Fundamental to the process of reading and discussing well is our active interaction with a “text” (a reading, poem, painting, document, or artifact). Effective reading is not just going quickly through a text, but rather is a process of questioning it actively, looking for key issues, themes, events, characters, forms and highlights under key points and makes them accessible during class discussions and in reviewing for exams. Some people find it helpful, while still fresh in their mind, to summarize at the end of a chapter/scene/section the main ideas and issues in their own words. This serves not only to aid the memory but also to make sure they understand what they’ve read.

In reading these classic, timeless texts, look for the main message the author intends to convey. What are the key themes? Depending on the length and complexity of the document, there may be several sub-themes as well. Note also how the structure, or form of the text, as well as how its language (imagery and symbolism) supports and reinforces the ideas. Underline and circle words and phrases that have power for you. Note also how the text reveals the historical traditions and cultural way of life of the time place about which the document is written. Finally, think about how the themes and issues of the text still have applications in the modern world, contemporary culture, and in your own life.

In summary then, in reading, look for and make notes on:

  1. The author’s point of view, main message, themes.
  2. The structure/form/plot of the text. Important characters.
  3. How language, words, images, metaphors, create an emotional tone that supports the message and form of the text.
  4. Cultural and historical context and information.
  5. Contemporary connections to our lives.

When we come to class having not only read but thought about a text in these five ways, with underlining and marginal comments that reflect our thinking and feeling as we read, we are well-prepared to discuss thoughtfully, listening well to the observations and ideas of others and trying out our own developing thoughts. Focused, even personalized, underlining of texts prepares us in particular for discussions that begin with such questions as:

“What are the major points or themes that X is trying to make in this text?” Or, “What did you particularly like or dislike about the text?” Or, “What quotations seemed particularly important to you?” Or, “What do you learn about how people lived and thought?” Or, “What words, phrases, or images had emotional or intellectual power for you?” Or, “What does this reading say about what’s going on in our world today, or in my own life?”

Happy, thoughtful reading!

– Harry Williams, August 1999