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How to Read: The importance of context

Read Time : 6 minutes

Sometime in the 11th century, a Japanese woman known as Murasaki Shikibu wrote what is believed to be the world's first novel. This 54 chapter story of courtly seduction called 'The Tale of Genji' started our society's love of fiction reading and reading in a more general sense.

As well as being an enjoyable endeavour, research has shown that reading has profound effects on health and wellbeing. Stanborough (2019) attests that reading 'strengthens the brain, increases empathy, prevents cognitive decline, aids sleeps, reduces stress and even alleviates depression and lengthens lifespan'.

Somewhat serendipitously, I had a string of fantastic teachers in primary school who taught me the phonetics, syntax and grammar conventions of the English language which allowed me to access the wonder that is reading.

This being said, it wasn't until Year 7 that one of the best educational practitioners I've ever encountered taught me that 'not all reading was made equal' and that we must 'engage appropriately with texts dependent on the desired outcome'. The following article outlines my findings over the course of my academic career and how I engage with different types of literature and texts.

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Reading for Pleasure

If your sole purpose for picking up and reading a book is pure enjoyment 'fill your boots', as my grandfather would have said. Not only is it a great past time but it is also a great antidote to the epidemic that is currently sweeping our society: Information Obesity.

Reading fiction will grant access to some of the greatest books of all time allowing you to improve vocabulary, visit by-gone eras while self-reflecting on your own writing style in the process. Non-fiction, on the other hand, will allow you to build your general knowledge and examine the thoughts, processes and lives of some of the most influential people ever to live. Reading for enjoyment will ultimately make you a more knowledgeable, better rounded and more successful individual:

'Fiction will raise your floor while non-fiction will raise your ceiling'


Reading for Understanding

Reading for understanding is undoubtedly one of the most difficult, time consuming yet rewarding endeavours you can undertake. It is the reason why University Professors can spend literally decades of their lives reading and researching about a very narrow and bespoke field of study.

Reading for understanding requires extensive reading on both sides of the spectrum to allow for informed decision making. For example, the politics scholar must be aware of the views, rationale, strengths and shortcomings of all political ideologies before being able to give a well-informed, analytical perspective on the best way forward for a nation.


Unfortunately, in a world of algorithms where recommendations for books, articles and general content are prefaced on previous purchases and previously viewed content, the ease of getting both sides of the story becomes compromised.

If understanding is paramount, you must make a concerted effort to read broadly, comprehensively and considerably, in order that you can make an informed, educated and enlightened decision on your stance within your domain of study.

Reading for Self-Improvement

The key ingredient to self-improvement is implementation. Reading for self-improvement involves action and therefore a cover-to-cover approach should be abandoned in favour of 'Minimum Effective Dose'.

The book we choose should be based on a very narrow set of criteria:

Credibility - The author should be a prominent and distinguished practitioner within the desired field.

Research Based - The book should be backed by current research and industry best practices.

Impact - It has shown through independent reviews and critiques to have a net positive impact on those who implement the findings presented.


Once you have chosen the book, the reading process is very simple. Using the index, find the specific sections which relate to your area of concern. Resist the urge to investigate irrelevant topics, or worse yet, get drawn in to new solutions to problems you did not even know you had.

With the relevant sections highlighted, read and note-take on these. Read the theory behind your area of concern before choosing which solutions or take-aways suit you and your lifestyle best. At this point, put down the book and implement immediately.

The book should not be used again unless you need clarification on a point or you have been implementing so well that the desired systems, processes and practices are neatly embedded into your lifestyle and you are back to improve another area of your life.

The magic of self-improvement is not found in the discovery or analysis of more ideas but in the implementation of the few ideas that really resonate with you. Once you have found these ideas, step away from the book and implement.

Reading for System Improvement

Reading for system improvement follows a similar process to 'Reading for Self-Improvement' with one key step between reading and implementation. Within system reform, we must ensure buy-in with those who are going to be involved in the system reform implementation.

Tactful leadership, smart presentation of the consequences of system improvement (for both the business and the employees) and consultation on the implementation process allow for staff and teams to take ownership of the improvement process.

Creating 'win/ win' situations lies at the heart of system improvement and reform. The changes must positively impact both the business and the employees who run the system otherwise widespread resistance to change will ensue.


Creating these 'win/ win' situations while simultaneously giving ownership of the reform process to those responsible for system implementation will have a dramatically positive effect on not only staff morale, staff retention and team trust but on staff capacity and business longevity.

Reading to Write Academically

Writing academically requires that you read first for understanding, in order to get a broad perspective on where you stand on a particular theory or issue before citing, explaining and bolstering your viewpoint with the work and research of sector leading academics.

Most courses will of course facilitate this general knowledge accumulation through lectures, seminars and group discussions. After this broad knowledge is built you must narrow the focus of your search to journals, research papers and books that support and underpin your particular position.

Journals and Research Papers - When reading journals or research papers, the abstract and conclusion are your friends. Within minutes you will understand if the paper contains information that will support your position or is totally irrelevant. Delve deeper only when abstract and conclusions are relevant.

Books - Again, a 'Minimum Effect Dose' is key here. Reading the 35 recommended books on the reading list for a 2500 word research paper is not only laboursome but totally inefficient and ineffective. Wasted time aside, information overload will slow progress and impede the writing process. With books, use the index to identify sections of relevance and ignore the rest.



To limit the need to return to books, research articles or journals, note and quote taking is of paramount importance. Before undertaking your assignment, write a rough plan for the research paper and file relevant quotes, insightful lines and paragraphs under these headings including the author, page number and publication year beside it.

This will allow for the research and writing processes to be completely delineated and for complete focus on crafting a well-written research paper bolstered, braced and buttressed by current academic literature.


Reading is undoubtedly a skill that opens up an abundance of opportunities but, as with any skill in life, context is king. We must become efficient practitioners in reading to meet the demands of the task and do all in our power to ensure the information we are consuming, with the exception of reading for pleasure, is important, immediately relevant and actionable.

With this mindset, we will not only acquire the necessary information to facilitate improvement but also free time to allow for information based implementation and the resultant personal or system improvement that ensues. Obama sums up  the importance of knowing 'how' to read perfectly, asserting:

'Reading is important. If you know how to read then the whole world opens up to you'

Journalling Points

​1. Is my reading style usually fit for purpose?

2. If not, what do I need to change?


Stanborough R. J., 2019, Benefits of Reading Books: How It Can Positively Affect Your Life, Healthline, New York

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