How to read an academic article - part 7


Stage 3: Skim read whole article

So far, you will have gained quite a good understanding of what the article is about from carrying out the previous stages. Now it's time to 'dig deeper'.

But that does not mean starting at the beginning and reading through to the end (or to wherever you can get without giving up!).

What we now do is engage in skim reading.

Skim reading makes use of a normal convention for structuring writing: placing key information at the beginning of a 'chunk' of text, then elaborating on that in the rest of that 'chunk'
So, if we locate the beginning and end of the various 'chunks', then just read the beginning of each 'chunk', we will normally find we are reading the key information. Of course, we shall be missing the detailed elaboration, but that is OK for our purposes at this stage.

Academic writing will have two kinds of 'chunks'. The first kind of 'chunk' is the normal paragraph structuring as found in novels and short stories, in newspaper and magazine articles, and similar texts (but not in poetry, song lyrics, phone directories, train timetables etc, of course). In non-fiction writing, it is most usual to put the key sentence of the paragraph at beginning, then elaborate on that key sentence. State, then elaborate, is the general rule. Because of that, we can usually obtain a good understanding of what an author is saying by reading only the first sentence of paragraphs.


skim reading rule 1: read only the first sentence in each paragraph


The second type of 'chunk' consists of the sections of the article making up its structure. These normally start with a heading, usually in different typeface from main text. In the Flamholtz article you will see such sections headings are in capital letters, also called 'upper case' lettering (or 'upper case font'). Sometimes, the sections of an article will have subsections, again usually with a subheading in different typeface. In the Flamholtz article subheading is in italic font, and in lower case (not capitals like the main section headings). This is what is referred to the 'house style' of the journal. Academic journals do differ in their house styles, but once you get used to the house style of a particular journal, you will be able to recognise headings and subheadings at a glance.

As with paragraphs, the general rule for sections is 'state then elaborate'. So, immediately after the section heading, the first paragraph will generally contain key information for that section. This gives a slight exception to the first rule:


skim read rule 2: read fully the first paragraph of each section

  There are, however, two sections that usually are particular useful in understanding the article. We saw these when considering the overall, or 'skeleton' structure: they are the first section, the Introduction, and the final section, the Conclusion. Here, an author will generally end the section with a paragraph that makes important points. Now we can modify the previous rule:  

skim read rule 3: read fully the first and last paragraph of the Introduction and the Conclusion sections

  OK, putting these together, we get the following set of steps:  

1. Identify the section headings. In the Flamholtz article (and other articles in this journal), the section headings are in capital letters. If your copy belongs to you, mark these, eg using a highlighter pen on the headings. (NB do not mark copies of texts that do not belong to you, especially if they are copies owned by the University library).

2. Read the first paragraph of the article.

3. Read the first sentence only of each paragraph after the first, until you get to the last paragraph of the Introduction section, which you should read fully.

4. Read the heading for the second section, then the first paragraph in full.

5. Read the first sentence only of each paragraph after the first, until you get to the start of the next section.

6. Read the heading for the section, then the first paragraph in full.

7. Repeat steps 5 and 6 for each section until you get to the last (Conclusion) section.

8. Read the section heading, then the first paragraph in full.

9. Read the first sentence only of each paragraph after the first, until you get to the last paragraph.

10. Read the last paragraph in full.


When reading just the first sentence of each paragraph you may need to force yourself to stop carrying on the reading . One way to do this is to quickly spot where the first full stop occurs, and hold your finger near to it. With practice, you will be able to follow the steps as a normal way of reading.

By now, you have read the Abstract and gained a good overview of the article. You found the section where the three case studies are discussed. You built up the basic structure of the article, and identified the main argument. You have further developed your understanding of the article by skim reading. And all of this has probably taken less time than trying to read fully, word for word, less than a third of the article. So far, so good.

As you skim read through the article, you will have noticed that the text is interrupted by a set of diagrams. These are indicated by the abbreviation 'Fig.', short for 'figure'. Academic articles often have such diagrams or figures; they also often have tables, sometimes containing just text, often containing text and numbers. Diagrams, or figures, are usually intended to display an idea in a way that is easier to see and grasp than is possible with text. So now we need to consider these.

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