Reading and writing skills may seem a topic more suited to school children, but foundation skills like these are so important that you should always consider if there is room for improvement.
Let’s start with writing skills. Whether you are preparing a document for your portfolio or making a job application, a quick review of your basic English skills can avoid simple mistakes in spelling, punctuation and grammar.
A misplaced apostrophe or poorly spelt word can mean the difference between failure and success. It is easy to avoid errors by rereading what you have written. Even better, if you are preparing something like a job application, where you only have one chance to get it right, get someone else to look over it first.
Remember these three main areas where small changes can make a big difference:
Life is much easier since the invention of computer spellcheckers, but do not place 100% reliance on them. Always check the spelling of any words you’re not sure of. In particular watch out for technical terms or more unusual words. You also need to be careful of Americanized spellings like ‘color’ instead of ‘colour’. Make sure you’ve set your spellchecker to ‘UK English’.
Grammar is all about putting words and sentences together in the right way. Most grammatical mistakes happen when people write long sentences or use words they’re not sure about. Always check the exact meaning of any word you’re not familiar with in a dictionary, and try to write in short sentences.
Putting apostrophes into plurals (like “rabbit’s” instead of “rabbits”), not using commas to separate lists and forgetting to put quotations in inverted commas are all common punctuation mistakes. Although many solicitors may avoid using punctuation when drafting legal documents, this is not a luxury you have when applying to them for a job. If you find punctuation a struggle, the book Eats, Shoots & Leaves is worth a read.
The second foundation skill we need to consider is how well you learn through reading. Consider this question: Have you ever read something and ten minutes later you cannot remember what you were looking at? The reason you cannot recall what you read is that you might have been reading the material passively. There is a technique to reading when revising called active reading.
When you are reading actively you are focused on what you want to learn from something. Consider these active reading tips and try them out. Most of the tips involve printing out parts of your course notes. You can carry out similar steps when reading your notes online, but often people find they can recall material more effectively if it is in hard copy.
1: Highlight keywords
A useful way to help you read more actively is to highlight separate keywords in a text using different colours. For example, you could highlight case names in red, Acts of Parliament in green and keywords on legal principles underlined and/or in bold. When you’ve finished, read your notes again and try to list the key points you have highlighted.
2: Make notes in the margins of what you’re reading
Do this to summarise points, raise questions or challenge what you’ve read.
3: Be critical when you read
Ask questions of the text: Who wrote it? When? Does it link with other material you’ve studied in the course?
4: Make notes from your reading
You can use them to keep track of themes or collect examples to back up an argument. This is particularly important if you are doing most of your reading online.
5: Use sticky notes to highlight important points
Jot down some notes and make sure the note sticks out so that you can easily flip to the right page.
6: Test yourself
Read for half an hour, then put the text away and write down the key points you can remember. Then go back to the text and fill in the gaps.
7: Look for keywords and phrases to help you understand the text
Phrases like ‘most importantly’, ‘in contrast’ and ‘on the other hand’ show where an important point is being made that you shouldn’t miss. This is useful if you don’t have much time to read a text thoroughly.
8: Explain what you’ve read to someone else
When you can explain what you have read to someone else, you have gained a true understanding of a subject.
It is likely that you already use some of the techniques set out in this article, but if there are some you have not used, give them a try and see if they make a difference.