Literary Reading Skills

What happens when we read?

Or, more to the point, what happens when we read well ? The structure of this part of the site crystalised itself out of following the process of reading. Any reader follows the thread of printed words through a half-seen maze of associations, evocations, references, background knowledge ... and the more informed and skilful the reader, the more he or she is actively aware of what is going on.

All reading involves something of that 'half-seen maze' because even the most straightforward, matter-of-fact expression uses words which have associations, references, etc - but it is surely part of the definition of 'literature' that such connotations are consciously a significant part of the message of the text. We expect to read between the lines in order to discover levels of meaning and develop more complex interpretations.

If this is true in general, then the Literary Skills proposed below are what we need to be teaching our students, over and above the Basic Reading Skills (q.v. - grasping outline meaning) and the Key Reading Skills (q.v. - grasping the detail of the outline meaning). In other words, Literary Reading Skills are the most sophisticated level of reading, involving grasping complex texts in all their complexity.

Note that the Literary Skills employ the same basic procedures as the Basic and Key skills (e.g. summary, scanning) - but in different order, for deliberately different purposes (e.g. scanning not just for the basic overall message, but in order to study and define the imaginative world of the text).

In order to teach and develop the skills of a sophisticated approach to literature, have a look at the page The tasks toolkit ​ , which proposes a range of specific tasks to encourage students to read methodically.

Reading well

I propose below a way of envisaging the process of reading closely and methodically. This involves four stages, in the sense that these stages follow the sequence in time of grasping a text ... but they can also be seen as levels, in that they represent a movement from surface understanding to deep understanding.

Basic Reading

Reading involves imagining - we form a model of what is happening, of what is described, of ideas - and responding - we react with surprise or curiosity or (dis)agreement. If these don't happen, it's hard to think that we are engaged at all (you know those moments when you're tired or distracted, and you suddenly realise you haven't the faintest idea of what the last page meant?). Forming that model involves skimming & reviewing - new details appear and we think -

"...ah yes, Alan was the one who ... that scene in the railway station ... so that's why the dog was so agitated ..."

Reflective reading

As the pattern of the text forms, we start selecting key details -

"... all these references to how dark the room is ... 'miles meandering with a mazy motion' - lots of 'm's ... always goes back to importance of the family..."

The key details demand attention and so we start scanning for more details that relate -

"... 'dark'? but she's called 'dark' as well ... now he's changed his point of view ... where did he say he was on the Thursday night?..."

- and such scanning will involve tracking & filing of the information we have.

Analytical reading

From the start, as we read, we will have been interpreting figurative effects and interpreting meaning (at whatever level of sophistication) - and if we then choose to think about the piece of writing critically, we will be analysing and assessing the figurative effects and the meaning.


Finally, we will wish to make full sense of all that we have understood through the previous three stages by reviewing, revising, relating our impressions - we will think of assembling our ideas into some form of coherent model of the text. More specifically, if we are reading for a specific purpose (writing a critical study or researching for a report), we will have to think of assembling the model we have formed into some form of writing.

The diagram

That description of the reading process can be reformulated as the following list ... or it can be viewed graphically, as shown to the right, with arrows indicating the flow of attention and interaction between the various elements.

Basic Reading

Imagining & responding

Skimming & reviewing

Reflective Reading

Selecting key details

Scanning ... Tracking & filing

Analytical Reading

Interpreting figurative effects & meaning

Analysing effects & meaning


Writing critical commentary

(or, presenting ideas orally)


LitCore diagram - the graphic on this page

Reading well - the reading process, with checklist - is available for students

Reading well, examined

Anyway, the above is the overall approach or system or structure that informs the view of Literary Skills in this site ... but some aspects need to be examined in a little more detail.

Imagining & responding  

We all want our students to respond to what they read, and to use their imagination, but what does this mean, specifically? Consider the following list of aspects:-

When reading fiction, a good reader should ...

  • live the experiences - take the story seriously, react as if it were real - but how do we encourage that? Clearly, choosing the right story to start with is fundamental - but also regular, open discussion ... "What do you think so far? What's going to happen next? What did you feel when she said...? Have you ever felt like that?"
  • share sensual description - the senses are the most common ground of fiction - we may never have been in a war, but we have all felt cold. Encouraging this must again involve discussion - (a) strengthening the associations of the words used - "What does cold feel like?", and (b) eliciting connections to imagine a fuller picture - "It's 'hot' ... but which other details in the paragraph support and develop the impression of heat?"
  • use empathy - ' the capacity to put yourself in someone else's skin' - but how do we teach and stimulate the ability to do that? It's a skill that we rather take for granted, but we shouldn't - it's a complex process, and requires effort and commitment. See files on 'The Curious Incident...' for further thoughts.

When reading all texts, a good reader should ...

  • form patterns actively - fundamentally, this involves 'reviewing' regularly - 'the story so far'. Such reviewing requires * an ability to grasp structure ("what is that paragraph about?"), * practice in effective summary (see Thinking Skills > Detecting patterns ), and * an effective mental filing system. Such reviewing should take place in short texts just as much as in extended reading.
  • grasp coherence - this will of course depend on how well the reader has formed basic patterns to begin with - 'coherence' means seeing overall patterns in the detailed patterns.
  • anticipate the next development - this follows from the grasp of the first two skills - if we have a grasp of where we have been (anaphora - back-referencing), we will also be curious about where we are going (cataphora - forward-referencing). This is the basis of narrative drive, but it is also important in grasping skilled argument, and of understanding much of Rhetoric (see below).

Interpreting figurative effects 

This is a vast field, and at this point I merely wish to indicate the overall structure of various areas which will be covered. What is meant by 'figurative effects' is the many tricks, techniques, conventions & forms that writers use to achieve effective Presentation + Persuasion = Communication.

For convenience, I place many, but not all of these under the heading of Rhetoric - and propose three main headings:-

  • Rhetoric of Structure - Grammar-based + Argument-based
  • Rhetoric of Imagination - Reference + Comparison + Representatives + Contrast
  • Rhetoric of Transaction - Direct Encounter/Address + Attitude + Irony + Judgement

Have a look at the page Rhetoric which gives basic explanation of these categories; and the page Teaching Rhetoric 1 provides suggested selections of such techniques for classes of Basic, Middling and Advanced levels.

Interpreting meaning  

Obviously, 'interpreting meaning' overlaps with 'interpreting figurative effects' - you don't identify a metaphor, for instance, without considering what it means (indeed, you probably wouldn't even be able to identify the metaphor without at least some idea of its significance). To distinguish the two areas implies a change of emphasis - you pass through interpreting figurative effects, and focus on the overall significance, or 'point', of the text. I propose the following principal areas:-

Impacts - even a hasty first reading of a text will leave impressions, and the better the text, the more distinct and distinguished will be the impact(s) - ", he's angry! ... 'soft city' - that's a neat phrase ... she's obviously an attractive person ..." These first impressions are usually useful because they are the genuine starting points of an exploration of the text. A skilful writer will have created those impacts deliberately, as the 'headlines' of the text. Even inexperienced, unsophisticated student readers have such reactions - they may not have the 'right' ones, the ones that the teacher thinks are obvious, but their first impressions are where we should start from.
Images & scenes / Character / Plot - in fiction, impressions about these elements probably emerge usually in this order - the assembling of structures of meaning takes time, so we first work out what is happening right now, then we discover who's doing it, and finally why. Although ... Anthony Burgess opens one novel like this (if I remember rightly) "On my ninety-first birthday, I was in bed with my catamite when the archbishop called..." - which, if you think about it, covers all three.
References & allusions + symbols - the subtle details, which need to be studied, even researched. To be more precise, I mean references & allusions that reach out of the text to the real world, symbols that create structures of meaning within the text.
Point - shorthand for 'the overall meaning(s)' of the novel, its argument, and/or what it sets out to do (which might be simply to entertain). [** Have a look at the page Wise & Foolish which deals directly with this idea of 'point' ]
The work & its context - knowledge which will need to be researched: when the book was written, when and how - which may in turn may tell us something about 'what for'. And remind us that there is always a difference between the author's context and the reader's.

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