Everything I Know about Analytical Reading I Learned by Doing Theatre
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Like many professors, I’ve always enjoyed school, and I’ve usually done well. I love learning new stuff, whether it’s the recent breakthrough in vaccine development, the two-foot wingspan of dragonflies 300 million years ago, or theorems and proofs in geometry. In other words, I’m a nerd.
Because I love school, I became a teacher.
But that’s when I met failure.
Most students aren’t like me, so I had to figure out how to help them build skills that I had without ever even thinking about how I’d developed them. I accepted advice from experienced teachers, read everything I could find on teaching, and sought out professional development. At one workshop, a presenter demonstrated a modeling strategy that she called “revealed reading.” The title of a poem she’d never before read before was projected. She read it aloud and then spoke her thoughts prompted by it. Next the writer’s name was revealed, and again she thought aloud. She worked slowly through the whole poem this way, often returning to an earlier line to reconsider an idea, contradicting one comment with another, building her unique understanding of the work. By reading deliberately, re-reading, re-speaking, and re-examining the text, she “took off the top of her head” (Atwell, 1998, p. 25) to show us her process.
And then my own head exploded. I suddenly realized that everything I know about analytical reading I learned by doing theatre. I started acting in elementary school, earned degrees in theatre, and performed well into adulthood. The play production process is always the same, moving from script selection through auditions, casting, first reading, blocking, rehearsing, and performing. Over a period of weeks, cast and crew focus on parts of production in order to create a coherent whole.
When reading analytically, I use the same parts-to-whole principle to understand form and meaning. Mind you, what I do might seem tedious, but if you practice this approach, you will grow as a reader and critical thinker. Over time, you won’t even be aware of your process, just as I wasn’t before my head exploded.
Here then is my eight-stage process of reading analytically.
Directors study a playscript by attending to all its elements—title, author, background, setting, characters, and plot—one at a time and then altogether.
As a reader, you can do the same: Print the article you’ve chosen and grab a pen or pencil and paper. Read the title. Underline or highlight key words. Ask yourself questions like these: What’s the topic? The point of view? What do the words mean and imply? What might the article be about? Who’s the author? Jot down impressions and questions, especially if you don’t know the answers.
The director determines their artistic vision and works with other theatre artists, all with unique skills and responsibilities that contribute to the whole. After casting, the director meets with the actors to explain their vision. The cast reads the script aloud, begins to build rapport, and creates an initial sense of the play.
As a reader, you can do the same: If there’s an abstract, read it for an overview of thesis, audience, and main points. Summarize the abstract in your own words. Don’t worry about being wrong or right. After all, you haven’t read the article yet! If you have questions, write them down, and if you’re stumped by a new word, look it up, and write its meaning in your own words.
In early rehearsals, the director gives the actors their movements, which they mark in their scripts. Their physical actions and relationships help to create a visual structure or narrative.
As a reader, you can do the same: Read the first and last sentence of every paragraph in order from beginning to end to discover the movement of ideas. How do the topic and closing sentences connect to one another within each individual paragraph? How do last sentences in one paragraph connect to first sentences in the next? What map do these sentences draw? How do they connect to the abstract? Make notes, draw the map, raise questions, and provide possible answers.
Under the director’s leadership, actors practice in scenes and acts. They stop to figure out what works well and what doesn’t, discuss characters’ relationships, adjust movements or pace, and so on. The director gives notes to help actors grow their characters. The company works to discover, create, and refine understanding, interpretation, delivery, and action. The development from part to whole is slow and methodical in order to realize strong performance.
As a reader, you can do the same. Read the article in chunks. If you see sections and subsections, read in those chunks. If the article isn’t divided, chunk it for yourself, reading two or three paragraphs at a time. Circle and look up words you’re unsure of, underline repeated ideas and phrases, place a question mark next to anything that stumps or puzzles you, and draw lines from one part of the text to another when you notice similarities or striking differences. Write each paragraph’s focused topic or claim in the margin. Use this same approach until you’ve finished the entire article.
Over weeks, the director and cast continue rehearsing like this.
As a reader, you can do the same. Read and re-read as much as needed to feel confident you understand the text. Have your initial thoughts and understandings changed? How? Who’s the audience? What are the thesis and key points? How is the content organized? How will you use the article in your writing? Jot down understandings in your own language.
Before a play opens to a paying audience, guests are invited to dress rehearsals so cast and crew can learn from their response and improve the performance.
As a reader, you can do the same. After drafting the assignment and using the article to support your own original thesis, seek feedback from friends and family, classmates, professor, and tutor. Review their comments thoughtfully.
Following previews, the company adjusts the production before opening night.
As a reader, you can do the same. Use your reviewers’ comments to re-imagine your work—both as reader and writer. Have you incorporated something from the article to make your own points? Is the movement from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph clear and logical? Does the organization help to create your vision? Have you credited the work correctly?
After weeks or months of preparation, the production personnel, from backstage crews to onstage performers, present their work. They and their audiences thus engage in a kind of performed communication, honed through a process requiring skill and courage.
As a reader, you can do the same. Publish your work through submission. Just as a play’s cast and crew will be judged by their audiences, you too will receive review. Here’s hoping for a standing ovation!
For further advice, please see these Purdue Global Academic Success Center resources:
Better Readers = Better Writers and Thinkers
Summarizing: Improve Your Understanding of Text
Atwell, N. (1998). In the middle: New understandings about writing, reading, and learning (2nd ed.). Boynton/Cook.