Reading works of literature for class

Before reading

  • Which version of the book are you supposed to read? Make sure you’ve got the right copy. If you’re not perfectly sure, ask your teacher for the ISBN. Earlier or later editions of the book may be significantly different.
  • What should you read the book for? Will you be tested? If so, in what way?
  • What are you allowed to do with the book? What kind of aids can you add to your copy? Usually, no fully elaborated texts may be taken into the exam room.
  • What exactly will be your reading objective? If you aren’t given any instructions, ask for them.
  • Read the blurb – you’ll usually find it on the dust cover.
  • Check the book for an author’s biography. You may want to add a few notes (education, publications...).
  • Look at the table of contents. What do the titles of the chapters tell you about the plot? If the book does not have an index, make one yourself!
  • Look at the cover. What does it tell you about the book?
  • Many books for reading at schools provide you with ample vocabulary and footnotes with further annotations. In the appendix, you might also find an index of names or a study guide.
  • Find secondary materials: Are there any interpretations online? Are there any study books available? Can you find any reviews?
  • Check out the book on Wikipedia and other relevant websites. Authors might have their own websites.
  • You might also find an audiobook of this particular novel. It doesn’t save you the trouble of reading it.
  • It can be helpful to watch the film version if there is any. However, watch out – most movies are not an exact rendering of the book!

While reading

  • Keep in mind that you are reading the book not simply to enjoy the plot but to sit an exam Still, it can be a rewarding and even entertaining experience.
  • Also, don’t hesitate to write your notes directly into the book.
  • Don’t procrastinate – unlike a short story, a complex novel or drama can’t be read in one sitting.
  • If the book is read and discussed in class, always take notes. Highlight or underline relevant passages.
  • Keep current with the readings and assignments in class.
  • Whenever your teacher makes references to what is relevant in the exam, take notes.
  • If you are supposed to read at home, block all distractions while you reading. Avoid music with lyrics and stay away from other people while you’re reading.
  • Read in blocks of about 30 minutes.
  • First, do a quick reading of the book to get an overview of the structure and the plot. Read the first five to ten lines of every chapter and the closing passage of the whole novel.
  • Then, switch to extensive reading. Proceed from chapter to chapter.
  • Establish a system of colors and symbols to be used for margin notes.
  • Use multicolored sticky notes to indicate which pages are especially relevant. Write down the page numbers and one or two keywords on these notes.
  • Do not look up all the words you don’t know. Concentrate on those words that appear rather frequently and focus on vocabulary you need to understand the plot.
  • Add annotations for ...
  1. information about characters;
  2. place names;
  3. new words you need to learn or you may have to look up;
  4. cultural facts that require some background research;
  5. cross-references with other chapters (add the number of the respective page);
  6. references to dates and time spans, including prolepsis and flashback;
  7. recurring themes and motifs;
  8. important symbols and tropes;
  9. narrative techniques;
  10. typical features of this particular genre;
  11. turning points in the story;
  12. change in point of view;
  13. personal comments about weak points or particularly strong passages;
  14. open questions;
  15. all the items that are likely to occur in a short test.
  • After every chapter, sum up the plot and write down brief summaries next to each chapter’s title or number.
  • Collect information on themes and characters on notecards. Add page numbers so that you can retrieve your findings in the book.
  • If the plot is not in chronological order, it’s helpful to design a flow chart of the plot that depicts the sequence of events.
  • Discuss the book with your classmates or tell your family about it.
  • It may help to jot down exam questions on the specific pages of your copy.
  • It’s often rewarding to re-read (at least) the first chapter again once you have finished the book.

After reading: Open book exams about works of literature

  • Open book exams assess your comprehension skills and critical thinking skills rather than memorization and reproduction.
  • Make sure the quantity and quality of your notes are permissible under the conditions of the exam. To be on the safe side, ask your teacher. If you have added too much external material to the book, you may have to use a new copy which means all your preparation work would have been in vain.
  • Don’t assume you could do the exam without much preparation. Learn your material as if you couldn’t use the book. Consider the fact you will not have to answer questions that can be taken directly from the book.
  • Time will be sparse during the exam. Don’t waste your time leafing through the book and don’t start reading too much.
  • In many open-book exams, you will have to quote from the text. Make sure you are familiar with the quoting system necessary to pass the exam.
  • Organize your materials so that you can find the information you need efficiently – you may use bookmarks and sticky notes in different colors.