15th century Altarpiece fragment, Mary Magdalene reading. National Gallery (Great Britain). Available through ArtSTOR

Rogier van der Weyden, 1399 -1464. Altarpiece fragment, Mary Magdalene reading. National Gallery (Great Britain). Available through ArtSTOR

St. Ivo reading, ca.1450. National Gallery (Great Britain). Available through ArtSTOR

Workshop of Rogier van der Weyden. St. Ivo reading, ca.1450. National Gallery (Great Britain). Available through ArtSTOR

max beckmann reclining woman reading with irises 1923

Max Beckmann (1884-1950). Reclining Woman Reading, with Irises (1923). Oil on canvas. Private collection. Image available in HOLLIS

daumier reader man with book with red-edged pages

Honore Daumier (1808-1879). Reader (1863). Oil on wood.  University of California, San Diego.  Image available in ARTStor

young man reading book 16th century painting aga khan museum

Young Man Reading a Book (c.1570-1574). Attributed to Mirza 'Ali (c.1510-1576). Ink, opaque watercolor and gold on paper. Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Image available in HOLLIS

Suzuki Harunobo (1725-1770). Girl Reading a Letter While being Massaged by Maid. Color woodcut. Available through ArtSTOR

Ms. Richardson 5, fol. 66v Book of Hours, England, ca. 1420. Houghton Library. Image linked from HOLLIS


Thinking-Intensive Reading

Critical reading--active engagement and interaction with texts--is essential to your academic success at Harvard, and to your intellectual growth.  Research has shown that students who read deliberately retain more information and retain it longer.

Your college reading assignments will probably be more substantial and more sophisticated than those you are used to from high school. The amount of reading will almost certainly be greater.  College students rarely have the luxury of successive re-readings of material, however, given the pace of life in and out of the classroom. 

So how should you approach reading in this new environment?

While the strategies described below are (for the sake of clarity) listed sequentially, you typically do most of them simultaneously. If you're used to doing little more than moving your eyes across the page, they may feel awkward at first, and you may have to deploy them consciously.  But

But as they become habits, you'll notice the differences -- both in what you “see” in a course reading, and in the confidence with which you approach your texts.

1. Preview

Look “around” the text before you start reading. 

Previewing enables you to develop a set of expectations about the scope and aim of the text.  These very preliminary impressions offer you a way to focus your reading. 

You’ve probably engaged in one version of previewing in the past, when you’ve tried to determine how long an assigned reading is (and how much time and energy, as a result, it will demand from you).  But you can learn a great deal more about the organization and purpose of a text by taking note of features other than its length. For instance:

  • What does the presence of headnotes, an abstract, or other prefatory materiatell you?
  • Is the author known to you already?  If so, how does their reputation or credentials (like an institutional affiliation) influence your perception of what you are about to read?

If an author is unfamiliar or unknown in an essay collection, does an editor introduce them (by supplying brief biographical information, an assessment of the author’s work, concerns, and importance)?

Texts demand different things of you as you read, so whenever you can, register the type of information you’re presented with. 

  • How does the disposition or layout of a text prepare you for reading? Is the material broken into parts--subtopics, sections, or the like?  Are there long and unbroken blocks of text or smaller paragraphs or “chunks” and what does this suggest?  How might the identified parts of a text guide you toward understanding the line of inquiry or the arc of the argument that's being made?
  • Does the text seem to be arranged according to certain conventions of discourse? Newspaper articles, for instance, have characteristics that you will recognize, including "easy" language. Textbooks and scholarly essays are organized quite differently. 

2. Annotate

Annotating puts you actively and immediately in a "dialogue” with an author and the issues and ideas you encounter in a written text. 


It's also a way to have an ongoing conversation with yourself as you move through the text and to record what that encounter was like for you. Here's how to make your reading thinking-intensive from start to finish:

  • Throw away your highlighter: Highlighting can seem like an active reading strategy, but it can actually distract from the business of learning and dilute your comprehension.  Those bright yellow lines you put on a printed page one day can seem strangely cryptic the next, unless you have a method for remembering why they were important to you at another moment in time.  Pen or pencil will allow you to do more to a text you have to wrestle with.  
  • Mark up the margins of your text with words and phrases: the ideas that occur to you, notes about things that seem important to you, reminders of how issues in a text may connect with class discussion or course themes. This kind of interaction keeps you conscious of the reasons you are reading as well as the purposes your instructor has in mind. Later in the term, when you are reviewing for a test or project, your marginalia will be useful memory triggers.
  • Develop your own symbol system: asterisk (*) a key idea, for example, or use an exclamation point (!) for the surprising, absurd, bizarre.  Your personalized set of hieroglyphs allow you to capture the important -- and often fleeting -- insights that occur to you as you're reading.  Like notes in your margins, they'll prove indispensable when you return to a text in search of that perfect passage to use in a paper, or when you are preparing for a big exam.  
  • Get in the habit of hearing yourself ask questions: “What does this mean?” “Why is the writer drawing that conclusion?” “Why am I being asked to read this text?” etc. 

Write the questions down (in your margins, at the beginning or end of the reading, in a notebook, or elsewhere. They are reminders of the unfinished business you still have with a text: something to ask during class discussion, or to come to terms with on your own, once you’ve had a chance to digest the material further or have done other course reading.

3. Outline, Summarize, and Analyze

The best way to determine that you’ve really gotten the point is to be able to state it in your own words. Take the information apart, look at its parts, and then, put it back together again in language that is meaningful to you. Three ways to proceed: 


Outlining the argument of a text is a version of annotating, and can be done quite informally in the margins of the text, unless you prefer the more formal Roman numeral model you may have learned in high school.  Outlining enables you to see the skeleton of an argument: the thesis, the first point and evidence (and so on), through the conclusion. With weighty or difficult readings, that skeleton may not be obvious until you go looking for it.

Summarizing accomplishes something similar, but in sentence and paragraph form, and with the connections between ideas made explicit.

Analyzing adds an evaluative component to the summarizing process—it requires you not just to restate main ideas, but also to test the logic, credibility, and emotional impact of an argument.  In analyzing a text, you reflect upon and decide how effectively (or poorly) its argument has been made.  Questions to ask:

  • What is the writer asserting?
  • What am I being asked to believe or accept? Facts? Opinions? Some mixture?
  • What reasons or evidence does the author supply to convince me? Where is the strongest or most effective evidence the author offers  -- and why is it compelling?
  • Is there any place in the text where the reasoning breaks down?  Are there things that do not make sense,  conclusions that are drawn prematurely, moments where the writer undermines their purposes?

4. Look for repetitions and patterns

The way language is chosen, used, and positioned in a text can be an important indication of what an author considers crucial and what they expect you to glean from their argument.  

Language choices can also alert you to ideological positions, hidden agendas or biases.   Be watching for:

  • Recurring images
  • Repeated words, phrases, types of examples, or illustrations
  • Consistent ways of characterizing people, events, or issues

5. Contextualize

Once you’ve finished reading actively and annotating it,  consider the text from the multiple perspectives.

When you contextualize, you essentially "re-view" a text you've encountered, acknowledging how it is framed by its historical, cultural, material, or intellectual circumstances. Do these factors change, complicate, explain, deepen or otherwise influence how you view a piece? 

Also view the reading through the lens of your own experience. Your understanding of the words on the page and their significance is always shaped by what you have come to know and value from living in a particular time and place.

6. Compare and Contrast

Set course readings against each other to determine their relationships (hidden or explicit).

  • At what point in the term does this reading come?  Why that point, do you imagine?
  • How does it contribute to the main concepts and themes of the course? 
  • How does it compare (or contrast) to the ideas presented by texts that come before it?  Does it continue a trend, shift direction, or expand the focus of previous readings?
  • How has your thinking been altered by this reading, or how has it affected your response to the issues and themes of the course?


Susan Gilroy, Librarian for Undergraduate Writing Programs, Lamont Library 

PDF version


Interrogating texts [2 page printable]


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