Close Reading Techniques: How to get all the information you need from assigned readings

A close reading is when you read the text for information, argument, and deeper meaning/details. In short, it’s the exact opposite of skimming. Close reading can be helpful when you are working on an assigned reading that you plan on using later for research, or one that you are planning on discussing in depth in class. There are a number of strategies you can use when doing a “close reading,” and I’ve listed some of the major ones below.

1. Make strategic use of highlighters

Many students have heard the phrase, if you are highlighting everything, you aren’t really highlighting anything. Over highlighting is a common mistake made by students when they try to do a close reading. There are a few ways to over come this problem.

Only highlight what you want to remember as a direct quote. This is the strategy that I use when I highlight my reading. This lets me pull out only the most important pieces of the text.

Use Multiple Colors: This strategy is helpful if there are different aspects of the text your want to remember for different reasons. For example, perhaps you want to identify several different arguments. Or, perhaps you want to highlight main ideas with one color and supporting facts with a second color. Another strategy is to highlight key terms in one color, conceptual ideas in a second, and important formulas with a third. If you use this strategy, the important thing to remember is to leave yourself some kind of key, so that you can easily return to the notes at a later time and understand what your rainbow effect means.

2. Annotate your reading

Annotation is just a fancy word that means take notes in the margins. There are two major things this strategy allows you to accomplish:

Summary of key points: When you annotate, you want to focus on summarizing key pieces of material in your own words. You can do this by writing directly on the document itself, or by using sticky notes. When I read, I do some of both. And, when I am reading a digital copy, I tend to put my summaries into digital sticky notes. The benefit of annotating a document this way is that you will be able to go back and get the gist of the argument (or major points) just by reading your annotations.

Adding your own thoughts/interpretations into your notes. Sometimes, when you read, you are able to connect it back to other things you’ve learned, to other things you’ve read, or you may be able to pass your own judgement on the validity of the argument. All of this counts as annotation as well. The benefit of this kind of annotation is that it allows you to remember the critiques you had of a piece when you review it later. An important key to using this kind of annotation is to keep it separate from any kind of summary annotations you make. Pick a different color pen, a different sticky note, or come up with a symbol (I use a #) to place in front of your own thoughts.

3. Create symbols to put in the margins.

Both highlighting and (especially) annotating are time consuming ways to do a close reading of a text. If you are also dealing with a large reading load, you may not have time to painstakingly write (or type) out your summary thoughts and ideas, and using a highlighter may cause you to over (or under) highlight passages. One way around this dilemma is to create a series of symbols to write into the text that are fast reminders about why a particular section is important. Perhaps you can throw an exclamation point next to a key piece of the argument, a question mark next to data you have an issue with, and draw a line down the side of a paragraph you think is particularly important evidence. You can circle key hypotheses, words, or formulas, and you can place a star next to key diagrams.

One benefit to this method is that it is not only a faster way to make notes while you read, but also lends itself well to marking lightly with pencil in books that you will need to erase at a later date (a text book you wish to sell back, or a library book).

4. Creating an abstract after finishing an article

A final strategy for a close reading is to create a short summary when you are done reading the selection. This method is one I used often in graduate school in order to cut through the large reading loads we were assigned. After I was done reading an article, I would try to summarize the main argument, key evidence and methodology in a few sentences to a short paragraph. For articles, I’d write this on the first page, above the title. When we returned to discuss the article in class, I’d have a quick reminder of the contents right away. For books, I’d summarize each chapter in this fashion. I use this method in conjunction with other strategies, but it is one that I find most helpful when returning to a text after any amount of time (even just two days) have passed. It is especially helpful if you are studying for exams and need to be able to cite readings from a course.

What other strategies do you use to take good notes while you are reading? Share in the comments below.

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