Chapter 4. Critical Reading: Active Reading Skills


Critical Reading: Active Reading Skills

Activity Objective:

This tutorial will encourage you to explore some strategies for active reading, including:

  • Understanding objectives for reading
  • Highlighting
  • Note taking
  • Reflecting on your ideal environment for reading

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What is active reading?

Essay with highlighted text and notes in the margins
Active reading requires you to interact with the text.

Reading in an academic setting can be quite different than reading for pleasure. Your level of familiarity and comfort with the material you will be assigned to read in your classes will vary; this means that different pieces of reading will present challenges you will have to strategize to overcome. Having a range of active reading strategies at your disposal will help you figure out how to read, understand, and make use of practically any text you encounter.

Active Reading Skills

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Watch this brief video, which will introduce you to just a few strategies for active reading.

As you watch the video, think about a recent reading assignment where you have struggled with the text. Did you use any of these strategies? Do you think they might have helped you concentrate on and absorb the text?

What are some typical reading objectives?

Reading objectives. Objective number one. Preview the text. Familiarize yourself with what the text is saying. Focus first on comprehension. Objective number two. Consider its purpose as an academic assignment. Where does the text fit into the course? Why did the instructor assign it? Objective number three. Decide how to respond to the text, if your assignment includes writing about it. Objective number four. Review the reading, and make note of any questions you still have about it.

Reading is not a one-step process. Because assigned texts in college are usually complex, researched, and filled with unfamiliar concepts, most readers will not be able to completely digest a college-level text in one reading. Reading in an academic setting usually means reading texts more than once, while juggling several objectives.


Essay with highlighted text

What are some types of information I should highlight?

Examples of information you should highlight. Example number one. Thesis statements, topic sentences, key points, and definitions of important terms. Example number two. Material you might want to cite in your own writing. Example number three. Anything you want to call your attention to when you re-read the text. Warning. When highlighting, exercise some caution. Remember that the more you highlight, the more difficult it becomes to quickly find those key pieces of information.

Highlighting a text, either with a highlighter or on screen using a highlight tool (built into most e-readers), will help you quickly find information in a text when you want to refer to it later. Many readers use different highlight colors to distinguish among different types of information.

Quiz: Useful Highlights

For the following examples, use the dropdowns to indicate whether or not these pieces of information are useful to highlight.


Are these pieces of information worth highlighting?
The definition of an unfamiliar term. npEx4EMeIOkMPzNm
An entire paragraph. NSShxP34I+b1ynxZ
A great quote that summarizes the argument a text is making. npEx4EMeIOkMPzNm


A student’s notes

What types of notes should I take?

Examples of the types of notes you should take. Example number one. Ask questions of the text. This will help you focus your attention on what’s unclear in the reading or help you hone your response to it. Example number two. Summarize key points. Rewriting the text's main ideas in your own words will help ensure you understand them. Example number three. Outline parts of the text that help you understand its organization: background information, main points, counterargument, conclusion, and so on. Warning. Remember that notes are meant to help you find and recall information from the text quickly and easily. The clearer your notes, the more helpful they will be.

Note-taking is a sophisticated skill, and it will take time and practice to find a note-taking style that works for you. Think of your notes as an interview you are conducting with the text: ask it questions, seek clarification, and figure out what makes it tick.

Quiz: Useful Notes

For the following examples, use the dropdowns to indicate whether or not these types of notes are useful.


Are these types of notes useful?
Writing “Hmmm” in the margin without making it clear what is causing you to wonder. NSShxP34I+b1ynxZ
Briefly rewriting a key point so that it is easier to understand. npEx4EMeIOkMPzNm
Pointing out how a text transitions from making an argument to defending that argument against possible objections. npEx4EMeIOkMPzNm

A note about e-readers and digital note-taking

Highlighting feature on an e-reader
Note feature on an e-reader

Most e-readers offer solutions for highlighting and annotating pages. Take some time to familiarize yourself with these features.

If you prefer taking notes on a computer, tablet, or smartphone instead of directly on the page, there are many free programs designed to help you take, organize, and store your notes. The most popular program is Evernote.

Reading Environment

A student reading while watching television

What environmental factors should I consider?

Environmental factors to consider when reading. Factor number one. Time. Are you more alert in the morning or in the afternoon? How long are you able to read before you begin to lose concentration. Factor number two. Place. Does the library help you focus? Is the city bus the best place to crack open your textbook? Factor number three. Circumstances. Should you turn off the Wi-Fi to avoid watching YouTube videos while you read? Do you need Facebook Messenger so that you can ask your classmantes questions as you read? Warning. If something’s not working, take notice, and switch it up!

Your reading environment refers to the ideal time, place, and circumstances in which you read. We don’t all read best in the same environments, so it is important to take time to reflect on your surroundings and assess how well they support active reading.

Reflect on your reading strategies

The following questions will ask you to think about your strategies for reading as well as how you might improve them by incorporating some of the tips in this tutorial.

Reflect on your reading strategies

Use the space below to answer the following question.



Reflect on your reading strategies

Use the space below to answer the following question.



Reflect on your reading strategies

Use the space below to answer the following question.



Reflect on your reading strategies

Use the space below to answer the following question.



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