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Active Reading

In this lesson video, we are going to talk about an amazing technique that, once you get really good at it, will make you much better at reading comprehension. This technique is called active reading. But, before you do that, I want to show you something. It’s this big, scary-looking passage. I want you to actually pause the video, maybe, for 15 or 20 seconds and I just want you to start reading.

And after you feel like you’ve read enough, unpause the video and we will talk. Okay. I’m gonna speak, I’m guessing, for most people. They start reading this, they kind of get the general idea that it’s about the brain and how the brain changes.

And somewhere around here you feel like you’re suddenly in this quicksand. You’re just being pulled down, you’re unsure about what’s going on. And if someone were to suddenly take the passage away from you and ask you, what was happening in that second paragraph? You would say something, there’s about this long word, oligodo and they have lots of them in human brains but in rat brains are different, and what would likely happen is it would be very difficult for you to kind of tell someone what you were reading about.

And that’s on a more optimistic level because you could very well say, I have no idea what I was reading. I was reading something about the brain and then I started thinking about something totally unrelated to the passage. Then I realized wow I really don’t like reading comprehension. So that could also have been your reaction.

So let’s now talk about this common approach and kind of flush it out a little bit more before we get into active reading. What people tend to do is to just kind of rush into the passage. They see it and they start reading as fast as they can because, hey, it’s a timed test, and even in practice sessions there’s a sense of pressure and you want to get to the end as much as possible.

And so what happens is you just start stringing the words together. You don’t slow down, you keep going. And you get to the end of the passage, and you’re looking for this moment of enlightenment. Maybe at the very end everything will just tie together, and that’s not the case. And suddenly you have a bunch of questions that you have to deal with on a passage that you really didn’t get.

Active reading, on the other hand, is about making connections between the ideas and the text. And really stopping for a second, pausing just a little bit to pick up on those ideas to put those in your own words to simplify things and then to make those connections. And in doing so you’re going to have a sense of the way that the passage is unfurling.

And you’re going to anticipate, oh this is likely to happen next. And so when there are jumps in the passage, they’re not altogether jarring. Because you have an idea of what the passage is likely to do. And of course this goes back to those very first videos we did on the reading comp, about the way that the passage is structured. A theory is introduced, and then it’s disagreed with.

Evidence is provided, and then the author or maybe some other scholars disagree with something in that evidence, and etcetra. Knowing that of course is part of active reading so always make sure to pay attention to structure. And what you want to do, and of course it’s very important to note that when I say each paragraph, what you want to do on the long passages is to create these mental snapshots.

What I mean by that is, when you get to the end of a paragraph, you hopefully have been extracting meaning and making sense of what you’re reading, and slowing down when necessary. And you should be able to come up with this mental snapshot, which is a simple quick summary. Okay, this passage was about ABC.

Now, ideally those mental snapshots will be something you should do in your head but for now, I encourage you to actually write down these mental snap shots. And we’re actually gonna take a passage here in a moment. A long passage. And you’re gonna use this mental snap shot technique that again, is paragraph summary.

And you’ll also of course wanna make connections between those paragraphs. But it’s important to note, try writing it down, unless you’re really confident, and again, active reading is something that is used on the long passages because it’s more successful there, but it’s also something you also want to apply to short passages. Well, it’s just the idea of mental snapshots for each paragraph, doesn’t hold as much, you want to of course just make connections between the ideas as you’re reading through the short passage.

But before we get to the long passage in this video, a little bit more about active reading and some tips that you want to follow. First off, do not try to absorb every single word, thinking that if you miss a single word the meaning is gonna completely fall apart. That’s also of course gonna slow you down. It’s all about big picture, and I’m gonna keep coming back to that phrase, big picture or in this case general meaning of the paragraph, that’s the key.

As long as you get those, big nuggets of meaning and information. If someone were to come along and suddenly snatch the computer away from you or the page, you would be able to actually tell that person. Well, tell them that they’re a jerk, but tell them what the passage was actually about. And that’s what we kind of want to get at, is a test of understanding of the reading passage.

Now, you do not want to get bogged down in details, and of course, trying to string every word together and rushing through to the end is a bad idea, but trying to slow down and to reread something, oh, I kind of lost the string of thought, I better reread that again. Well sometimes that may make sense. Especially if it’s in the beginning and it’s a big idea.

But these passages are structured in such a way, as we’ll see. That there’s a lot of details in the middle. Especially that last paragraph. And if you keep rereading something, cuz it’s really dense. Then you’re going to forget the mental snap shots that you made towards the beginning.

And so don’t succumb to that urge to keep going back to the beginning of a sentence. But just keep reading, especially if it’s towards the end. Because that’s what’s gonna happen. There’s gonna be a lot of detail, but if there is a question dealing with that detail you will be able to come back to that part of that passage and of course because you have a big picture idea of what’s going on in the passage those details will make sense.

Another important thing is to notice these structure words. Structure words such as however, nonetheless, although, shift or pivot the meaning of what the author is saying. So this theory said ABC, however, or something like many scientists discovered this, nonetheless, and so when you’re paying attention to these structure words, you’re noticing the direction of the passage.

It’s agreeing with one thing, but then it’s going in another direction, and of course, that’s where this big picture meaning comes from, and it’s where a lot of the questions come from, this idea of did you understand the shift in meaning in what the passage was saying? Sometimes they aren’t always shifts, just simply adding on information. Or sometimes they are drawing conclusions, arriving at a result.

And you’ll see words like therefore, thus, and because. So make a little rolodex of those structure words so you can be sure they don’t surprise you, and know that the first ones are for contrast, the second ones are for support, and this third batch here is to draw conclusions. Of course, you also wanna remember the general structure of the passages.

This, again, applies to the long passage, of which there will always be one on the GRE, assuming you don’t get an experimental section that happens to have one, but always remember the big picture. What are the paragraphs doing? What’s the first paragraph doing? What’s the second paragraph doing?

And what’s the third paragraph doing? And again, this is something that’s happening at the mental level where you pause for a moment before you dive into the questions then think, hey I just read about this passage and these were the three things that the passage did. In general, again, big picture across the three paragraphs. It seems like the structure’s pretty common or pretty typical.

There’s always three paragraphs, rarely four on that long passage that you will get on the GRE. Now most active reading actually happens at the paragraph level. I bolded that. Because I don’t want people to get the idea that oh, just really big picture, just get the general structure.

Really to understand what’s going on though you have to understand the paragraph level. And that’s why what we’re gonna be doing is taking these paragraph mental snap shots in a minute. Finally, and this is a big one, be excited. Why? Because these passages are really dull and it’s difficult to just get bogged down in the information and want to give up.

But these passages are dull and dry on purpose, so you have to trick yourself in to thinking, wow this is really interesting, we’re going to learn about brain plasticity. And how it’s different in rats and humans and what that means for humans and understanding our brains. This is really cool stuff.

That’s gotta be your attitude, at least well, for the passage we’re about to read in a second. Which is what it’s about, but even if it’s about artwork in 15th century Florence, get excited. So, here we go. Here’s active reading exercise.

I want you to read a paragraph. Without looking back at the paragraph, and this is important, cause anyone can kinda just look at it again and reread the words, and what’s gonna happen? Your brain’s gonna get a little bit twisted, so don’t look back at the paragraph but read a paragraph. Try to make connections between the sentence.

Think to yourself, oh that sentence said this and the next sentence is saying this. Make those connections and then, when you get to the end, look away and, on a piece of paper, write down a mini summary about that. What that paragraph was about. Again, big picture, big points within that paragraph. Don’t just come up with a bunch of words you remembered reading, cuz you’re going for meaning here.

For example, defines plasticity: the brain’s ability to change and grow in response to harm. Now again, we’re writing this down. You don’t want to do that test day, cuz that would take a while, but this is just something you do in your head that wouldn’t take long at all. You wanna repeat this with the next paragraph.

And then, at the very end, when you’re done with the entire passage, you wanna write down what the primary purpose is. And the purpose of this is, most long passages will be followed by one question that asks exactly that. What was the primary purpose of the passage? So if you anticipate what that is, and put it in your own words, the passage was about XYZ.

You’re far more likely to answer that question correctly. Okay. Enough talking and now you’re going to be doing the doing. And what we have here is a passage. Let me show you the entire thing. Sorry to scare you, but that’s the third paragraph.

It’s long and it’s scary. This is about 450 words long. You’re not gonna get anything longer on the GRE, don’t worry. But what you need to do again are these mental snapshots. Again, writing them down, once you get to the end of each paragraph. And so I’m gonna pause the video now, allow you to do so with these first two paragraphs.

Then I’m gonna unpause it, move to the third paragraph on the next slide, pause it again and you should do a mini snapshot for that paragraph. So you should end up having three mini snapshots and then finally write down what you think the primary purpose of that passage is. So I am pausing it. Okay I’m pausing it, I’m moving down to the slide below.

I’m gong to pause it again. Okay, I’m unpausing it and actually you’re the one pausing it, but hopefully that wasn’t too tedious. And hopefully you remember to be excited and to remain excited as you read through that. So let’s do it now together.

We’re gonna take each paragraph, and we’re gonna look for that big meaning as we move through the paragraph. Now the important thing here is I’m gonna do a little bit more, I didn’t expect you to write down all this. But I’m gonna show you, or simplify, some of what’s going on in the sentences, in the beginning, so by the time we get to the end right here, we can come up with that mini snapshot.

Okay. First off, it defines plasticity, the brain’s ability to heal and grow. It’s saying it’s been the dominant view for a while, and now here’s kind of the big picture, here’s what I want you to get out of here. Human brains may be even more plastic, again, here’s the definition of plastic, than had been previously thought.

That’s all that paragraph one is really trying to say. Let’s go to paragraph two. A little bit longer, so I’m going to break up the sentences. And what we have here is I’m simplifying the sentence. And that’s kind of what you’re doing when you’re working through. You’re not just again stringing words together but you read a couple sentences you get to that point and you say okay I’m going to pause just ever so briefly and think, what did I just read about.

How can I simplify that? And in written form at least, we’re going to simplify things like oligodendrocytes into OD. Myelin into Mye. And you probably want to do that in your head as well. The OD form, myelin or Mye, Mye helps brain function.

Human OD do not die but they die in mice and rats. And there you go. That is a pretty good simplification and you keep on reading. Secondary detail maybe until now basically mice and rats have been used to understand the brain. Next we have this word rather which shows us contrast going on there.

So make sure to pay attention to a structure word like that. Humans barely lose any OD, is me simplifying this now. Rats can’t use existing OD to replace Mye. Need to make new ID. So, humans don’t lose OD, rats, mice do. They need to make new OD.

That’s all you need to do. And of course the function of this entire sentence was elaborating on the first sentence. Notice again that word rather kinda showing you what the person or the author is actually trying to say. Finally, here we have the last sentence the implication is that the human brain is more prepared for trauma.

What does this mean again I am simplifying it human can quickly replace myelin so that its more prepared. Throwing in a little inference here, when you get really good at this you may be able to pick up on these inferences such as the ability to quickly replace myelin is related to plasticity. Which again going back to the first paragraph, it’s about the brain’s ability to adapt and to heal.

And finally, what I wanted you guys to do is to take that mini snapshot of the paragraph and here we have, Rats need to replace OD unlike humans; human brains therefore more plastic. That’s a pretty good mental snap shot, mini snap shot of paragraph two. And so if you had something similar to this, that’s fine. If you had something that was similar to what was simplified, that’s fine.

But your summary should have meaning that’s similar to this. It can’t just be you defining everything or just writing all down a lot of words such as oligodendrocytes and brains and what is it actually trying to say. And now paragraph three, which I should mention is usually the most complicated. That’s where you can get bogged down in the details. But that’s where I encourage you to keep on reading.

And many questions will come from here. So you can always go back to that part that the question is referencing. And read again what those details mean. But of course in the context of actually answering a question. And the primary purpose of the passage can sometimes show up in the first paragraph, or you get a hint.

Or sense of that main idea, but it’s really that last paragraph where the primary purpose is stated. So what I’ve done here is I’ve bolded structure words, and I should have probably also added that it’s in the last paragraph, in this third paragraph, that’ll you’ll see the most structured words. You’ll see words like, Additionally and Moreover, which are adding more meaning and of course you will see these contrast words.

I’ve also underlined what i think is important in terms of the meaning of the paragraph and so when you’re reading and you get to the end here again do that quick simplification and then read on. So what did I come up with here? So here is the first batch of that long third paragraph. And simplified I have plasticity can be defined by other factors beside OD, ability of the brain to use both hemispheres is another factor, that can be plasticity related, so it’s not just about the ODs.

and then they use supporting evidence, which is the stroke victims, and now I’m simplifying the next part, and here we have the finds a connection between the OD and the speed of regeneration, does that have anything to do with plasticity, and what we have also is that OD might play a part in how both hemispheres are used, so it is hard to determine how much plasticity. So your main snapshot for this paragraph may relate to both of these.

But again both of these is me simplifying what’s going on and you should also be kind of simplifying again in your head. But in general this is a pretty good understanding or pretty good summary of everything that was in the third paragraph. And now our primary purpose, write it down, it should be something like the primary purpose of this passage is to talk about OD and myelin in terms of plasticity and regeneration in humans and how it differs from that in mice and rats.

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