We are using reading quizzes to enhance our Zoom classes this semester, and when I asked, my MA students thought some guidance on how to read efficiently for comprehension might be useful. So, this is a quick collection of advice that I find useful from a variety of excellent sources (some of which are linked in the end).

1. Prepare your mind to read this text. If it’s an article, it has an abstract, read the abstract, then read what the subtitles of different parts are. If it is a book chapter, read the introduction and take a look at what the subtitles of subchapters are.

  • What is this text about?
  • Why has it been assigned? What topic does it link to? How does it link to what you already know or what has already been covered in class?

2. Take notes while you are reading. What is important to remember is that note-taking is an exercise that starts from a frame or a question. What are you reading FOR?
A. Are you reading to comprehend the text and get everything that your teacher / supervisor probably considered relevant (and thus may have put on a quiz or an exam) out of it?  
B. Are you reading because you are looking for ideas, inspiration, research findings, conceptual frameworks for a particular topic (this will happen when you are working on your own thesis, research or your own writing)?
C. Are you reading to get an overview of the state of the art in a field as you are embarking on a new research project?

These will lead to different types of reading / different types of note taking.  For B it might be a good idea to take notes freehand, for example, my colleague Jenny Hagedorn recommends restricting yourself to one A4 page for notes - instead of copying quotes, write down key words/ideas/things you’re not sure about and link them together as you read…it becomes a visual map of the text - excellent reference point for discussion or quickly sourcing.  For C it might be a good idea to start from skimming a number of texts to then decide on a smaller number to read critically. Critical reading is guided by questions like these (by Wray and Wallace)

1. Why am I reading this?
2. What are the authors trying to achieve in writing this?
3. What are the authors claiming that is relevant to my work?
4. How convincing are these claims, and why?
5. In conclusion, what use can I make of this?

However, whatever you read for; you should read FOR THE ARGUMENT. Most of the key content in the text is given in the form of arguments. So, it is useful to be able to recognize arguments. If you haven’t read a lot of academic writing Graff, Birkenstein & Durst (2018, 11 - 12) have a MASTER TEMPLATE for writing arguments, or their “they say, I say” model:

In recent discussions of …. , a controversial issue has been whether …. . On the one hand, some argue that …… . From this perspective, …… . On the other hand, others argue that ……. In the words of ….. , one of this view’s main proponents, “……”
According to this view, ……  In sum, then, the issue is whether …… or ………. My own view is that  ……… Though I concede that …….. I still maintain that ………  For example, ………. Although some might object that …….. I would reply that …….. . The issue is important because ……….
Taking it line by line, this master template first identifies an issue in some ongoing conversation or debate (“In recent discussions of a controversial issue has been”), and then maps some of the voices in this controversy (by using the “on the one hand / on the other hand” structure). The template then introduces a quotation (“In the words of”), explains the quotation (“According to this view”), and states the argument (“My own view is that”). It qualifies the argument (“Though I concede that”), and supports it with evidence (“For example”).

If you are reading for comprehending / to study for an exam or quiz, I recommend:

1. Whether you highlight, underline or take notes, pay attention to the elements of the argument as outlined in the They say, I say model above. Important stuff is bound to congregate in the neighborhood of

  • where the author is making conclusions or summarizing (often they will spend a paragraph or two explaining something and then summarize the main finding in a conclusive sentence),
  • when the author is categorizing (making lists, or saying there are two reasons, or three problems, or four approaches),
  • when the author is making statements about something causing or related to something else (writing that something is because of, caused by, leads to, explains, or comes after questions that start with “why” and “how”),
  • when the author is engaging with existing scholarship in ways that elevate it as most important (this is where they will condense and paraphrase what they think is important knowledge in the field, look for when the author is named not just cited;
  •  and whenever “some scholars have argued,” “there is research that,” “Researchers claim,” etc is used.

2. If you highlight:

research suggests that just highlighting is not very efficient. Rather, if you highlight, add your own comments in the margins, as notes or in a separate file. If you read digitally, I recommend copying out the highlighted snippets and adding your own comments to them. Make sure you add your comments in a visibly different way, I put in my initials KT in bold to indicate that this is where the quoted text ends and my own thoughts begin.

  • Some people color code their highlights (by level of importance or by category, i.e. yellow is theory or concept, blue is methods, pink is findings).

3. If you underline: I like this advice by Amelia Hoover Green (see here for more)


Green explains her system: “First, signposts. I circled “theory” in the first line because I imagine he’s going to tell me what it is. I also circled “prediction,” because I want to know what his theory predicts will happen in the real world. I circled “in other words” because that suggests he’s going to restate something important (in this case, the prediction). After circling, I read carefully in the neighborhood of my key words and underlined a few key sentences. Your goal: underline no more than a few sentences on any page.”

After you are done reading and taking notes, review your notes and try to return to the questions you asked yourself when preparing your mind to read

  • What was this text about? What was its main argument?
  • How did it link to what you already know or what has already been covered in class?
  • What new things, terms, concepts you learned

Links to more advice:

Amelia Hoover Green advice on how to read https://www.ameliahoovergreen.com/uploads/9/3/0/9/93091546/howtoread.pdf

Terri Senft’s awesome guide to reading visually https://www.dropbox.com/s/ock2oep04thgla9/READING%20VISUALLY_SENFT.pdf?dl=0

Elsa Devienne’s “How to read an academic history article or chapter” infographic https://twitter.com/E_Devienne/status/1305899621064028161/photo/1

Mike Wallace’s and Alison Wray’s book Critical Reading and Writing for Postgraduates https://www.academia.edu/12530320/Critical_Reading_and_Writing_for_Postgraduates_by_Mike_Wallace_and_Alison_Wray

Raul Pacheco-Vega’s extensive collection of resources on reading strategies and note taking strategies (in the form of very accessible blog posts)> http://www.raulpacheco.org/resources/reading-strategies/

Ashley Rubin’s’ guide to reading non-textbook texts: https://www.dropbox.com/s/f32p4xsaqzddo8a/Reading%20Guide.pdf?dl=0

Miriam Sweeney’s blog post on how to read for gradschool https://miriamsweeney.net/2012/06/20/readforgradschool/

Jessica Calarco’s blog spot on reading for meaning in the academia http://www.jessicacalarco.com/tips-tricks/2018/9/2/beyond-the-abstract-reading-for-meaning-in-academia