Reading Actively

Dawn Atkinson

Chapter Overview

This chapter asks you to think about the benefits of extensive reading, expectations for college-level work, and reading strategies that may help you process text effectively. It also brings into focus critical reading applications and stresses the vitality of critical reading to your academic efforts. Critical reading, as it is defined in this book, means to read a text closely to discover how it is constructed and what it says; how it relates to other texts, ideas, historical context, or research; how it establishes and supports viewpoints; and whether and how it communicates credibility.


Considering the Benefits of Extensive Reading

As a college student, you will likely need to complete a considerable amount of reading for your courses—reading that you must understand and think carefully about in order to discuss confidently in your writing assignments. The reality of this situation can work to your benefit since skilled writers also tend to be prolific readers (Kellogg, 2006, p. 397). Indeed, extensive reading can help you

  • Build vocabulary.
  • Develop knowledge about a variety of topics.
  • Understand the functions and characteristics of different genres (types of writing).
  • Develop effective and potentially new ways of formulating sentences and paragraphs.
  • Understand audience needs and expectations.
  • Grasp how and why writers reference sources.
  • Gather information to support your viewpoints.

Take into account these benefits of reading as you navigate this chapter, much of which is adapted from Horkoff (2015, pp. 1-14). The chapter focuses on reading and its connection to writing.


Considering the Nature of College-Level Work

To do well in college, it is important to stay focused on how your day-to-day actions help to determine your long-term success. Although you may not have defined your career goals or chosen a major or program of study yet, you probably have some overarching aims for your studies, as well as aspirations for your career. Doing solid, steady work over the days and weeks that comprise semesters will help you achieve those ends.

Also know that in college, academic expectations may be quite different from what you experienced in high school. Table 1, which is adapted from Horkoff (2015, p. 2), elaborates on some of these differences, particularly as they relate to reading and writing assignments.

Table 1. Some differences between high school and college

High School University
Reading assignments may be moderately long. Many reading assignments are lengthy.
Teachers may set aside some class time for   reading and reviewing material in depth. Students are expected to come to class with a basic understanding of reading material.
Teachers often provide study guides and other aids to help students prepare for exams. Students are responsible for preparing for exams on their own.
Students’ final grades are determined by performance on a wide variety of assessments. Students’ final grades may depend on just a few writing assignments, quizzes, or tests.
Assignments may focus heavily on personal and creative writing. Outside of creative writing courses, many writing assignments focus on explaining, describing, informing, or arguing.
The structure and format of writing assignments does not generally change. Students may be asked to use new forms of writing and follow the standards of particular professional fields.
Teachers often go out of their way to help students who perform poorly on quizzes, miss classes, or fail to submit writing assignments. Although teachers want their students to succeed, they may not always realize when students are struggling, or they may expect students to seek help on their own.
Teachers will often give students multiple chances to make up missed work, turn in late work, or rewrite assignments. Teachers expect students to proactively ensure their own success and rarely provide chances to make up missed work, submit late work, or rewrite assignments.


This chapter addresses a number of points outlined in Table 1 by focusing specifically on approaches to reading and how these link to expectations for college writing. Before we delve into reading strategies, discuss your answers to the following items with a partner.

  • In what ways do you think college-level study will be rewarding for you as a learner?
  • What aspects of college-level study do you expect to find most challenging?
  • What changes will you have to make to ensure your success in college?
  • Identify one long-term goal you would like to achieve by the time you finish college.
  • Identify one semester goal that will help you achieve the long-term goal.


 Managing Your Reading Time and Productivity

To accomplish your goals in a semester, you will need to set aside enough time for your college work, including reading. Rather than trying to cram all your reading into one sitting, possibly right before a quiz, exam, or paper deadline, aim to break it up into manageable chunks so that it is not overwhelming. Your method for dividing up a reading assignment will depend on the text you are reading. If it is dense and packed with unfamiliar terms and concepts, you may decide to read no more than five or 10 pages in one sitting so that you can understand, reflect on, and apply the information presented. With less complex texts, you will be able to read longer sections, possibly 20 to 40 pages at a time. And if you have a highly engaging reading assignment, such as a non-fiction book about science meant for the general public, you may be able to read even longer stretches in one go.

To ensure you are maximally productive with reading assignments, you will also need to define an optimal time and atmosphere for reading. Some students prefer to read before, after, or between classes, while others find that reading at night after all their other responsibilities are done works best. Think about when you feel most alert and undistracted, and schedule reading sessions then. Also think about what type of environment you read most effectively in: for example, some students opt for the quiet of their rooms or the library in order to concentrate on reading assignments, while others work best with sound or activity in the background, and thus prefer the atmosphere of cafés or coffee shops. Try different options and configurations to discover what suits you best.

Before you commence a reading session, have available all the things you will need to uninterruptedly engage with the text, such as a notepad, pens and pencils, highlighters, and sticky notes. College-level reading calls upon students to connect with texts, and doing so requires involvement in the reading process. So be prepared to use the stationery items listed to take notes, trace connections, and record questions about the reading. When working, bear in mind that highlighters can be useful tools for drawing attention to items if they are used sparingly; however, they will stop cuing your attention if overused. If you encounter unfamiliar terms while reading, try to guess their definitions from context or look them up in a reference source, such as a dictionary. Write down the meanings of the words in the margins of the text (but never in a library book) or in your notes so that you can refer to those definitions in future if the need arises. These means of engagement can make the reading process more meaningful and enjoyable because they force you to remain alert and record thoughts about a text that you may later draw upon as you prepare for quizzes, exams, or writing assignments.


Establishing a Purpose for Reading

Knowing what you want to get out of a reading assignment can also help you determine how to approach it and how much time to spend on it. Sometimes your purpose is simple: for example, you might need to understand reading material well enough to discuss it intelligently in class the next day. Oftentimes, however, your purpose will go beyond that. For instance, you might read to compare texts, to formulate a personal response to a text, or to gather information for future research. Here are some questions to consider when determining how to tackle a reading assignment.

  • How does the instructor frame the assignment? Often instructors will tell students what they expect them to get out of a reading. In a healthcare course, for example, an instructor might ask students to read a textbook chapter and think about how they can apply its guidelines to the first stages of an onsite patient assessment.
  • How does the assignment relate to other course readings or to concepts discussed in class? The instructor may articulate some of these connections; if not, you must take responsibility for drawing connections on your own. Taking notes while reading can make this task more straightforward.
  • How might I use this text again in the future? A reading assignment may help you develop ideas for a future research project, so think about what you can take from the reading that will stay with you.

Although college-level texts can be challenging, establishing a purpose for reading can help you manage the demands of the task.


Identifying the Main Points of a Text

In your courses, you will probably be reading a wide variety of materials, such as the following:

  • Textbooks: These usually include chapter goals, checklists, summaries, glossaries, comprehension questions, and other study aids.
  • Nonfiction books: These are less likely to include the study features found in textbooks; however, they are divided into chapters that each develop the text’s central idea.
  • Magazine and newspaper articles: These are typically written for a general audience.
  • Essays: These may be intended for specific or more general audiences and are a common form of academic writing.
  • Formal reports: These may be intended for specific or more general audiences and are a common form of technical writing.
  • Scholarly journal articles: These are written for an audience of specialists in a given field.

Regardless of what type of text you read, your primary comprehension goal is to identify its main point, the most important idea the writer wants to communicate and often states early on. The main point provides a framework around which details of the text are organized—supporting points, illustrations, facts, and explanations that clarify and develop the main point—as well as a means for relating the text to concepts covered in class in or in other readings.

Identifying the main points of some texts is relatively easy. Textbooks, for instance, include the aforementioned features as well as headings and subheadings to help students recognize important concepts. Graphic elements, such as bold text, italics, text boxes, tables, and figures, act as visual cues to underscore central ideas and help readers understand complex information. When you are assigned textbook reading, be sure to use the comprehension aids provided to help you identify key takeaways.

Although nonfiction books may not be written specifically for an educational audience as textbooks are, they also include features that can help you identify main points. This type of book will oftentimes include an introduction that presents the author’s core ideas and purpose for writing. Reading chapter titles, headings, and subheadings will also give you a broad sense of what is covered; reading the beginning and ending paragraphs of a chapter can likewise be beneficial since these paragraphs often summarize the main ideas presented.

To grasp the main points of magazine and newspaper articles, read the titles (called headlines in these genres), headings, and introductory paragraphs carefully. In magazine articles, these components, along with the closing paragraphs, present the central concepts. Hard news articles—those articles that relate recent or in-progress news that is of interest to many people—present the gist of the news story in the lead or lede (first) paragraph, while subsequent paragraphs present increasingly general details.

Identifying key points in an essay can be a somewhat straightforward process if you know how this genre is constructed. An essay is organized around a central theme, which is articulated as a thesis statement (the topic or purpose of the piece plus the writer’s position on it). The thesis is typically presented at or near the end of an introduction, making it easy to locate. Topic sentences are another unifying feature of this genre since they communicate the main points of paragraphs and ultimately relate back to an essay’s thesis. An essay’s conclusion will generally restate the thesis and summarize the main points covered in the text, again reinforcing the essay’s focus. Essay writers may also incorporate visual cues, such as bold headings, to help readers identify key ideas.

Although formal reports vary widely by content and focus, they oftentimes communicate the results of substantial research undertakings to various stakeholder groups (interested parties, in other words). These types of reports are divided into three major parts—front matter, body, and back matter—which themselves contain multiple main sections, as the following list (adapted from Schall, 2014) indicates. A formal report may include some or all of these sections.

Front Matter

  • Transmittal letter or memo (separate page): supplies details about the accompanying report (what it is, who it is intended for, and key information provided in the document), offers to answer readers’ questions, and provides the writer’s contact information. A transmittal document is typically one page long.
  • Title page (separate page): lists the report’s title, the writer’s name and organization, the distribution date, and the name of the client or organization receiving the report. The title should be specific to the document, explanatory of the report’s content, and consist only of words that contribute directly to reader understanding.
  • Abstract (separate page): provides a succinct and accurate summary of the report’s contents. The abstract summarizes the research focus and rationale, identifies the research method used, overviews the findings, indicates what they mean, and states the implications of the research, oftentimes in one paragraph.
  • Table of contents (separate page): lists the report’s headings and subheadings and the page numbers on which these sections begin.
  • List of figures (separate page): accompanies a report that contains more than five figures. The figures are listed in the order in which they appear in the report by their titles and page numbers.
  • List of tables (separate page): accompanies a report that contains more than five tables. The tables are listed in the order in which they appear in the report by their titles and page numbers.
  • List of Abbreviations (separate page): defines abbreviations for readers. This type of list is included in a report that contains multiple abbreviations.


  • Executive summary (separate page): provides busy readers with a thorough overview of the report. An executive summary, which may be one or more pages long, can be read on its own to understand the report’s contents.
  • Introduction: provides context for readers, describes the report’s purpose and scope (sometimes listing research questions, which are questions a research study seeks to answer, objectives, or hypotheses in the process), and indicates how the report is organized. An introduction can vary in length from a paragraph to several pages long depending on the length of a formal report.
  • Literature review: establishes the history of the problem being investigated by summarizing what work has already been done, how, and why. In short, the literature review identifies the relationship between previous research and the current study. The literature review may be presented in the introduction or as its own separate section.
  • Method: explains what was done during the research project, how, and why. It includes a description of the equipment and materials used in the study, as appropriate, to clearly outline research procedures.
  • Results: presents the study’s findings. This section is sometimes combined with the discussion section, enabling the writer to discuss findings and what they mean in unison.
  • Discussion: explains what the results mean and makes connections between the present study and existing research discussed in the literature review. A writer is expected to be forthcoming in this section by addressing ambiguities in the data, confirming causal relationships, and explaining reasoning while also avoiding sweeping generalizations and unfounded statements.
  • Conclusions: links the outcomes of the study to its research questions, objectives, or hypotheses; underscores the study’s contributions; identifies the study’s limitations; and makes recommendations, possibly for future research or courses of action based on the study’s outcomes.
  • References (separate page): provides full bibliographic details for the in-text citations listed in the report.

Back Matter

  • Appendices: present supplementary material that is too long or detailed to be included in the body of the report. If a report contains one appendix, it is labelled Appendix (sans italics). When a report contains more than one appendix, the appendices are lettered in the order in which they are mentioned in the report and labelled with a descriptive tag (e.g., Appendix A: Writer’s Résumé, Appendix B: List of Interview Questions). Each appendix contains one piece of information, such as a map, and is presented on its own separate page.
  • Bibliography (separate page): lists in alphabetical order all sources that were consulted during the report’s preparation and/or additional sources readers may find helpful.
  • Glossary (separate page): lists in alphabetical order potentially unfamiliar report terms and their accompanying definitions.
  • Index (separate page): lists prominent topics discussed in the report in alphabetical order and provides the page numbers where these items can be found.

As this list hints at, the organizational features of a formal report make identifying its main points a somewhat straightforward task. Indeed, report writers deliberately repeat these points in abstracts, executive summaries, introductions, and conclusions to underscore their significance and to make them easy for readers to identify. Formal reports also typically contain visual elements, such as headings and subheadings, bold type, and visuals, which signal central ideas.

At the far end of the reading difficulty spectrum are scholarly journal articles, which report on research studies and findings. Because these texts are aimed at specialized audiences who have knowledge of particular areas of study, the authors presume readers are already familiar with topics discussed; thus, the authors may employ a sophisticated writing style and leave jargon—specialized language or terminology used in a particular field of study or workplace environment—undefined. Although these texts can make for challenging reading, you can use organizational and graphic features to help comprehend main points. To elaborate, a journal article’s introduction presents context for the study described, as well as the writer’s thesis, purpose, hypothesis, or research questions, while the method section reveals how the investigator undertook the research. The results section presents the study’s findings, and the discussion or conclusion section interprets these findings and indicates what they mean for future investigations in the area. Taken together, these sections constitute the components of IMRaD structure—the acronym stands for Introduction, Method, Results, and Discussion—an organizational approach commonly used in research reports. Figure 1, adapted from Excelsior Online Writing Lab (2020a), provides a summary of IMRaD structure as it is conventionally applied to an APA-style journal article. APA stands for American Psychological Association, a referencing and formatting style commonly used in technical and academic documents.

Figure 1. An outline of IMRaD structure as used in an APA-style journal article

Since IMRaD structure prescribes where to place certain pieces of information about a study, you can use knowledge of the structure to identify the main points of a journal article’s various sections. Furthermore, an article’s headings and subheadings can help you understand how the writer has organized support for the thesis, focused direction on the article’s purpose, or sought to address the research questions, while visuals explain key concepts covered in paragraphs. An academic journal article also begins with an abstract, which presents a summary of the article; read an abstract before delving into an article to get an overview of the text’s main points.


Using Genre Features to Your Benefit

As the previous section indicates, you can use genre features to make your reading both effective and efficient. In other words, if you know what you are looking at in terms of a genre, you can use that text’s features to help process content as you read. To grasp the usefulness of this point, review an extract from a formal report entitled “Supporting Crew Autonomy in Deep Space Exploration: Preliminary Onboard Capability Requirements and Proposed Research Questions: Technical Report of the Autonomous Crew Operations Technical Interchange Meeting” under a Public Use license (Wu & Vera, 2019, pp. iii, 1-3). What features of the extract help you understand the text’s key points?

Technical Report Example


Now review an extract from a scholarly journal article entitled “Psychology of Personal Data Collection” (Skatova & Goulding, 2019, pp. 1-2). What features of the extract help you understand the text’s key points?

Finally, consider this textbook chapter. What genre features of the chapter help you understand the text’s key points?

Scholarly Journal Extract Example


 Using Writing Patterns to Your Benefit

Many technical and academic texts rely on common patterns of organization for their development. A text may feature one prominent pattern or combine patterns to address audience, purpose, context, and genre considerations. The patterns establish how writers structure or group information together, and by recognizing the patterns, you may be able to perceive how an author delivers main and subsidiary points and endeavors to communicate information to readers. Figure 2, adapted from Excelsior Online Writing Lab (2020b), presents a synopsis of common writing patterns and the words that signal their use.

How to Identify Writing Patterns

Figure 2. An overview of common writing patterns and the words that signal their use

In addition to identifying writing patterns while reading, you can also employ the patterns in your own writing to help readers determine the direction of your text and the underlying foundation for its development.


Monitoring Your Comprehension

Finding the main idea and paying attention to text features as you read can help you determine what you should know. Just as important, however, is being able to figure out what you do not know and developing a strategy to deal with it.

Textbooks often include comprehension questions in the margins or at the end of a section or chapter. As you read, stop occasionally to answer these questions. Use them to identify sections you may need to reread, read more carefully, or ask questions about in class.

Even when a text does not have built-in comprehension features, you can actively monitor your own comprehension by applying the following strategies and adapting them as needed to suit different types of texts.

  • Ask and answer questions. When you begin reading a section, try to identify two or three questions you should be able to answer after you finish it. Write down your questions and use them to test yourself on the reading. If you cannot answer a question, try to ascertain why. Is the answer buried in that section but just not coming across to you? Or do you expect to find the answer in another part of the reading?
  • Summarize central ideas. At the end of each section, pause to briefly summarize the main points in your own words. If you have trouble doing so, revisit that section.
  • Do not read in a vacuum. Look for opportunities to discuss the reading with your classmates. Participating in such discussions can help you gauge whether your understanding of the main points aligns with that of your peers. These discussions can also provide insight into the reading task itself. If everyone in class struggled with the reading, it may be exceptionally challenging; conversely, if it was easy for everyone but you, you may need to seek outside help.

Although college reading can be challenging, actively working to comprehend texts can make the reading process more meaningful. Also know that all learners struggle with things in college; nevertheless, if you are sincerely trying to keep up with and understand the course reading but feel like you are struggling, seek help early. Visit your university learning center for assistance, speak up in class, or schedule a meeting with your instructor. University instructors respect students who are proactive about their own learning, and most will work hard to help students who make the effort to help themselves.


Devising Ways to Work with Vocabulary

College-level reading assignments will almost certainly introduce you to new vocabulary, words that may help you understand a concept, theory, field of study, research method, or text. The first step in working with unknown vocabulary is to define it, and by reading the text surrounding an unknown word, you may be able to infer the word’s meaning from context. Figure 3, adapted from Excelsior Online Writing Lab (2020e), details how to use context to determine a word’s meaning.

Using Context Clues

Figure 3. Ways to use context clues to identify the meaning of unknown vocabulary

Call upon the different types of context clues in Figure 3 to efficiently define the meanings of unknown words you meet while reading.

College-level reading oftentimes contains specialized terminology, or language that is common to a particular field of study or professional group that may not be used widely by individuals outside that area. Besides using context to determine the meaning of such terms, you may also need to look up their definitions in a reference source and work with those definitions to retain their meaning. Flashcards that provide details about words and their situations for use offer one means of engaging with such vocabulary. Figure 4, adapted from Excelsior Online Writing Lab (2020g), demonstrates how to create this type of meaningful flashcard.

Vocabulary Flashcards

Figure 4. How to create flashcards to promote language understanding and retention

Figure 5, adapted from Excelsior Online Writing Lab (2020f), describes how to create another vocabulary study tool: a terminology chart for recording specifics about specialized terms.

Specialized Terminology

Figure 5. A terminology chart is a detailed means of working with specialized vocabulary

The in-depth nature of a terminology chart calls for active engagement with reading material, thus promoting its comprehension and retention.

While flashcards and terminology charts list word information linearly, other vocabulary comprehension approaches present similar information in visually associative formats. For instance, a KIM chart—a Key word, Information, Memory cue chart—provides vocabulary details in table form. Refer to Figure 6, adapted from Excelsior Online Writing Lab (2020c), for a how-to guide to creating this type of table.


Figure 6.  How to create a KIM chart, a visual tool for promoting reading comprehension

Word webs offer another visual approach to identifying the meanings of vocabulary terms and their uses; unlike the table format of KIM charts, however, this approach resembles a mind map, a visual organizing tool that uses shapes, symbols, and sometimes colors to distinguish and order pieces of connected information. For guidance on how to create a word web, see Figure 7, which is adapted from Excelsior Online Writing Lab (2020d).

How to make a word web

Figure 7. A word web provides details of a word using visual organizing techniques

When you encounter unknown words in a text, use the active reading techniques described herein to determine and retain their meanings.


Practicing the Vocabulary Comprehension Techniques

Having read about various techniques available to improve reading comprehension, apply them to the texts presented previously in this chapter: “Supporting Crew Autonomy in Deep Space Exploration: Preliminary Onboard Capability Requirements and Proposed Research Questions: Technical Report of the Autonomous Crew Operations Technical Interchange Meeting” (Wu & Vera, 2019, pp. iii, 1-3) and “Psychology of Personal Data Collection” (Skatova & Goulding, 2019, pp. 1-2). Select an unfamiliar vocabulary term from each of the texts, and define it using one of the reading comprehension techniques described herein. To gain experience with the various techniques, use a different one for each term.


Understanding How to Read Actively

Now that you know some useful techniques for working with college-level texts, your reading assignments may feel more manageable. You know to make a plan for getting the reading done before diving into a reading assignment and to be on the lookout for main points and unknown vocabulary while reading a text. Regardless, to derive the maximum benefit from a reading assignment, you will also need to engage actively with the text as a whole. The SQ3R method, which calls upon a reader to survey, question, read, recite, and review/reflect, provides a means to achieve this goal.

The SQ3R method is actually a series of processes (steps or stages) that ask a reader to

  • Survey a text before reading it.
  • Form questions about the text prior to reading.
  • Read the text.
  • Recite and/or record important points during and after reading.
  • Review and reflect on the text after reading.

Each of these processes is covered in further detail in the paragraphs to follow. Although they are discussed as discrete stages for purposes of definition, similar to writing processes, reading processes can be recursive, meaning that they may happen in repeated, interweaving sequences, as a reader engages with a text.


Before you read, first preview the text. As noted earlier, reading introductory paragraphs and headings can help you begin to figure out the author’s main point and identify what important topics will be covered. However, surveying does not stop there. Consider the title carefully, for instance. In a piece of technical or academic writing, the title will typically be specific and informative, meaning it should give you some inclination of what the text is about. In addition, scan the text for any illustrations; these will oftentimes present complex pieces of information in ways that can be readily understood by readers. To get a sense of key points covered, read topic sentences, which may appear at the beginnings of body paragraphs in technical and academic pieces. Bold and italicized language can also signal key points or vocabulary terms. And for a summary of a text’s main ideas, read the abstract, if one is provided, and conclusion.


Developing questions prior to reading may heighten your engagement with a text and help you to better understand it. Here are some starter items to consider during the questioning phase.

  • What do you expect to learn from the reading?
  • How might the text apply to you?
  • If the text’s headings point to related concepts, how are they similar and different, and why are the similarities and differences important?
  • How does the text relate to historical events, news items, previous research, or topics you have encountered in other readings?
  • What type of genre does the text represent?
  • How are the text’s structure, design, and way of incorporating source information reflective of the genre?
  • Who is the text’s target audience?
  • Who is the author, and why is that person qualified to write on the topic?
  • Does the author try to inform, entertain, sell, persuade, or combine these intentions in the piece, and how do you know?
  • If the text aims to persuade, what are its main claims, reasons, and evidence?
  • Are claims, reasons, and evidence presented in a logical and well-organized way?
  • Does the author evenhandedly consider opposing viewpoints, reasons, and evidence?

During this phase, you may also think of other questions that relate to in-class discussions, previous readings, or points that arose during the surveying process.


Answer your questions while reading the text, and determine whether your first impressions of it were correct. Are the author’s main points and overall approach in line with what you predicted, or does the text contain a few surprises?  You may also think of other questions or matters for further consideration or in-class discussion while reading. Make notes about these things and about unknown vocabulary and points that relate to your writing assignments or other texts as you read.


While reading, pause to say or write down important points at the end of each section of text or when there is an obvious shift in the writer’s focus. Put the text aside for a moment, and talk about the main points and any important answers you found there or record this information in note form. Either way, the physical act of articulating the information can increase your chances of remembering it.

Review and Reflect

Once you have finished reading a text, contextualize it in terms of your viewpoints, research interests, course assignments, class discussions, or other texts you have read. Making such associations can help you establish a personal connection to the piece and grasp its relevance to your college work. Here are a few starter questions to consider during this stage.

  • Have you answered each of your initial questions accurately?
  • Did anything about the text surprise you, upset you, or make you think?
  • Did you strongly agree or disagree with any points in the text, and why?
  • How will you use the information in the text?
  • Which topics in the text would you like to explore further, and how will you do this?

If the text you read includes review questions or if your instructor provided a study guide, you can also use these tools to structure your review. To make review optimally productive, record answers in a more detailed form than you used while reading, such as in an outline or list. You can then return to that material several days and weeks later to make sure you remember the information and can reflect on how it applies to a writing assignment, quiz, or exam.

At this stage, you might also write a summary of the text, to ensure you understand and can recall it. When producing a summary, restate in your own words the text’s major points, but do not indicate your opinions about or reactions to them. Avoid a play-by-play description of points covered in the text (the author said this first and this second) by focusing only on main themes, keeping in mind that a summary is shorter than an original text because it excludes details.

When beginning a summary, think about the main point of each section of the text, and record your ideas using your own words. It may help to remember that in much technical and academic writing, the topic sentence of a paragraph will explicitly point to the overarching idea addressed in the paragraph; nevertheless, if you have difficulty locating a topic sentence in a piece, the author may have implied his or her central point in the paragraph without overtly stating it. In such instances, think carefully about the meaning of the paragraph, and write this down in your own words.

Carry out the following steps to complete your summary.

  1. Put the original text away so you cannot look at it while summarizing.
  2. Review the notes you made about the main point of each section of the text.
  3. Revise the notes so that they convey complete, concise sentences written in your own words. You do not need to change fixed expressions, such as global warming.
  4. Write a sentence to introduce the summary. Include the author’s name and the full title of the text, and provide a general statement about the purpose of the piece.
  5. Write a sentence to conclude the summary.
  6. Put your summary away for a while.
  7. Return to your summary to revise it while ensuring that it reads smoothly, makes sense, and is written in your own words. Read it aloud to help detect errors you might have made.
  8. Check the accuracy of your summary against the original text.
  9. Provide an in-text citation and accompanying reference list entry for the original text.
  10. Use the following checklist to ensure your summary is complete and follows standard summary guidelines.
    • Does the summary begin with an introductory sentence that provides the author’s name, the full title of the original text, and a general statement about the text’s purpose?
    • Does the summary end with a concluding sentence?
    • Does the summary address the text’s major points and avoid a play-by-play style?
    • Is the summary an objective recapitulation of the original text’s ideas rather than a subjective response?  The summary should not include your opinions, thoughts, or feelings about the text (hint: it should not contain the word I).
    • Does the summary provide too much detail?  If so, what can be eliminated?
    • Does the summary provide an in-text citation and accompanying reference list entry for the original text?
  11. Exchange your summary with a classmate, and use the checklist above to review your peer’s summary. Make suggestions for revision where necessary.
  12. Revise your summary based on the peer feedback you receive.

These steps should help you produce a clear, concise, complete, and cohesive summary that accurately reflects the original text you read.

SQ3R Wrap Up

When used together, the SQ3R processes can help you fully engage with a piece of reading so your time spent working with it is both meaningful and rewarding.


Contemplating the Benefits of Active Reading

Active reading can benefit you in ways that go beyond just earning good grades. By practicing the strategies discussed in this chapter, you may find that you are more interested in your courses and are better able to relate your academic work to things in your life. Being an interested, engaged student can also help you form lasting connections with instructors and other students that can be personally and professionally valuable.


Activity: Troubleshooting Your Reading

Although college-level reading assignments can present challenges, these are not insurmountable, as this chapter explains. Take this point into account as you read the following troubleshooting section and complete the accompanying activity, which are adapted from Babin et al. (2017, pp. 18-20).

Case Study

PROBLEM: Sometimes I put my reading off, and then when I have the motivation to do it, I’m out of time.

Response: Do a manageable bit of reading every day so that it is not demotivating.

PROBLEM: If I don’t understand some parts of the reading, I just skip over them and hope the teacher will explain them in class.

Response: Take responsibility for your own learning by talking with your instructor during office hours about sections of reading you do not understand.  In addition, try reading carefully, sentence by sentence. If you encounter unfamiliar terms and cannot guess their meanings from the words around them, look up their definitions. When you reach the end of a paragraph, summarize its main point.  Another option is to ask questions in class to encourage discussion about the text. You may gain valuable insight about the reading as you listen and respond to your classmates’ comments.

PROBLEM: I don’t like to read, so I do it fast and stick with the obvious meanings. When the teacher asks the class to dig deeper and figure out a text’s significance, I get frustrated.

Response: College-level reading assignments tend to have multiple layers of meaning:   obvious or surface-level meaning and deeper meaning. As you read, ask questions of the text to help you think more deeply about it: for example, what, when, where, who, why, how, and so what?

PROBLEM: Sometimes I jump to conclusions about what a text means and then later find out I didn’t understand it completely.

Response: This usually happens when someone reads a text too quickly and does not engage with it. To avoid this problem, slow down and take time with the text by following the SQ3R method.

PROBLEM: When a text makes a point I strongly disagree with, I can’t seem to go any further.

Response: As a college student, you must be ready to explore and examine a wide range of ideas, whether you agree with them or not. By approaching texts with an open and willing mind, you are primed to engage with diverse ideas, many of which you may  not have encountered before.

PROBLEM: I’m a slow reader. It takes me a long time to read material, and sometimes I get panicked by the amount of assigned reading.

Response: You will likely derive the most benefit from reading sessions if you do a little bit of reading every day rather than several hours of reading at once. Be cognizant of what you need to read, and divide the assignment up among the days you have available. Reading 100 pages in a week may seem overwhelming, but reading 15 pages a day will be easier.

PROBLEM: Sometimes the teacher assigns content in an area I really know nothing about. I want to be a civil engineer. Why should I read philosophy or natural history, and how am I supposed to understand those subjects?

Response: By reading a wide variety of texts, we both increase our knowledge and put our minds to work, and such mental exercise prepares the brain for innovative thinking. These opportunities also help us tackle unfamiliar reading and writing tasks—  things we often encounter in the workplace.

PROBLEM: When I examine a text, I tend to automatically accept what it says, but the teacher is always encouraging us to ask questions and read critically.

Response: The teacher wants you to more fully engage with the text by looking for implied rather than explicit meanings, thinking about the significance and relevance of points made, considering how the text makes these points, weighing the   trustworthiness of evidence used, and reflecting on how the text relates to other course or reading material. The more you use these critical reading approaches, the more natural they become, which is helpful since you will be called upon to employ them throughout your time in college and beyond.

Identify one or two key issues from the troubleshooting section that you relate to, and consider how the responses offered might work for you. What additional ideas can you think of to troubleshoot these issues?  Freewrite about these thoughts, and share your ideas in class.


Homework Task One: Applying Active Reading Techniques

Use the SQ3R method to read an essay entitled “Reading Games: Strategies for Reading Scholarly Sources” (Rosenberg, 2011), which can be found at–reading-games.pdf. After you read the essay, prepare a summary of it by employing the steps outlined in the “Review and Reflect” section of the current chapter. Remember to cite and reference the essay in your summary.

Ensure your summary is clear and reader friendly by taking into account the advice presented on the following multipage handout, produced by the Writing and Communication Centre, University of Waterloo (n.d.)

Word Choice.

Word Choice

Many students express the desire to “sound intelligent.” This is often mistaken to mean that we should use our thesaurus as much as possible and replace word choices with more complex, higher-level words at all times. However, the best way to make your writing sound intelligent is to use words accurately and appropriately for the context of your subject matter, academic level, and audience. Use the following principles to guide your vocabulary decisions.

Stylistic Principles

Consider Your Audience icon of three people

Reading and writing are usually not solitary activities. Think of written communication as a process with multiple players; often, at the most basic level, there exists a writer, a message to be conveyed, and an audience of one or more readers. Your job as a writer is to ensure that you consider your audience’s needs when writing, including word choice and organization. Neglecting this aspect of your writing may mean that the message is lost or misinterpreted.

Here are some important questions to ask yourself about your audience that may direct the stylistic choices you make in your writing:

  1. What is my audience’s level of knowledge about my subject?
  2. Is my audience comprised of experts in the field?
  3. Am I trying to persuade my audience of something, or am I merely conveying factual information?

Even in a specialized, professional work environment, the level of knowledge your audience may have about the technical aspects of your work or area of expertise will vary. For example, in an engineering firm, you may be writing documentation for managers, peers in your field, human resources staff, accountants, or co-op students. Among these different positions, the depth of knowledge about your topic will vary, and so you should consider the terminology, formality, and degree of context when writing.

Choose Words that You Understand

It is important that you understand the words that you choose. Selecting a word because it sounds “smarter” or “more academic” can result in using words incorrectly, which detracts from the credibility of your argument.

Not all dictionaries are created equal, and many online dictionaries are inadequate for the requirements of professional and academic writing. One good resource is Merriam Webster’s Dictionary. This site includes useful and accurate definitions in addition to illustrative quotations, which allow you to better understand a word’s meaning and how to use it. The UWaterloo Library also provides access to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which includes not only precise definitions but also extensive illustrations.

Prefer Simple to Complex Words

Often, writers assume that complex words make their writing impressive, which leads them to avoid using simple words. You will need to judge what is appropriate given the context in which you are writing, but most readers appreciate directness, so avoid using complex words where a simpler, more direct word can be used.

Avoid Unnecessary Jargon and Technical Terms

Jargon refers to terminology that is unique to specific professions or areas of study and are not generally known outside of those groups. Technical vocabulary is both useful and important in academic and professional writing, but it should be used only when an ordinary word would be less precise.

Select Precise Words

The French novelist Gustav Flaubert once remarked, “All talent for writing consists, after all, of nothing more than choosing words. It’s precision that gives writing power.” This observation applies to all kinds of writing. Vague words shift the writer’s responsibility onto the reader, leaving him or her to figure out your meaning. Precise words communicate your meaning. Consider the following examples, both about Marie Curie’s contribution to science:

e.g., The thing that she did was really important in the field.

The above sentence is imprecise. Using words like thing and important do not help the reader to understand the context of what was accomplished or in what ways the thing that she did impacted the broader field.

e.g., Marie Curie’s research on radioactivity was innovative in its identification of previously unknown radioactive substances, including radium.

The above sentence is much clearer. The imprecise word thing has been replaced with the specific work that Curie accomplished, and the importance of her work has been directly identified.
Some common imprecise word choices that can almost always be replaced with stronger, more precise words include the following: good, bad, thing, stuff, important.

Avoid Clichés

The word cliché is French for a stereotype block, used in printing to reproduce a single page many times. The word is applied to phrases that have lost their meaning through overuse:

e.g., outside the box, in this day and age, plagued by doubts, read between the lines

Recognising that we have used a cliché, we are in a position to choose more unique words.


Homework Task Two: Applying Active Reading Techniques

To further reflect on the essay “Reading Games: Strategies for Reading Scholarly Sources” (Rosenberg, 2011) and its pertinence to your own academic work, answer the three discussion questions on page 219 of the text. Be prepared to talk about your answers in class.





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