Reading for an MA: Dos and Don’ts


I refer throughout to “texts”, be they books, articles, blogs, whatever.


1. First Impressions.

Read the absolute minimum necessary to get an idea of the Module you’re studying. The idea that you should cover all parts of the MA course is not just idealistic, it is, from a scholar’s point of view, wrong. Your task in the MA is to focus on special bits of the course which interest you and to then write a paper which demonstrates your academic prowess. Let nobody tell you otherwise. Your reading will determine your degree of success in the MA, and the key is focus. You should read for a purpose, and the best purpose is to explore the answers to a well-formed question. You need to read the very minimum in order to formulate your question, and if you have the question already formulated before you read anything at all, so much the better (you can always modify or change the question as a result of your well-focused reading). The idea that general reading around a topic is the best way to start is simply wrong: focus is the key.

* Read only texts that are relevant to your assignment, even if the assignment’s title is a bit vague.

* Skim the whole text in 5 minutes max. Decide if it’s worth reading in more detail. The answer should be “No” for most of what you look at, including Course Materials Mark it for further reading if the answer is “Yes”.

* Read for relevance. When skimming the article, make a decision: Is this relevant to my further work or not? If the answer is “No”, leave it.

* Read for face value. Decide if the text should be mentioned in your paper, whatever your personal opinion. If the answer is “Yes”, mark it for further reading.

* Read the reference section. Note anything interesting.

2. Reading in depth.

* Only read texts that you’ve carefully selected as being essential to your assignment in depth. These texts should be selected by consulting your tutor, colleagues and by reading reviews.

* Make a careful distinction between reference works which you consult on very specific points and texts which you need to read from start to finish.

* Read the whole text quickly: less than a minute per page.

* Read the text again, more slowly, and decide what you want to take from it. This is, obviously, the most important step. Take notes, cut and paste, and be sure to get any references into a safe, accessable place.

* Read the text again, quickly, to check that you’ve got what you want.

* Make sure that you can find the text again.


* Don’t think that you have to cover the whole contents of the course – you don’t and you shouldn’t try. The idea that you’re doing the course to get a better general picture of applied linguistics and TESOL is fundamentally mistaken. You can’t possibly cover everything in the course. If you want, keep all the Course Materials and keep lots of books and articles, but understand that the MA is a course which tests your ability to read in certain well-defined areas and to discuss what you’ve read with critical acumen. That’s the point of the MA: to encourage you to read widely in very well-focused areas and to demonstrate the ability to summarise what you’ve read and to critically assess it.

* Don’t attempt to read even the complete Course Materials in any detailed way.

* Don’t cuddle up with any big tome which claims to cover a wide area and read it casually: you’re wasting time.

* Don’t take any notice of the ridiculous bibliographies offered in the Course Materials.

* Don’t read anything in any real detail until you’ve decided what you will write your assignments on.

* Don’t buy any books, except a few reference works, until you’ve decided what you will write your assignments on. The only reference books I’d recommend are these:

1. Crystal, D. 2004. Encyclopedia of The English Language. Cambridge: CUP.

2. Quirk, R., Greenbaum, S., Leech, G. and Svartvik, J. 1985. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, London: Longman.

3. Gimson, A.C. and Cruttenden, A. 1994. Gimson’s Pronunciation of English. London: Edward Arnold.

4. The Shorter Oxford Dictionary.

* Don’t underline chunks of texts. Either save them as files or note where they are.

* Don’t get distracted. Don’t follow trails unless they’re central to your assignment.

* Don’t believe anything you read. Don’t be easily persuaded.

* Don’t forget that the purpose of the MA is to develop your ability to read lots lightly, to decide what to read carefully, and to critically evaluate relevant literature which has a direct bearing on your chosen assignment.

* Don’t use secondary sources if you can possibly avoid it, and if you use secondary sources, check credentials. So, for example, don’t ever say that Chomsky said what Rod Ellis said he said. If you say that Nick Ellis said Chomsky said it, you’re on firmer ground, because Nick Ellis knows his Chomsky and Rod Ellis doesn’t. Similarly, if you say that Jeremy Harmer says that Krashen’s Comprehensible Input Hypothesis is widely accepted, your wise examiner will know that Harmer is a purveyor of ELT platitudes who has published nothing of any worth about Krashen’s work, while if you say that Kevin Gregg says that Krashen’s collection of hypotheses are untestable, you’re on solid ground. If you read enough of the right stuff, and if you read it carefully, you’ll get a feel for this. And the only way you’ll get this “feel” is to read lots but to read selectively, concentrating on a few well-chosen areas. Best of all, for an MA, read with a problem you want to solve in mind. Don’t read “generally”: focus. That’s the way academic reading works.

3 thoughts on “Reading for an MA: Dos and Don’ts

  1. Good advice. I survived my MA this way. I have started skimming your posts here. After managing some emotional bumps, as in Crap Book 1-3 and the Dud Product entries, and suspending judgment before speaking, I have come to appreciate the insights you offer. So, I take my pick and go for seconds.


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