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Active Reading Strategies

Active Reading Strategies, Or Reading for Writing

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Reading a text in preparation for an academic writing assignment is different from reading for pleasure, and not just because the content is more serious or scholarly. That’s because writing about a text forces you to think about it and understand it in a different way.

The following strategies can be used individually or in combination with one another to help prepare you for writing about a text you have read.

Recommend Strategies for Active Reading


Before you even turn to page one of your reading assignment, consult a chapter summary, abstract, class notes, or even an online review in order to give you a basic understanding of what the text is going to cover and how.

Keep in mind, of course, that reviews NEVER substitute for the text itself (and some instructors may ask you not to consult outside sources or summaries). If you use any outside sources to prepare to read, jot them down to remember what you have read. Keeping this sort of ‘reading log’ from the beginning gives you an easy way to keep track of and eventually acknowledge any influence they may have had on your eventual writing.

Mark Up the Text

Read with a pen or pencil in hand, and when something grabs your attention, make a note of it on the page right away. This will enable you to record your initial responses, ideas and questions about the text.

Underline, circle, or bracket passages that seem important and note why in the page margins. Post-it notes may prove helpful for jotting down more extensive thoughts. Try using different colored post-its for different kinds of responses.

Marking up the text in this way will help you locate important passages, both during class discussion of a text and later when you are drafting your paper. Of course, your approach should reflect whether you own the text in question. In other words, Post-it notes or something less permanent are the way to go if you are using a book from the library or other borrowed text.

Take Reading Notes

Some students find it helpful to take more detailed notes during the reading process, either in writing or on their computer. This process involves a greater time investment up front, but the reward is a much more detailed record of your thoughts, ideas and questions while reading.

Five-Minute Reflective Writing

Even if you do not take detailed notes while reading, the following five-minute reflective writing exercises undertaken as soon as you finish your reading can be an invaluable way of helping you summarize or synthesize a text you have just read.

  • Free-write: Write whatever comes into your mind, uninterrupted and unedited, for five minutes.
  • Quick questions: Think about what you found most interesting, important, confusing, unexpected, etc. and generate some questions about what you’ve just read. Then spend a few minutes going back through the text to help you find answers to your questions.
  • Summary: Write a single paragraph (5-6 sentences) summarizing what you’ve just read.
  • Outline: Make a rough outline of what you’ve just read.
  • Quotation bank: Transcribe the passages you find most important and include page numbers for possible use in your paper.

Re-Read, Re-Read, and Re-Read Again!

No academic writing assignment will succeed upon a single reading of a given text. Your understanding of a text will change and evolve with each subsequent reading, and you will notice things you did not before.

Last revised: 07/2010 | Adapted for web delivery: 04/2021

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