How To Read

Advice For A-Level And University English Students

Don’t worry, of course we know you can read the words on the page, or tube advert, or Instagram comment. However; when it comes to reading for exams, or essays at school and university; it can become easy to read the worlds’ greatest literature in the same way you may read a recipe you already half know.

You can skim through as an expert at spotting symbolism, personification, characterisation, metaphor… the list goes on. You are now comfortable in understanding and reapplying the historical context you learnt in class and reshaping points from criticism or your teachers. Every book can be approached in the same way, as something that can be taught and learnt.

This is of course extremely important for passing your exams and writing good essays and has to be done. However, there may come a point, be it at interview, or in a tutorial where you are asked: “So what is it about the book/poem/play that you personally found really interesting?” And here you may realise that you have forgotten how to read because when you read in the way highlighted above; it is often your own thinking that gets subdued. The higher the level you take your study of literature, the more you realise that the skills of spotting literary characteristics and applying knowledge become less important because every literary creation will have metaphor, any poem might have a caesura, all drama could be said to rely on tension. What examiners, university tutors and particularly interviewers, are looking for is less “what you know” and more “how you think” about literature.

So next time you pick up a Dickens, or a Shakespeare, remember everything you already do, but maybe have a notebook alongside and jot down anything you find interesting, or funny, or maybe just a sentence you love. Look back and you will start to find patterns and you can think about why that sentence is brilliant to you. Or even just take your time when reading to assess your own thoughts on the book. Always ask yourself questions as you go through and you will soon find yourself coming up with your own unique ideas. A more simple, but clearly personal, analysis of a book is always going to be far more impressive than a more complex one that has clearly been taught to you.

It is these thoughts that may at first seem pointless or simple that will impress the interviewer across the room from you and separates the very best students in examinations. This is because they show you using your own analytical faculty. Remember, everyone that comes through the door will know the facts – you just have to make sure you are not one of the students that might have also forgotten how to read.

If you need help with English visit our tutor page here. 

Additional resources:

Degree in English
English Interviews at Oxford
How to Write an English Essay

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