General reading strategies

Many people read passively, i.e. they start at the beginning and hope something comes up. Quite quickly they may find themselves thinking about lunch or a new pair of shoes. Choose to read actively instead. This is more effective and more interesting.

Ask questions. Look for answers. And all the time think about how new ideas and link with what you already know.

If the text looks tough, maybe rule lines between paragraphs/draw boxes round sections. Would a coloured strip down the right hand side help to draw your eyes to the end of each line?

Maybe read the first sentence of each paragraph in a section with an overarching question in mind. If the first sentence looks promising, maybe consider the second too.

If the book is yours, maybe underline interesting bits in pencil on first reading. You can then go back and check if the material is useful after all. If it is, highlight it. If the book is not yours, use sticky tags. (Wilko has very cheap and cheerful ones.)

If there are sections you cannot immediately understand, come back to them later. They will probably seem clearer when your concept net is stronger. If the sentences are long and complex, maybe see if you can break them down into two or more smaller sentences.

Read in short bursts if that works best for you. Then get up and shake it all down. What do I now know? How does it link with my previous understanding? What do I want to know?

Taking charge

Before taking a book from the library, be clear that the book really will be useful. Consider the title, the back of the jacket, the contents page, the index, pictures. Any useful charts/diagrams (if you like such things). Also the date. (If, say, it is 30 years old, in what way might it still be relevant? Or not?)

With Wenger’s Community of Practice, looking at the jacket, you might wonder what ‘communities of practice’ might mean; what Wenger might mean by practice (after all, the picture on the early edition in purple seems to show an office of some kind – and more chatting than anything else.) What would ‘identity’ have to do with a community of practice? What is the text at the bottom about? (It turns out to be a series title)

The text on the back has been contributed by some pretty heavy duty authorities on ‘knowledge production and management’. No academics. How might this be relevant to learning in an arts institute?

It has been published by Cambridge University Press, which can be trusted.

The index looks like it might be valuable, e.g. there are lots of references to identity, if that is an area of your interest.

The chapters look user friendly – lots of sections with subtitles within those sections.

The Contents pages look unusual: Prologue? Vignettes? Coda? Claims processing? But there are evidently good signposts, e.g. Intro to Part I: Practice (pp.43-49), with Structure of Part I (p.49).

If one of your first questions was around the title, the subtitle ‘The concept of practice’ (p.45) might help here. [It does: in the two small opening paragraphs, Wenger defines what he means by ‘communities of practice’.] ‘Institutional non-participation’ (p.169) looks alarming. What might that be about? ‘Epilogue: Design’ near the end might catch your attention. ‘A perspective on learning’ (p.225) may be useful?

Pick about before you start so that you have a general sense of the book.


Introductions are usually valuable and explain the intention of a book and probably its layout. The subtitles and first sentence of each paragraph appear below from the first part of Wenger’s Introduction: A social theory of learning (pp.3-11). You may like to explore this.

What might he mean by ‘A social theory of learning’? Could this be your first reading goal?

What does the very first paragraph (‘Our institutions, to the extent that they address issues ….’) mean to you? Is this true of your institution? Other institutions you know? How might it apply to your teaching course? Was it perhaps true in the 1990s when the book was published? What links can you make with your current knowledge? From the way it is written, would you suppose Wenger wants to attack this position?

What does this subtitle tell you: A conceptual perspective: theory and practice? What is his theory? At the end of this first part, what have you learned? Do you have his theory?

The next subsection is entitled: Communities of practice are everywhere. Do you need to read any of it? Perhaps the first sentence or two?

Rethinking learning. How does Wenger propose to rethink learning? What is his focus in rethinking learning?

The practicality of theory. What questions might you ask about this subsection?

When you’ve finished, it is worth stopping to think: What have I got? Is this enough for now? Or do I want to check for more detail in any section?

Ask yourself, do I want to make notes at this stage? (If yes, type them directly into a notes file with full information about pages and the book itself.)

Ask yourself, how well is this method of surveying the Introduction working for me? Do I need to make any adjustments?

How well will the method work for any chapter you have chosen to consider? Or do you have something very definite that you want to explore that you might usefully do through the index – identity, perhaps? Do you need the big picture first so that you can understand Wenger’s position on identity, how it fits into his overall argument.

© Matthew Tizzard

Further reading:

Wenger, E. (2004) Communities of Practice: learning, meaning, and identity Cambridge: CUP