How to Read, Part 1
“What is the best way to learn English vocabulary?” As an English teacher, I hear this question often. But vocabulary is only one part of reading. So we should first ask, “What is the best way to master reading?”
Mastering reading begins with seeking to understand the writer’s purpose. All good writers seek to communicate a thought to a reader. This thought is a combination of words and images. We have understood the writing when it produces in our minds a clear and distinct set of words and images.
When you read, start by forming mental images of the writing. Imagine that you are making a movie of the book. What clothes are the characters wearing? What kind of furniture do you imagine in the room? Where are the characters standing?
Once your imagery is clear, it is easier to apply words to it that describe more abstract concepts.
- You could ask what emotions the characters experience. To use some SAT vocabulary, are they peeved or livid; are they jovial or jubilant?
- Or you could ask what motivates the characters. Do they act from altruism, avarice, or magnanimity?
- Finally, you could ask whether the author want us to judge the characters in any way. Are their actions noble or base, exemplary or reprehensible?
Your combination of images and words will hopefully resemble the thought that the author wants to convey.
Reading with clear, distinct mental images makes it much easier to learn vocabulary. And of course, such reading makes it easier to know the right answer on standardized tests.
Here is a passage from The Jungle Book, by Rudyard Kipling, with annotations that suggest what its readers might try to envision.
Akela the Lone Wolf lay by the side of his rock as a sign that the leadership of the Pack was open, and Shere Khan with his following of scrap-fed wolves walked to and fro openly being flattered. Bagheera lay close to Mowgli, and the fire pot was between Mowgli’s knees. When they were all gathered together, Shere Khan began to speak — a thing he would never have dared to do when Akela was in his prime.
A gray wolf lies beside a gray, flat-topped rock about eight feet tall. The rock is in a clearing; behind it are the trees of the jungle. It is dusk, and the moon has risen over the rock. A tiger walks back and forth in front of the rock with brown wolves following him around in admiration. We see a panther and a boy from behind and a bit to the left. The panther is lying on the right, head between its paws, almost touching the boy. The boy is brown-skinned, naked, and kneeling, with a gray clay pot between his knees. A red glow comes from the pot.
“He has no right,” whispered Bagheera. “Say so. He is a dog’s son. He will be frightened.”
The panther raises his head and speaks to the boy. The boy leans his head over to catch the panther’s words. The panther feels contempt for the tiger.
Mowgli sprang to his feet. “Free People,” he cried, “does Shere Khan lead the Pack? What has a tiger to do with our leadership?”
The boy leaps to his feet with a single motion, points at the tiger, and cries out. He senses injustice. Every animal in the clearing stops and looks at the boy.
“Seeing that the leadership is yet open, and being asked to speak — “ Shere Khan began.
The tiger turns away from the boy, clears his throat, and speaks to the rest of the group. He acts as if he is beginning a formal speech. He wants to sound dramatic. By ignoring the boy, he is trying to make himself seem more important.
“By whom?” said Mowgli. “Are we all jackals, to fawn on this cattle butcher? The leadership of the Pack is with the Pack alone.”
The boy spreads his arms out in annoyance. The tiger stops speaking and glares at him.
Shere Khan roared, “Give the man cub to me. He is a man, and none of us can look him between the eyes.”
The tiger tosses his head in anger and glares at the boy. He looks around at the wolves, hoping that they will give him what he wants.
Akela lifted his head again and said, “He has eaten our food. He has slept with us. He has driven game for us. He has broken no word of the Law of the Jungle.”
The gray wolf speaks quietly, as if explaining something to a group of children. He seems tired.
“Also, I paid for him with a bull when he was accepted. The worth of a bull is little, but Bagheera’s honor is something that he will perhaps fight for,” said Bagheera in his gentlest voice.
The panther raises his head and speaks to the wolves. His voice may be gentle, but it has an edge to it, because he is giving a warning. He seems more noble than the tiger and the other wolves.
“A bull paid ten years ago!” the Pack snarled. “What do we care for bones ten years old?”
The other wolves turn toward the panther and spit out their words in contempt. They are greedy and thoughtless.
“Or for a pledge?” said Bagheera, his white teeth bared under his lip. “Well are ye called the Free People!”
The panther glares at them scornfully. His last words are sarcastic. He means that they feel “free” to break their promises.
Stay tuned for How to Read, Part 2: Selecting a Good Dictionary
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