Some Thoughts on Active Reading


Just as there are many types of text, there are many ways to read. Often something as simple as a publication’s format can provide a context that instructs a reader on the best approach. While we could read Entertainment Weekly in a chaotic waiting room, we would most likely prefer a quieter spot for our Biology Textbooks. We read Entertainment Weekly for entertainment (perhaps, we’ve forgotten our cellphones at home), and we read a textbook for information.

But the essay is a completely different creature. A well-written essay seeks our engagement. It is an interaction. The essay lives inside a conversation, and the text invites us, as readers, to join that conversation.

Let’s evolve the metaphor: A well-written essay is like a living object we can lift and rotate, probe and inquire. We can know the essay. Gradually, layer after layer, we make it ours, and we do this through engaged and active reading.

When we engage a text we remember more of it, but even better, we more honestly learn about ourselves and we more honestly learn about the world in which we live. Through active reading we evolve our positions in the world, and we evolve the conversation. We may read a text three or more times and each time, discover something new. A good essay can be like that.

 1. Before you read


Take a second to investigate. This step is more intuitive than you may think. It involves flipping through the pages. The “How long is this?”/”What am I in for?” kind of scan. After you have determined the circumstantial evidence (Why are you reading?) consider the surrounding context. In what form or publication was the essay originally published? Note the implied audience. Note the year. Note the author’s credentials and/or any other biographical details.

2. While you read

 Remain actively engaged, as if in a conversation with the author and the world at large. The folks at Harvard advise you to throw out your highlighters and to take out your pens. Read from a paper—not a screen—with a pen in your hand. Write in the margins. Write in the space between the lines. Talk back. Ask questions. Underline and exclaim. Don’t stop thinking.

Note places where the text confuses you, inspires you, angers you. Notice word choices, and how language can influence your emotions and judgment. Notice any leaps in logic. If you find a metaphor, investigate it. What are that metaphor’s strengths? What are its weaknesses?

Leave your mark on the text. You will develop your own system. I like big black dots and stars. Wavy lines and arrows. Asterisks. You may like something else. Your symbols and notes will not only help you when you revisit the text in search of a specific passage or idea—but also intensify and reinforce your reading experience.

Try to plainly write, in your own words what the author is saying. Do this one paragraph at a time, and then ask yourself how you feel about what the author is saying.

Try to parcel fact from opinion and ask yourself what the writer wants his or her reader to accept as true. Take note of unspoken (often hidden) assumptions. Is there an abstraction the writer defines for you? Do you agree with the writer’s values and/or morality? What evidence does the writer supply? Note anecdotes as anecdotes and empower yourself to cite your own. Note the sample sizes of studies.

And if you don’t know a reference, ask. You can ask me or your roommate or a parent. Ask a dictionary or Wiki. Or Siri. Or Google. Just ask. It always feels better to know.

 3. After you’ve read.

Revisit your preliminary investigating. What do those observations mean now that you have read the piece? You may notice something new. Have your thoughts or feelings changed? Shifted? If so, how much?

Do you feel more convicted about something? Less? Is there a specific fact that stands out to you? A feeling that lingers? Take a minute to jot down your immediate thoughts. A few sentences will do. Does the essay remind you of another text, lecture, film, podcast, play, painting, song, or experience? If so, how does it relate? Has the essay altered how you feel about these other texts (or lectures or films or podcasts or experiences)?

4. Annotation: In Summary

Practice marking the text to retain, understand, discover, challenge, and connect.

  1. Imagine you are in a conversation. (Read the situation before you dive in.)
  2. Identify and look up words you do not know.
  3. React with your pencil. Write Yay! and Boo!, and elaborate when inspired.
  4. Ask questions. Be curious and critical. (Why? What about this?)
  5. Make connections (to self, text, and world) and write them down in the margins.
  6. Note key ideas. Underline and rewrite them in your own words.


  1. Jon Laurie

    Annotating has recently become a way for me to engage with the text on a closer level. I wasn’t taught this technique until a few weeks ago and I’ve tried to incorporate it more while I read. I’ve found it keeps me critically engaged and doesn’t allow me to drift off or passively read. I mainly underline important concepts and write my thoughts or a summary in the margin. I’d like to start incorporating more symbols to be more effective and organized.

  2. Teh

    Annotating is a tricky subject for me, I find difficulty “reacting with my pencil” and feel I do better just underlining and writing clarifications in the margins of the page. I usually do not annotate but I am beginning to find that it may be quicker and easier to digest information

  3. Olivia Cigna

    Currently, my reading habits are pretty thorough. I enjoy engaging with a text by marking it up in a number of ways, instead of simply just reading the piece. I like to summarize the main parts of the piece in the margins so that I can easy access this information if I have to go back and review the piece. I like to respond to the text as if I am having a conversation with the author. I also tend to make connections with the text to other texts, to myself, and to the world. This allows me to relate the piece to something I am familiar with. The one strategy that I plan to put into use immediately is asking questions in the margins while reading the text. I think this strategy will allow me to learn more about the piece and discover what I am interested in or what to know more about.

  4. Christina Montanile

    After reading Some Thoughts On Active Reading I found that everything that was stated was very valid and useful. Being a freshman in college this reading has helped me rethink but also, to check and make sure that I was comprehending what I was reading. Specific facts that stood out to me was to remain actively engaged, “as if in a conversation with the author and the world at large.” This statement stood out to me because I have never heard anyone use this expression before. Now when I read anything my perspective will change all due to this statement. This short passage does not remind me of any other text that I have encountered as it is very unique and handy to college students.

  5. Jaimie

    I have not had much experience with annotating different texts before. Usually teachers in my high school would have us read a text and then teach us their understanding and their point of view of the text. We weren’t really given the chance to annotate and find our own interpretation and ask questions and really analyze the reading on our own.
    One technique I will try to pick up is writing with pen while I’m reading instead of using a highlighter. Briefly paraphrasing the paragraphs in my own words will definitely help me to understand and retain the information.

  6. Julia Crocker

    My current reading habits usually include reading a text and not really putting much extra thought into. I will usually get context before reading (what it’s about, who wrote it, etc.) but I don’t usually delve much further. One strategy I plan on starting to use is to look up words I don’t know and to ask more questions about the text.

  7. Matthew Remavich

    Some of my reading habits include asking questions and knowing the difference between fact from opinion. Picking up some new habits will benefit me in the long run. I plan to start noting places where the text confuses me and also , revisit my preliminary investigating.

  8. Elizabeth Knell

    My current reading habits include, reading a text once and if I find myself confused I’d reread to try and fully understand. If necessary, I do annotate a text and find it helpful if the text is discussed in class with others. It helps me guide my thinking and revisit things that I found confusing. Going forward, I will try to investigate the writing more before I read. Therefore, see the full length of the text, do a quick scan and consider the surrounding context. I don’t normally do this and think it’ll help me fully understand a text better the first time I read it.

  9. Emily Box

    Currently, I feel like I have pretty good active reading habits. I write a lot all over the margins in the text. One thing that I should improve on is finding the answers to the questions I have. Many times I simply write down or think the question I may have about a word or phrase meaning and leave it on the paper. I think that if I continue with the active reading strategy steps and investigate what I do not know, I will have a greater understanding of the text as a whole and have better retention of what I am reading.

  10. Erin Cote

    so I have never really had a good annotating experience. I was always told what it is but never shown how to do it. Teachers would ask me to annotate a text and then never check to see if did correctly so I would just underline random sentences and write little summaries on the side and thats it.

  11. Taylor McPartlin

    My current reading habits consist of underlining and making note of the parts of the text I find interesting or have questions about. I also sometimes will summarize what the paragraph means in my own words. One new active reading strategy I will begin to use is to do more investigating before reading. I think figuring out the “how long is it”/”what am I in for” is a good idea to do before beginning to read.

  12. Deidra Perreault

    After reading the paper, I am more aware of what my current reading habits are. I never annotate anything I read, which makes me veer off and forget what I am reading. Much of what I read, I forget right after because I don’t pay much attention. I will now start to annotate what I read, think deeply about it, and really focus on what the message is.

  13. Peter Fox

    Currently one of my bad reading habits is passive reading. I read through the text but I do not retain the words because my mind is elsewhere. I often have to read things over due to my wondering mind. To combat this I read over the Some Thoughts on Active Reading with a pen and tried to stay engaged while reading like described in step two. Treating what I was reading like a conversation, underlining, circling and commenting kept me engaged for longer periods of time with the text.

  14. sarah grennell

    Honestly I love to read, however I recently haven’t been due to how busy I’ve been. When it comes to my reading habits I tend to stick towards romantic novels of course or I really love mysteries. I tend to buy an actual book rather than on my phone because I just love having an actual hard copy of a book. An active reading strategy that I’ve picked up on is I can read so much easier when its quiet and I’m by myself and I have dim lights on with candles. It’s basic, but that’s the only way I can ready without getting distracted. I also like to read a chapter twice. I tend to miss important information the first time I read it, so I always read it over again.

  15. When I read I like paper copies of the text I am working with. I like to tear through the reading with highlighters and annotations. I like to be able to understand the written piece I am reading, I want to be able to identify with the text and be able to see the literary devices and their deeper meaning. Sometimes I struggle with my understanding of metaphors or I miss interpret them and that is something I wish to improve. I also want to improve with asking questions and formalizing my understanding of a text as well as seeing a text as a whole and part of a conversation. I never really pictured an essay or different written texts as a conversation before and I feel that will be beneficial to my understanding and further my learning and reading comprehension.

  16. Mary-Katherine Alger

    My current reading habits are not as active as I’d like them to be, especially for academic texts. Right now I usually process and actually think about the content of a piece of writing after I read it, instead of during. From now on, I will try to take frequent pauses during my reading to ask questions about and react to what I’m reading.

  17. Syris Hackett

    I will admit outright, my reading habits are quite shabby. I have a hard time engaging in a piece of literature unless it is a topic that I find personally interesting or intriguing in general. Back when I was in high school 4-8 years ago, I did learn about annotating and becoming an active reader. The unfortunate thing is that the conversation between me and the text was one-sided. What I learned just did not stick. How I get through reading now is to constantly reread until I get the flow as if I were saying it myself. Luckily the points made in “Some Thoughts on Active Reading” seem not too hard to do, and I am excited to try them out!

  18. Victoria Bowler

    I have to admit my current reading habits are not the best. As I’m reading I tend to lose focus and have to read the text over a couple times to understand what is going on. However, if I stop and take the time to annotate it does help my concentration. I am usually good at finding and underlining things that are important but I definitely leave out my own comments. One new active reading strategy I plan to put in place is having a conversation with the text and writing down my initial reactions.

  19. Taylor Mara

    I am fairly content with my reading habits but I am definitely aware they can approve. I truly do like to read novels and find it as a good pass time to relax. I typically really enjoy mysteries and I love to zone out of the world and become invested in the book. However when it comes to informational text, I tend to be a passive reader. An active reading strategy I am going to try to use is placing symbols by important and useful information.

  20. Jamie Lee

    Although I occasionally like to read books that I choose, I don’t read very often. Most of the things I read are articles and selections required for class assignments. If i’m not totally interested in what i’m reading, I have trouble absorbing the content. When I read an article for a class, I usually annotate. Most of the time I highlight or underline information that I find interesting or important. When I read for personal enjoyment, I never mark up the text. This is something I plan to change. I will write in the margins and underline interesting text.

  21. Isabel Reis

    Generally, I feel that if I actively participate in text as much as I can, such as annotating and highlighting prominent points, I gain a clearer understanding of it. My personal downfall takes place when I feel distracted. If something around me poses to be grabbing my attention, I almost lose the ability to search for what I am looking for. Although I am not an avid reader, I quite enjoy readings that teach me new things about my subject field. I have learned a lot over the past year about my reading habits and choices and hope that this will help me in the future.

  22. Jack Piller

    I don’t have that much experience with annotating, but I think that it will be a good way for me to grasp what I just read and get a better understanding for it. Sometimes when I read I tend to lose focus and I feel like it will be beneficial for me to start writing things I find important in the margins or to highlight key details. After reading over these tips I am going to do my best to incorporate some over these strategies into future readings that I will do.

  23. Nate Vickers

    Annotation is not something I as a reader do often enough. I enjoy reading for leisure and going out of the way to tear up the page with my own thoughts almost seems like a cutting into the enjoyment factor of reading, even if I get more out of it. Obviously in an academic setting it would make sense to annotate more but I almost have this predetermined idea that if I’m annotating it, I’m not enjoying it. In conclusion, I only really annotate when I need to whereas for leisure I avoid trying to do it.

  24. Emily Dupler

    My current reading strategies are kind of non-existent. I haven’t had a chance to read that much over the summer because of how busy it was, but now that school has started back up I am beginning to pick back up on some of those strategies. I think I mainly really try and focus on what I am reading and tend to re-read sentences and paragraphs multiple times to try and deeply understand what is being read. A new reading strategy I would like to implicate as I read would be to take notes on interesting things and write down questions and concerns I have. As far as annotating, I have never actually had to annotate text before but know the general context of the word. I feel like I have had to do it for an English class before and just wasn’t told directly what it was.

  25. Sara Dupont

    Typically I don’t enjoy reading and I only read when something is assigned. When I do have an assignment I normally do not annotate at all. Maybe highlight a few things or circle words I don’t know, but I never explain why they are highlighted or end up looking up the deffiniton of the word so it becomes pointless. To change these habits, in the future I will plan to write the reason for highlighting what I did next to the text and make sure to mark and look up words that I do not know. This should help to improve my overall understanding of what I am reading.

  26. Megan McLaughlin

    My reading habits aren’t that great for educational texts; when annotating I mostly underline the important information and I occasionally jot down my own opinions. I don’t typically read in my free time either because it’s hard for me to remain interested. I would like to make more connections while I read and also ask more questions to stay engaged in what I’m reading since I tend to lose focus often.

  27. Liam Darcy

    I find I struggle with reading when I just jump into it without getting any background
    information. I find myself often reading passages and when I get to the end, I need to read it again to really understand it. Annotating helps me a lot with retaining the information and even I forget it after I am done, I can always look back at my notes to find information easily. One technique I am going try to put to use immediately is to ask questions. I feel that if I can ask questions in the margins I will be able to read it more critically and retain the information better.

  28. Kianna Sousa

    I already annotate when reading to retain information, and this helps me to easily go back to important details and main ideas. I also tend to read any questions beforehand so that I have any idea of what I’ll be looking for. This helps me to further understand important points. One thing that I know I don’t do well, that I need to start is writing more abbreviated. I tend to write sentences in the margins which makes it slightly harder to look back on and sometimes to understand what I meant. This is one technique that I plan to start using ASAP. lastly, I plan to start looking up words that I don’t know. I usually do my best to figure them out from context and I feel that this can hinder my ability to sometimes understand a whole piece of a passage.

  29. Zelie C-L

    When I have the time to read, I generally get very involved with the context and try to relate to it. I often will write in the books I own. I find that it helps me to better understand and answer the questions I have. I leave sticky notes throughout the book with questions or sentences that I didn’t understand. I also tend to summarize after each chapter to make sure I got all the information.

  30. Reni Mylonas

    I have a hard time engaging in the text that is given to me in class unless I find the topic interesting. My high school really enforced annotating and I’ve found this has helped me understand the text a lot better. It helps me easily find spots I may need to return to to answer questions. I underline things that I find interesting or important, I circle words that I do not know and I go back and look them up for a better understanding. One thing I want to work on is trying to keep focus on reading a text I may not enjoy because I tend to space out or get off topic.

  31. Cameron Crocker

    I am typically not the best “deep reader.” It has been easier for me and I felt like the reading we did for homework really helped me go in depth with the reading. I typically just leave a comment in the margin, but I don’t fully feel like I am fully engaged when I read. I want to work on underlining areas that I don’t understand or underline words I don’t understand and look it up or read it again and see if I missed something.

  32. Shiloh Yake

    In high school, active reading was something of high importance to the English department. Annotating text has always made reading more interesting for me and allows be to dive deeper into the material. It helps me stay focused and understand everything even more. I also use the strategy of relating text to my own personal life. This really engages me into the topics at hand and leaves me more intrigued/helps me remember what I read. I too believe that annotation is an important skill that should be taught to everyone, because it helps strengthen and broaden understanding of text even more.

  33. Taylor Fowler

    During my Junior year in high school, I had an english teacher who made us annotate every book we read. At first I thought it was tedious, but as I continued to annotate, I felt as though it helped me understand the book better. I was able to go back and read my annotations to refresh on what I read. Sometimes when I read, I find that I have to go back three or four times and reread in order to understand what I am reading. With annotations I don’t have to as much because it helps me engage and connect with the text.

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