How to study a set text

reading and understanding skills

What is a set text?

A set text is usually a book that forms the central part of the content or the background to a course of study. It might be a novel for a course of literary studies, or a collection of essays on social theory for a course on sociology. In GCSE ‘O’ and ‘A’ level literature for instance, the course will consist of a specified collection of poems, the play text of a drama, a novel, and a non-fictional text such as someone’s memoirs or diaries.

1. Main objective
Your main task is to grasp the point of what the author is saying. You need to understand the relationship of the book’s subject to the theme(s) of the course you are studying. At some point, you may need to demonstrate what you know in course work assignments or an examination.

2. Development
You should try to follow the stages of the argument or the sequence of events. It will help you to remember this progression if you take careful notes whilst you are reading. You should try to identify and name the main topics.

3. Taking notes
You can write in the margins of the book (if it is your own). Alternatively, keep notes on separate A4 pages. Always make notes whilst you are reading. This will help you to reinforce your learning. Always begin by making a full record of the source:

Author – Title – Publisher – Date

4. Reading strategies
You should develop a variety of reading strategies to suit your reading purpose. Don’t use the same type of reading all the time. Your reading style should be chosen to match the task – getting an overview, detailed study, or maybe searching for information.

5. Skim reading
This is a first quick reading for an overview. You are making a rapid survey of the subject. Glance through the material quickly and pick up the main points. Keep your eye on the general picture. This is a very useful skill which becomes easier with regular practice.

6. Detailed study reading
This is an in-depth reading to absorb information and understand arguments. You will be reading in a concentrated manner. You might need to read a particular section more than once to grasp the point it is making. Take notes – and don’t copy long sections of text. Read with conscious purpose. You’ll get more done!

7. Agreement?
You do not necessarily have to agree with everything that is written in the text. It is a good idea to read critically and vigilantly. Make a note of any points you wish to challenge or query. However, be prepared to challenge your own views too.

8. Speed reading – a warning
Speed reading courses teach ultra-rapid skim-reading techniques. This can be useful for absorbing information at a superficial level. They are rarely suitable for understanding and retaining information. They are unlikely to help if you are engaged in serious academic study. Keep in mind the Woody Allen joke:

“I went on a speed reading course last week – and it really worked! Yesterday I read War and Peace in an hour … It’s about Russia.”

© Roy Johnson 2004


Literary studies links

Set text Literary studies guides

Red button Tutorials on 19th century authors

Red button Tutorials on 20th century authors


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