Understand What You Read

Do you get to the bottom of a page and realize you've been daydreaming? It happens to everybody at some point or another: you've got too little time or too little interest to spend another minute with Homer or Shakespeare. Fortunately, learning to read smartly and take good notes will make the reading a whole lot easier, faster, and much more fun. See Step 1 for more information.


Reading Smartly

  1. Eliminate distractions. Get off the computer, turn off the TV, and cut out the music. It's very difficult to read, especially if you're reading something difficult, when your attention is divided. Reading closely means you have to find a nice, comfortable location that's distraction-free.
    • Make reading fun by getting yourself a snack or a drink and getting comfortable. Burn a nice-smelling candle or read in the tub to make yourself as comfortable, and make reading as enjoyable as possible, especially if it's not something you're excited about reading.
  2. Skim first and then read closely. If you're reading something difficult, don't worry too much about spoiling the ending for yourself. If you read a paragraph and have to start the paragraph over, consider skimming over the whole story, or flipping through the book somewhat to get a sense of the plot, the main characters, and the tone of the reading, so you'll know what to focus on as you read more closely.[1]
    • Taking a look at Cliff's Notes or reading about the book online can be a good way to get a good summary of the reading to help you get through it more easily, but be aware some teachers do frown on anything like this and may give a lower grade or even nothing when they notice you were using it. Just don't forget to go back and read through more closely.
  3. Picture what you're reading. Think of yourself as a movie director and picture the action while you're reading it. Cast the movie with actors, if it helps, and really try to picture the events as realistically as possible. This can be a lot more fun, and it will help you remember and understand what you are reading a lot better.
  4. Read out loud. Some people find it much easier to stay focused and interested in what they're reading by reading out loud. Lock yourself in your room, or hide in the basement and read as dramatically as you want. This can help slow you down if your tendency is to try to skim too quickly, and it can help make the reading more dramatic if you find it somewhat boring.
    • Always try reading poetry out loud. Reading The Odyssey becomes a much more awesome experience when you invoke the muse aloud.
  5. Look up any words, locations, or ideas you don't recognize. You can use context clues to help you figure out things by yourself, but it's always a good idea to take a minute to learn any references you might not have gotten the first time. It'll make the reading much easier.
    • In school, having looked up an unfamiliar word or concept will always win you bonus points. It's a good thing to get in the habit of doing.
  6. Take breaks. Make sure you save enough time to do your reading so you can complete it comfortably and take frequent breaks. For every 45 minutes of reading you do, let yourself relax for 15 or do some other kind of homework, to give your mind a rest and let yourself focus on other things for a while. When you're ready, come back fresh and excited to get back to the story.

Taking Notes

  1. Mark up the text. Write questions in the margin, underline things you think are interesting, highlight important concepts or ideas. Don't be afraid to make lots of marks on your text as you read. Some readers find that holding a pencil or highlighter makes them a more active reader, giving them something to "do" while doing the task. See if it works for you.
    • Don't underline or highlight too much, and definitely don't highlight random passages because you think it's expected. It won't help you to go back through and study if you've just highlighted randomly, and it'll make your text a lot more difficult to go back through.
  2. Write a few sentences of summary at the bottom of each page. If you're reading something difficult and find yourself often wanting to go back to get something you missed, start taking it one page at a time. At the end of each page, or even at the end of each paragraph, write a brief summary of what happened on that page. This'll break up the reading and allow you to go through it with much more careful attention.
  3. Write down questions that you have about what you read. If you find something confusing, or you notice something that's giving you difficulty, always write it down. This might give you a good question to ask later in class, or give you something to think more about as you continue reading.
  4. Write your reaction. When you finish reading, immediately start writing down your reactions to the story, the book, or the chapter from the book you needed to read. Write about what seems important, what you think the purpose of the writing was, and how it made you feel as a reader. You don't need to summarize it for a response, but you might find it helpful to summarize in general if it will help you remember what you've read more.
    • Don't write whether or not you liked the story, or whether you thought it was "boring." Instead, focus on how it made you feel. Your first response might be, "I didn't like this story, because Juliet dies at the end," but think about why you feel that way. Why would it have been better if she had lived? Would it have? What might Shakespeare have been trying to say? Why did he kill her off? This is a much more interesting reaction now.

Talking it Over

  1. Get together with friends or classmates and discuss the reading. It's not cheating to discuss what you've read about before or after class. In fact, most teachers would probably be thrilled. Get your classmates reactions and compare them to your own. Again, try not to talk about whether or not it was "boring," but see if anyone has a good explanation of something you might've found difficult or confusing. Offer your own reading expertise to help your friends.
  2. Think of open-ended questions to explore the reading. Write down some questions in your notebook that might make interesting discussion questions to bring up in class. Some teachers will make this an assignment, but it will help you to engage with your reading anyway.
    • Don't ask questions that can be answered with a "yes" or a "no." Learning to ask "how" is a helpful way of coming up with big discussion questions.
  3. Mark important pages with post-it notes. If you have a question later, it can help if you've got the page you want to talk about or ask a question about marked already, rather than having to spend ten minutes trying to remember where Polonius' big line was.
  4. Put yourself in the characters' shoes. What would you have done if you were Juliet? Would you have liked Holden Caulfield if he was in your class? What would it have been like to be married to Odysseus? Talk about it with others who have read the same book. How do different people answer the same question? Learning to put yourself into the reading and interact with the text is a good way of experiencing it and understanding it. Think yourself into the book.


  • Sometimes focusing on minor details doesn't help. If that is too hard, just focus on major or key points.


  • Save enough time to complete your reading. Skimming at the last minute isn't good reading practice.

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