Active Reading and Annotating Texts

by WAC Program Fellow Mark Springer

The Challenge of College Reading

            Possibly one of the great frustrations about being in college is the difficulty in reading a lot of the material, and having the key ideas from the reading available to you later on for class discussion or when it's time to write a paper.  Why is this so difficult?  That is, aside from the painfully dry writing style and all the pretentious vocabulary we're expected to wade through?  And how do we deal with it effectively and still have a life after class?

            For many of us, the problem is that we haven't learned active reading skills, and we haven't learned that there are different ways of reading different texts.  Most of us read textbooks the same way we might read a novel or a comic book.  We start at the beginning and slog through till the end, and then we assume that we're finished.  If we miss a few questions out of the five on the pop quiz, well, that's no different from most other students, so we figure that's the way it's supposed to go.

            But really, it doesn't have to be that way; it's very simple to make things a lot easier for yourself, and without a whole lot more effort, you can get a whole lot more benefit out of the time you spend reading by learning to read actively.


The Purpose of Reading and its Significance

            The first thing to realize about reading college texts is that there is little value in reading them in the same way that you would read for entertainment.  When you watch a movie and somebody says something you didn't quite hear, most of the time, you don't worry about it.  Maybe you'll catch it the next time you see the movie, but it's usually more trouble than it's worth to rewind it and play it back again.  You might do so once in a while if it looks like you missed something particularly funny or important to the plot. 

            In the classroom, you tend to be more careful.  Again, if you miss something the teacher seemed to mutter to herself in response to another student's question, you may let it go, but if she may have been giving out a homework assignment, or if you think that something she just said belongs in your class notes, you're more inclined to ask her to say it again so you can get it down. 


The Value of Active Reading

            In the textbook, things are similar and different.  If you don't catch something, there's no big rush to find out what it was, because you can just mark the place and come back to it later.  At the same time, it may be just as important as in the classroom to make sure that you don't miss something if it may be a key idea for class discussion, a test, or an upcoming essay assignment.  So there is a style of reading texts, when your objective is to learn important principles, prepare for an exam or an essay, or class discussion, and this style is very different from what you might do when reading for pleasure.  The key principles of active reading are:

Pre-reading:  Glance over the text before you start reading to get an idea of what the text is going to be about.  Think about what kinds of questions you expect the text to answer.  It's a good idea to jot these down somewhere where they'll be handy while you're reading.  As you look over the text, pay particular attention to titles, subheadings, boldfaced or italicized texts, and any figures, tables, illustrations, or sidebars you may find.  Many texts at college level will have none of these kinds of markers to help you through the reading material.  If that is the case, you can always focus your pre-reading efforts in the introduction, first sentences of key paragraphs (or all paragraphs, if necessary), and the conclusion.  These cues can give you as much or more information about the purpose and method your text will use in covering its topic as passage headings would have given. 

Preparing for Active Reading:  Once you have some idea of what the text will cover and what kinds of information you hope to learn by reading it, you are ready to read actively.  Active reading is just as important as participating actively in class.  By participating in class discussion, you have an opportunity to test your comprehension of key course principles and to have the professor guide you if there's something you're missing.  Likewise, if you are thinking about your understanding of the text as you read, you can test your understanding against the rest of the text and identify any difficulties you are having.  By capturing any important questions you are unable to answer from the text during your reading time, you can be sure to have these questions available to you during class so that you can bring them up with the professor.  You may have further questions come up as you read the text that you didn't think of before hand, but that are suggested by the text itself.  It is important to note these also.  I always put question marks in the margin along with a brief comment to remind me later what was puzzling me at that point in the text.  This brings us to the issue of annotating the text.

Active Reading:  Now that you are ready to read the text completely through, you want to annotate the text as you go.  A student who really wants to learn will have textbooks that reflect it.  They will be full of underlines, highlights, and margin notes all throughout.  Long gone are the days when our textbooks are the property of the school, to be returned at the end of the semester as pristine as they were when we got them.  These texts belong to us, and the more we make them our own, the better they will serve us.  So just as you would engage interactively with someone who was teaching you how to do a job—stopping them from time to time to ask questions, or to comment on something that you found interesting, so should you interact with your text as you read.  Write your reactions and questions in the margins.  Highlight key passages that you'll want to be familiar with for discussion, tests, or a future essay.  Color-code your highlights so that they'll be more useful to you, and jot margin notes to identify why particular passages have been highlighted.  For example, if you are reading an essay that describes some controversy, you might highlight pros in green and cons in pink or orange, and perhaps choose a third color for passages that are very important, but don't necessarily fall into pro or con categories; then you can note by each highlighted item if that particular point is economic, moral, social, or health-related.  Circle key terms and underline their definitions.  Circle unfamiliar terms (perhaps in a different color ink, or in pencil) and write them at the top of the page so that you will be able to easily look them up later.  Often, the introduction gives you a description of the layout of the essay, dividing the discussion into various parts and explaining what each part of the essay is intended to accomplish.  If the essay is not already subtitled to show where each part begins, I will go ahead and put those titles in myself. 

Anchoring the Text:  Now that you've read the essay through very carefully, you should have a pretty good idea of what the text covers and how it covers it.  You've mapped the text out by identifying key points, important terms, and inserting your own section headings.  And you've located all of the main ideas you want to remember and identified them carefully by highlighting them in a particular color and identifying their significance in the margin.  Now's a good time to reinforce what you've learned.  Page through the essay one more time and rehearse the key ideas you need to remember from the section.  You may want to make a separate list of important questions you need to ask in class if having a list is easier for you than paging through your text during class sessions looking for your questions in the margins.  Try to picture in your mind a logical structure of the text that will help you more easily remember how each main principle relates to the rest.  You may find it helpful to draw a quick chart that summarizes the structure of the text chapter-that is, all of the most important ideas and their relationships to each other.. 

Reviewing:  Because learning is a repetitive process, you should not expect that by now you will have done enough to remember everything you want to remember for class discussion.  Fortunately, you've written down your questions for the teacher to answer.  Also, you have made the text a whole lot easier to read by skimming through it, reading it carefully, annotating it well, and reviewing the key points.  As soon as you can do so before class, skim through the text just one more time to make sure that the key ideas are fresh in your mind for discussion.  This will also be helpful if the questions you've written down to ask the professor aren't as clear to her as they were to you when you wrote them and you need to explain your confusion a little more clearly.  Notice that while you spent a bit more time reading the chapter than you're used to, probably fifty to a hundred per cent longer, that investment of time up front has made it very easy for you to review the text as often as you need to.  Where it might take you an hour or two to read the chapter, you can now review it in about ten minutes, where before, it would have taken you the whole hour or two every time you need to review the text.  By highlighting and annotating the important principles of the text, you now need only read the important parts.  If you find that you need more information about something, you can go back and re-read the entire paragraph on that particular topic, but you will not need to re-read the entire text from the beginning in order to find what you're looking for because your margin comments will make it easy to find what you need.



This procedure will multiply the benefits you get from reading your text through.  By pre-reading the text and jotting down questions you hope to learn answers to, you make it easier and more pleasant to read through the text the first time, and you engage yourself actively with the text, generating a personal interest (through the questions you've written down) in the information being presented in the text.  This makes the reading more interesting and more rewarding.  When you go back and annotate the text thoroughly while reading it through, you blaze yourself a trail through the text that makes it much easier to navigate later on.  If someone questions your interpretation of something you read, you can quickly and easily find the passage from your margin comments and highlighting colors.  If you need to cite a passage from the text in an essay, it will also be very easy to find.  Every time you need to review the essay in order to prepare for class discussion, a quiz, or an essay, you can do it in a small fraction of the time it would otherwise take.  By identifying unfamiliar terms you need to look up, you can save more time by quickly looking them all up at once after your careful read-through, and see how these new meanings affect your understanding of the text when you go back to review.