Tips for Active Reading

Vary Speed

  • The speed at which you should read depends on the text you’re reading.
  • You will just need to skim some texts—others will require you to not only read it once through thoroughly, but to read it twice or maybe three times.  Even the most experienced readers, writers, and researchers must re-read difficult material to understand the main gist.
  •  If you get through the end of a text and do not understand it, re-read it slowly.
  • Because some texts require multiple readings, it is important to set aside enough time to read.  Choose a comfortable place with no distractions.

Think about What Conversation the Text Belongs to

  • Most published writing belongs to some type of conversation—for instance, an essay arguing for legislation that legalizes the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes in the state of Virginia belongs to both a political and a medical conversation.
  • Once you start reading a text, think about what conversation it belongs to and try to enter into it.
  • One way to enter into the text’s conversation is to approach a text from two angles: First, as an open-minded believer who acknowledges the text’s power, and then, as a skeptical doubter who tries to find weaknesses in the author’s argument.

Tackle Difficult Vocabulary

  • Sometimes a difficult word can be a major roadblock while you travel through a complex text.  Reading with a dictionary nearby is helpful; if you don’t have a dictionary but are near a computer, try the following Web sites: www.bartelby.com  or www.oed.com.  If English is not your first language, Longman’s Dictionary of American English may be a useful tool.
  • Also, if you feel you are slowed down too much by stopping to look up a word, circle it and look it up later.
  • Remember while using a dictionary will give you a definition, it is up to you to analyze the sentence(s) surrounding the word for tone that may affect word meaning.

Write in the Margins

  • Instead of highlighting, use a pen or pencil to make marginal notes within and on the border of the text.  Use the margins for summarizing, questioning, or making personal connections to the text—don’t be scared to mark all over the paper.
  • Anytime you feel the urge to highlight, ask yourself why you want to.  Was it because of a certain word that struck you?  Was it a key point in the argument?  Did it appeal to your emotions?  Write the answer you come up with in the margin beside the text.

Keep a Reading Log

  • After each reading assignment, write whether or not you liked it and why within your reading log.  Think of your reading log as a journal or diary: You can say anything you’d like to say without anyone else having to see it.  If you absolutely hate the piece, state why.  If the piece is life changing, write why.
  • Figuring out why you like or dislike the text will help you begin to closely analyze it—not to mention, when you are discussing the piece in class, you will be prepared to comment on it.

Tips on Note Taking

During Lectures

When to Take Notes

  • Listen and look for the following clues from the instructor:
    • Writing on the blackboard or overhead projector
    • Repetition
    • Dictation: typically, when the instructor delivers information slowly and at a low vocal register, you should take notes.
    • Multiple examples for the same topic
    • Word signals and organizing structures (ie: “firstly”/ “secondly” or “There are two points of view on…” or “The fourth reason is …”)

How to Take Notes

  • Although you will probably develop your own note-taking style after a while, here are a few hints:     
  • Be as succinct as possible.  Try to condense the instructor’s language into key words or phrases.  If you use abbreviations and symbols, be consistent.
  • Try to translate the instructor’s language into your own.  It will be easier to process information if it is in your own words.
  • Sometimes outlining or numbering helps you organize the information.  Also, indentions can help you distinguish the important material from the less important.
  • If you miss something, try to write the key words, skip a few spaces, and get the information from the instructor later.
  • Date your notes.

When Reading Texts

Helpful Exercises

  • For each paragraph of a text, summarize what is being said and then write what the function of the paragraph is in relation to the entire piece.  Examples of what the function of a paragraph might be are “Provides evidence for the author’s first main reason” or “Uses an analogy to clarify the idea in the previous paragraph.”
  • Practice translating difficult texts into your own words.  Start with your favorite song.  Print out the lyrics, analyze them, and then translate them into your own words.  Once you master the lyrics, move on to difficult journal articles or confusing paragraphs from a novel you have struggled with in the past.   

Adapted from:
Bean, John.  Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, 
and Active Learning in the Classroom.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2001.
“Taking Lecture Notes Handout.”  Academic Skills Center.  2004. Dartmouth College Online.  31 July
2007.  <http://www.dartmouth.edu/~acskills/success/notes.html>.
Piolat, Annie, and Françoise Boch.  “Note Taking and Learning: A Summary of Research.”  Apprendre en
notant et apprendre á noter.  Paris: Dunod, 2004.


Last updated 9/29/2009
Posted in Brainstorming and Drafting, Writing Preparation and Process, Writing Resources
One comment on “Tips for Active Reading
  1. Dan M. | Straight A Society says:

    Good tips, and I am already practicing some of them such as taking down notes and using my own language.

    I especially like this tip, “Once you start reading a text, think about what conversation it belongs to and try to enter into it.”

    I agree it’s important to know the context of what we are reading, and to see it from both someone who agrees and someone who disagrees. It makes for healthier and more productive conversation.

    Cheers,