How to Study Novels
From high school to college, novels are a crucial part of the learning experience. Reading novels not only teach us about different worlds, eras, and people, but they also encourage us to explore our imagination. Novels can also be fun! For these reasons, they are an integral part of a proper education and an important part of learning how to study. It’s important not to be intimidated by the language and issues in novels. Instead, focus on what you do know, and practice strategies that can help you navigate the text. We have compiled a list of tactics for you to use alongside reading.
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Pre-Reading a Novel
You wouldn’t run a race without a warm up, right? Well the same can be said for reading a book. Start by reading the book jacket and about the author on the inside. Do some background research to prepare, so you are not cold reading a novel. This research can be simple, like a keyword search that gives some information about the genre you are reading; the author; the time period in which the novel is set; or the subject matter of the book. These key words can generally be found on the back or inside cover of the book and will give the reader outside information to help understand the story. Research can also be more complex, like checking out a book from the library that has essays written about the novel.
Pre-reading helps establish a solid foundation for reading the rest of the text. It will help you understand what the book is about, who wrote it, and why it was written. You will feel more at ease with the text and grounded because you know what the story is about.
Predict – Throughout the text you should be making predictions. It will keep your mind engaged with the story, but will also encourage you to discover different literary elements to support your ideas.
Flip through the first section of the book and look for a short piece of dialogue or text. Predict what has happened. Revisit your thoughts when you get to that piece. You can create a simple t-chart in your notebook, writing down your predictions for a chapter, and then what actually happened when you read it. Explain your reasoning for the predictions using foreshadowing, imagery, diction, allusion, etc. The use of these literary elements will again come in handy when you are having a class discussion or writing about the novel.
While Reading a Novel
You should initially read the text for understanding. Don’t restrict yourself by taking notes as you read. Instead, try to situate yourself in the book’s world alongside the character.
When you return to the text a second time around, you should then perform a close reading of what you found to be important. Look for patterns you’ve noticed or repeated words, objects, actions, etc., which can allow you a more in-depth understanding of the novel. Take notes on the characters, events, themes, and styles of the author’s writing. More on how to take good notes. Highlight quotes that you think are important to the action and novel as a whole. You will most likely use these quotes later on during a test or essay. Close reading allows you to go below the surface of a text and explore the deeper meanings.
Notes are important for you to stay organized while reading, and to look back at when you are done for evidence. If done well, notes will also save you time in the future when it’s time to write an essay or study for a test.
How to study from your notes
- New words – It is unavoidable to come across new words in a text, and if you do understand all the words, then the book is too easy for you. Keep a graph or chart of the new words you encounter. Use context clues to help find the meaning of the word you don’t know. Look at the surrounding words or sentences to see if you can create your own definition of the word. After, use a dictionary to check for its actual definition. This graph should include a box for the word, its definition, how it’s used in the book and the final box for your interpretation.
- Visualize – When you are young pictures normally accompany the words you read in a book. Unfortunately, this is not as common in novels. Since there are no physical pictures present, it is up to you to create the pictures in your mind.
- Turn on the movie projector in your head. Take a minute during the action to visualize what is happening and what the characters look like. Look at the details the author has provided for the characters and settings. What color is the character’s hair? What does their house look like? Use what information the author has written along with your own imagination to paint a picture. Even sketching out the characters, houses, or maps of the area will help you understand more of what is going on. Visualizing will not only make the book more interesting, but you will also be more likely to understand what you can actually see.
- Conflict – All novels have conflict. Make a graph that has the six main conflicts (character vs. character, society, technology, self, supernatural and nature) at the top with space underneath. Write the conflict at the top, and then pictures or stick figures demonstrating what’s happening in the text. If you like to journal, write about it instead of drawing a picture.
- In addition to a conflict graph, it also might be help to graph the plot as a whole or create a timeline. You can include the introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Since novels tend to be more complex there can be multiple rising/falling actions and climaxes. By using a graph or timeline, you will have a chronological view of the events of the novel. This is helpful when trying to keep track of different events and characters while reading, but also can be used to write an essay or study from after finishing the novel.
- Compare – Don’t be afraid to compare the characters with yourself. What would you do in that situation? How might the story have turned out differently had the main or secondary character been you? Making connections to the text is the key way to become engaged and therefore understand the material better.
- Text-to-self connections: Personal connections that you make between the text’s characters, setting, emotions, etc. and yourself. For example: The book you read is about a dog passing away, and you connect to it because your dog has also passed away and it was an emotional experience.
- Text-to-text connections: When you are reminded of another text you have read while currently reading. You can also connect the text to a song, movie, or poem as well. For example: You previously read a text where a character is facing problems going into college. In your current novel a character is also facing similar issues, so you can connect these two pieces of literature.
- Text-to-world connections: Larger connections made between the text and world around outside your own experiences. For example: reading about women’s rights in the nineteenth century can relate to the current discussion of women’s rights in the 21st century.
All of these meaningful connections will give you a deeper understanding of yourself, the novel, the world around, and how all of these elements coincide.
After Reading a Novel
Reflect-Write down any question or observations you had about the novel as a whole. Look back at the notes and predictions you wrote down while reading and see how they compare. What predictions were accurate? What different elements did you notice the second time around?
- Gossip about it – Get a group together of other students who are reading the same book. By discussing the book you’ll get a deeper understanding of what happened and what there is to learn from it. Keep a list of questions you had while you read and bring them to the group. If the conversation stops, have a ‘gossip session’ discussing the characters; what’s wrong with them and what they should have done differently. Talking about the text makes it more engaging and relevant when your peers are also discussing their connections. More on forming a study group and the
- Reread – Go back through and reread any section or part of the novel that didn’t turn out as you expected. Check the text for something you may have missed that made the ending unclear or confusing. Reading a book again is like watching a movie again. You often won’t notice some clues or literary elements until after you’ve finished the text. When you read through again some parts will be so obvious to the story you’ll wonder how you didn’t notice them to begin with.
Remember to Enjoy (if you can!)
The most important part of reading a novel is to enjoy the process and the story. Try to immerse yourself in the story and make connections to the text. Look for who and what you like about a story, and always keep a great attitude!