My first taste of college life came from reading L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of the Island, where the eponymous heroine leaves her beloved Green Gables and goes away to college. Anne Shirley and her friends seamlessly blend challenging study with rewarding friendships as they stretch their wings and grow in the stately city of Kingsport.
As the bookish daughter of a college professor, I arrived on campus excited for an experience like Anne’s, adapted fairly easily (all things considered), and now treasure those years investigating the good, true, and beautiful.
I was well prepared for college and then graduate school afterward, and both enhanced my love for learning and reading in powerful ways. Through my six years of higher education, however, I’ve realized how little I really knew about reading at the college level as a high schooler, especially when it comes to literature.
We bookworms assume reading will be what we love best about college, but we don’t quite appreciate the difference between reading for fun and reading to learn. Instituting the following practices as a high school student would have enriched my college
experience further and made me more capable of unpacking literature at a university level.
1. Stop focusing on plot lines and characters.
In Anne of the Island, after an intense bout of exams, Anne reads Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers as a reward for her labors. I was in graduate school before I fully understood her reasoning. When studying literature in college, our focus should shift from considering the basic elements of a story—plot points, characters, symbols—to thinking about what the author is suggesting by these depictions.
Instead of discussing how Anne changes while at college, for instance, we might explore what Montgomery is saying about college as a pivotal experience through Anne’s portrayal. Based on how Anne changes (or if she changes, according to your estimation), we form a theory about Montgomery’s sentiments toward higher education. If it helps, consider the book as an author’s meditation on particular concerns, where he or she uses storytelling as a medium for examining the world. Employing this method of reading isn’t always fun (hence Anne’s return to Pickwick in her leisure time when she can read uninhibited), but learning how to do so will broaden the material’s significance and prepare high schoolers for the college classroom.
2. Consider how the information is conveyed to you.
Our engagement with literature is necessarily affected by the author’s chosen style. We know this intuitively: no one would argue, for example, that William Faulkner’s stream-of-consciousness narration is the same as Jane Austen’s linear prose. But when studying literature in college, a book’s structure—that is, how the story is told—is always worth keeping in mind. Is the narration in first-person or third-person voice? How is the passage of time accounted for in the story? Are the chapter lengths consistent (and are they titled)? Do you notice anything repetitious throughout?
In The Scarlet Letter, some version of “ignominy” is used over 20 times; clearly, our attention is being directed toward that word. But for what purpose? Similarly, most of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is told as a flashback from one character’s point of view. Does this out-of-sequence timeline reveal anything new about the book?
Pivoting to these questions makes us more sophisticated readers of literature and allows us to engage at a higher level of analysis.
3. Master the art of skimming.
You bookworms will resist this one heart and soul, but smartly skimming is an essential skill. No matter how much you love reading, college students must synthesize and analyze too much information to read everything word-for-word, especially while conducting research. Few undergraduates know how to skim accurately, as I learned upon assigning a research paper to my composition students. Panic struck when they realized how much reading they would have to do. Learning to skim in high school can spare students this moment of alarm.
Fortunately, research articles are constructed for this purpose. Articles from STEM fields have helpful headings throughout, which makes locating the necessary information and conclusions quite easy. It’s a little different for humanities subjects like English, but even so, most pertinent information can be found in the introduction. Read the intro and the conclusion carefully—the most important details will be there—and then quickly skim the other sections.
Pay attention to verbs such as “aver,” “assert,” or “declare”—these words may indicate the thesis statement—and try to identify the author’s main points of argument (often there are three). High schoolers who are Lord of the Rings fans might try this out with Tolkien’s delightful essay “On Fairy Stories.”
Reading like an English major takes some practice, but it yields ample intellectual dividends in terms of efficiency and comprehension. If you’re a parent seeking assistance in nurturing your student’s reading abilities, check out HSLDA Online Academy’s English classes, particularly our AP® courses, where students do college-level work as high schoolers. We’re eager to help homeschoolers thrive in college and enjoy an experience as soul enriching as Anne’s. Learn more here.