Let’s Learn How to Read!

Books! Pens! Highlighters! Oh my!

Reading! It’s so important. But harder to do than it is often given credit for, especially when you’re reading for retention, comprehension and synthesis. (As opposed to, y’know, strictly for fun.)

Being a nerd, I’ve read for a long time now in many different contexts. I’ve been an undergrad, a research assistant, a tutor, a grad student, a newspaper editor, and an ordinary person interested in learning from books. Along the way, I’ve put together a strategy for reading that I think works pretty well.

My reading strategy is meant to maximize comprehension and retention, and works especially well when one is reading for research or review. It’s multi-step, but of course, you don’t have to follow every step to squeeze a little more out of the things you read. It’s helpful for me, and I hope it’ll be helpful for you! Without further ado, here are my tips.

  1. ) Pre-reading: Gather your materials. Before you dive in, it helps to get a few things together. Highlighters, pens and sticky-tabs are all useful. It’s important to pick out highlighters and pens that will make your reading easier, not harder: That means, for me, picking ones that don’t bleed through your pages and make it unclear what you were trying to highlight in the first place. Here are the ones I use.
They’re called Bible-Hi-Gliders. But they’ll work on any book. Promise.

These babies are marketed as Bible Highlighters, but they’re very smooth gel-highlighters that don’t bleed, blot or transfer. They last a while, are very bright, and don’t dry out that easily.

Two businessmen and one dandy.

With pens, it’s the same story: I want a fine tip so I can write quite a bit in a small margin if needed; I want minimal bleeding and smearing; and I want maximum visibility. I’ve had a lot of luck with these Micron guys, and I always include one brightly-colored fellow for starring the margins beside extremely interesting or surprising points (that’s the uni-ball Onyx up there.) Again, these Microns are often used for Bible study, but that just tells you they’re fabulous for even the thinnest of pages.

The baby has probably eaten 4 or 5 of these sticky tabs.

With stickies, it’s all up to you. I use these especially often when I’m reviewing books and want to be able to come back to a specific page that absolutely must be in the review lest the whole thing be a bust. There are some great sleek, color-coded tabs I invite you to match to your highlighter colors…but even I am not that neurotic. I just pick ones with colors and designs that make me happy.

2.) Ask your question. That is: figure out what you’re going into the book to find out. This can be very detailed, if researching (what value did Roman jurists in the pre-Christian period assign to wills when it came to dividing property among legitimate claimants?) or very broad, if reviewing (what role does the author believe Protestants played in creating modernity?) Further, make note of any sub-questions: what does the author think ‘modernity’ means? What does he feel about modernity?

You don’t have to write these down, but I do. I then highlight each question in the color I’ve assigned it, and stick it in the front of the book. Looks like this.

The last question got added later in the reading process, which is fine. Just don’t smear everything like I do. :)

3.) Now, assign your highlighters and stickies jobs. Pick one color for lines that really answer your main question, one color for lines that address each sub-question, and save one color for just plain interesting stuff you weren’t expecting. This is important, as new arguments always emerge during reading.

4.) Now read! Highlight in keeping with your color coding. If new questions arise, that is okay! If you have more questions than colors, doesn’t hurt to double up. Star up the margins and make notes to yourself with your pens. Mark important pages or passages with stickies.

5.) Now re-read, reading just the highlighted passages. Focus especially on your main question and how it relates in the text to your sub-questions. Reading again focusing just on the highlighting, you’ll get a condensed, streamlined version of the argument or information that you came for. Pay special attention to your marginalia: Now that you’ve read the whole thing, can you answer some of your questions, or relate some of your thoughts to text that came later?

6.) Now, answer your questions. Reading your highlighting, do you feel you have a satisfactory answer to each of your questions? (Sometimes you don’t, and that’s okay too.)

7.) Last, summarize the stuff that really surprised you. I like to take a last look back at everything I highlighted in my wow color, and every passage I starred. For me, these are often much more interesting takeaways than what I went in to learn in the first place.

And that’s it! You’re done. I hope this helps you as much as it’s helped me over the years. Happy reading!

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Elizabeth Bruenig’s story.