Cultivate Active Reading Skills

Have class members try out these strategies to improve comprehension and engagement.

By Noel Woodward


hand taking notes

When tackling reading material, especially complex texts, readers benefit from taking notes. However, the notes need to be meaningful, and students don't necessarily intuitively know how to write meaningful notes. Teach them some strategies that will help them comprehend and analyze any text. The goal is for these strategies to become innate, so that when your pupils are reading for college or a career, they are able to intuitively take notes that clarify a text, reveal meaning, and help them succeed at their given task.

Reading Notes

  • Symbols or Codes: Provide a set of symbols that everyone in your class learns and applies. While reading, all they have to do to take notes on the text is to mark down symbols. Symbols could be, for example, a question mark for confusing statements, a star for surprising ideas, an arrow for a place they want to return to, and so on. This makes taking notes quick, easy, and uniform. Readers don't have to interrupt their reading for long if all they are doing is marking down a symbol. There are some symbol sets already created, so you can search for one that you like or make your own!
  • Bookmarks: Often teachers make bookmarks with information on them: A reading schedule, the definitions of important terms in the reading, a list of questions students should ask themselves as they read. Make bookmarks interactive. As they read, class members can write thoughts, ideas, questions, quotes, and more directly onto their bookmarks. You might give them a focus and slowly take away this scaffold as they become stronger readers. Since the bookmark goes with the book, they can read over their notes when they open the book or leave their older bookmarks in place to review later. If your class is reading something too short for a bookmark, Post-its® are another option.
  • Two-Sided Journal: This could take the form of a formal dialectical journal, where pupils are given a guiding question and a graphic organizer for their thoughts, or an informal journal made from a sheet of paper with a line drawn down the middle. Either way, the idea is for class members to write more specific summarizing notes or quotes on one side of the paper and their own comments on the other. This format is flexible, and could be adapted in a number of ways. For example, readers could write a quote or summary on one side and represent it visually on the other.
  • Sketching: Some individuals benefit greatly from visual representations of a text. Instead of writing words as they read, ask your pupils to sketch little drawings. Since the purpose of the images is to help readers puzzle through and represent the text in a way that is clearer to them, these drawings should be determined by each individual as he/she works. Drawings can help students make connections, comprehend a complex sentence, or represent a process or idea. Also, images are often more memorable than words. Some pupils will remember what they drew and, by association, what they read.
  • Quote, Summary, Response: There are several variations on this method. The basic format is a three-columned page. In the first column, pupils copy a direct quote from the text. In the second, they paraphrase or summarize the quote. In the final column, readers write a response. This could be an interpretation of the quote, a comment on the importance or significance of the quote, or a connection to something outside of the text. The strategy works on several levels and requires class members to not only comprehend the text, but take it a step further into analysis.

Since these strategies are relatively straightforward, why not try them all out? And don't think that these are specific to the English classroom; these strategies are available and useful for all subjects that require reading. Pupils working through a scientific study or a historical document would be able to apply these same strategies. Help your class members prepare for life beyond the classroom by teaching them note-taking strategies that they can practice and internalize.


Why Did the Author Write?

Model how to annotate a complex text with the excerpt included here. After an initial read-through of the text, show class members how to annotate the first few paragraphs and allow them time in small groups to work on the rest of the document. The focus is on determining patterns in the text, and through patterns, the author's purpose.

Analysis of the Kennedy-Nixon Presidential Debates

Compare and contrast Nixon and Kennedy's written words to the televised debate. Pupils take notes on the text, noting down and explaining instances of ethos, pathos, and logos. Consider this strategy for other debates or political speeches.

Reading and Writing to Learn

Help your charges learn while reading! Here is a great explanation of the rationale for writing while reading for history class. The resource includes details on preparation and how to make annotation happen in the classroom.