Back to School: How to Read

I recently had some friends move to Louisville. Matt feels called to ministry and knew that a good next step would be some seminary training. The only problem is that Matt never got his undergraduate degree. Matt is such a hardworking and naturally gifted person that he’s been able to work and do some amazing things without needing a degree.

Until now that is.

He and his wife came over for dinner a week before the semester started and I asked Matt how I could help him. He was totally honest and said, “I haven’t been to school in years. What do I do?” I could relate. I graduated from Dallas Baptist University in 2005 and didn’t start seminary until 2013. I had 8 years of no paper writing, no test taking, and no assigned reading. When I started back I struggled and had to ask teachers and graders for a lot of help and grace. I learned a few things from that season that I shared with Matt, but I thought they might be helpful for all of us as we start up a new semester, whether we are in school or not. This month, Monday for Habits is going to look at disciplines to help you with the art of learning.

The Discipline of Reading

Having a plan is the greatest way to prepare for the semester. I think most of us remember that powerful panic of when you walked into a room and discovered there was a test, or that fear of staring at a book that you had to read by the next day. I can’t count how many papers were written on addiction levels of caffeine in the middle of the night, hours before they were due. While you might scrape by, you aren’t learning if that’s the way you approach school.

If you’re not in school, no plan means no systematic growth in learning and development. Outside of school you still have numerous opportunities to grow and learn, but again, it takes a plan. Now whether you are a student or not, a key part of learning comes through reading. So, how do we have a plan for reading? Here’s the simplest yet most helpful tool I have found: schedule your reading.

I do this for seminary, for work, and for personal growth. I am currently reading a Philosophy of Religion book for school, a parenting book for work, a John Owen book for my internship at my church, and a Mark Batterson book for personal growth. I have a plan for reading each of those books. I start each semester by taking the syllabus from the class I am in and I map out my reading. I want to read equal amounts each day (1-2 chapters maybe) and I want to finish early enough to be able to review the book before I am tested on it or have to write about it. I divide out pages/chapters and then schedule to read them on a specific day. I do the same thing for my work and personal reading as well as my Bible reading. I am a big fan of Apple’s reminders app for this stuff because you can set times, locations, and even add notes. I try to schedule my Bible reading first, then school, and then in the evenings I add in work and personal. It allows me to have focus time before my kids get up and before they go to bed.

Having a plan helps me to be able to not just stay on top of school, but to make my way through several other books every month. Without a plan, you are at the mercy of your ability to balance everything, to own the day, and to remember what you need to do – a juggling act that few of us are capable of doing on our own. Plans are aids, so make a plan, own that plan, then accomplish what you plan.

Advice on Executing

The next step is to actually read. We all have been at that place where we were staring at a book that we had been “reading” for a while only to realize that while our eyes had followed the trails of letters, we had no clue what we just read. If you’re trying to grow or will be tested on something, that won’t cut it.

Actively reading is the key. Get out a card or something to help you focus on the sentence you are reading and to block out what’s ahead of you. Read with a highlighter or pen in hand. Highlight things that stand out to you. It may not be the most important part of the text, but the point is creating markers for your memory so when you look back at it, it will help you remember the flow of the chapter.

Write down questions in the margins. Make notes when the author gives you the point of the chapter or numbered points. The goal is to do more than stare at words. Engage with what you are reading. Wayne Cordiero, the pastor of New Hope Oahu Church, one time shared how he actively reads. He said that when he encounters a word that he is not familiar with, he writes it down in the back of the book and then looks up the word. When he’s done, he has a list of new words in the back that he can add to his vocabulary. He said that when he reads something and wants to remember it that he makes a mark on the page so that when the book is closed he can see from the side where his marks are and he writes that idea and page number in the front of the book. That way if he wants to later reference that idea he has a guide to help him.

These are huge helps and great ideas, but again the point is to engage with the content. Highlight, underline, write in the margins, our whatever you have to do to best accomplish that goal. I try to pick a few books in the Bible each year in my annual read through the Bible and as I go through each chapter, I make notes in a spreadsheet. I pick one or two books a year and write out the main points in a document. This all helps me to not just read but to engage with the text. Actively reading means actively learning.

Set Your Stage

Lastly, be wise about when and where you read. You aren’t likely to get a lot of reading done if a television is on nearby. You probably won’t get your best reading done at a time you are normally asleep. Environment is crucial to learning. Pick places, times, and settings that help you focus. If I have a lot of reading to do, I will space it out throughout the day so that I am not trying to sit down and knock it out all at once. I will put my phone somewhere out of sight. I will find some classical or instrumental music that drowns out other noise and helps me focus. Coffee always helps. That might be just me, but good coffee and good books are divine. I try to set myself up so that I am able to read, able to engage, and able to retain by being wise about when and where I read. I have key spots in my house and around town that are regular reading or writing locations for me.

Learning is the key to leading, creating, growing, and achieving – reading is necessary if you want to continue to learn and accomplish something with your life. Plus it’s required if you’re in school, so the question for you who are students shouldn’t be will I read and just survive, but will I learn? God has gifted us with incredible brains that can grow and process more than we can imagine. Will you steward your mind well? Will you plan, engage, and focus as you read? And even if this is just a new season of growth for you, reading can be one of your most important tools. Develop some habits to help you grow and learn so that you can do all that God has called you to do.

“I’ve never known a man or woman who came to spiritual maturity except through discipline. Godliness comes through discipline.” – Donald Whitney