way to use these questions might be to copy them into your word processor, triple-space them, and print the file to get a template for making hand-written notes about your sources as you read.

  • Do I agree with or approve of the author's view here?

  • Do I disagree or disapprove?

  • Why?

  • Do I have a question for the author?

  • Can I answer any questions the author has raised?

  • Based on what the author has said, can I make a prediction?

  • Can I think of an example that illustrates the author's point?

  • Can I think of a counterexample?

  • Can I make a generalization based on elements in common between the author's ideas, other authors' ideas, and my own ideas?

  • Can I think of an analogy to illustrate what the author is saying?

  • If there is a main, all-encompassing idea that the author develops in the piece, what is it?

  • Does the author's objective suggest that he or she has any goals other than presenting truth?

  • Are the author's goals made clear, or intentionally hidden?

  • If so, why?

  • Does the author assume the truth of things that may in fact be false?

  • Does the author assume that something that is true in a few cases will necessarily be true all the time?

  • Does the author leave out any important ideas or facts that seem crucial to the issue?

  • Does the evidence presented clearly lead to the author's conclusion?

  • Is there an alternative conclusion that fits with the evidence as well as this author's conclusion does?

  • Does the source I am reading provide background for information in any other source I have read?

  • Does it provide additional details about a point made in another source?

  • Does it provide support for or contradict the points made in any other source?

  • Are there points on which I can compare or contrast this source with other sources?

  • What common threads run through the sources?

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Other Resources for Learning to Read Critically

There are several good resources on the Internet that offer sets of critical questions you can ask about your information sources, to be sure that you are using them appropriately. Here are just a couple:

  • York University's Library offers a lesson on Thinking Critically as Part Five of its Library Research Roadmap.

  • Cornell University offers a set of documents on Evaluating Research Materials, including both traditional sources and web sites.

  • York Professor and writing instructor Jan Rehner offers useful strategies for critical reading in her book, Practical Strategies for Critical Thinking (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994), availablefrom the Library.

  • The Learning Skills Program from the Counselling and Development Centre offers workshops and online resources on "Reading Skills for University", and other important skills for university success such as note-taking, time management and preparing for tests and exams.

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