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Reading to Learn

Thinking critically to get the most out of whatever you’re reading

· Reading to learn,Critical thinking,Reading

If you’re on this web page right now, you’ve likely learned to read. Reading is a fundamental skill that most people learn and practice throughout grade school. Not as obvious, though, is the skill of reading to learn.

There are many reasons to read. We read recipes to make dinner. We read road signs to stay safe. We read our utility bills to keep the lights on. We read our watches to know what time it is. But have you ever glanced at your watch, only to realize a few moments later that you have no idea what the time is?

This is a great example of how we most often read to gain bits of information, or memorize details that are immediately pertinent. As we progress through the education system, into specialized careers, and through adulthood, it becomes less and less necessary to really carefully read, with a critical eye and an engaged mind.

If you’ve experienced the “I just looked at my watch!” phenomenon, don’t worry. You’re not alone, and there are ways that you can practice reading to learn, and ultimately do a lot more than just passively absorb facts from whatever you read.

A great place to start is with some of the techniques you groaned about back in elementary school: highlighting, underlining, jotting notes, annotating, and otherwise physically engaging with the text you’re reading. It may seem silly, but these “writing to learn” strategies can really help to create a deeper level of engagement with and comprehension of your reading material (Porter-O’Donnell, 2004).

The next step in reading to learn is to synthesize original “questions, comments, and concerns” about whatever you’re reading. If you highlight or underline a term because it’s unfamiliar, try to use context to figure it out, and then check a trusted resource to see if you were on the right track. At the end of an article, chapter, or section, summarize the key points in your own words; relating what you’ve read to a friend or colleague is a great way to do this. If you find yourself with questions about content, don’t just shrug them off -- write them down!

To really read to learn, go one step further. Don’t let your paper with questions end up in the bin -- ask them! If you’re a student, the classroom provides an obvious opportunity to do so. Even outside the school setting, you can find ways to ask. If it’s a work memo that you don’t quite understand, spark a discussion among your coworkers or ask the author to clarify. If you’re reading an article online or in a magazine, write a letter to the editor with your questions or ideas, or participate in comment sections and online forums.

If this all sounds a bit overwhelming at first, start slowly. You can practice reading to learn with just about anything. Take, for example, the wildly popular Harry Potter franchise. This nonfiction series is simple enough on the surface level for kids to comprehend. But what if you were to read the novel through a different lens -- say, examining it closely, as one would a sacred text? This is precisely the premise of a new podcast and web series called “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text,” and the result is an astounding example of reading to learn.


Have you ever read a children’s book or other simple text and engaged with it on an unexpectedly profound level? If not this, do you have any other interesting ways to explore reading to learn? Share your ideas and tips in the comments.


Porter-O'Donnell, C. (2004, May). Beyond the Yellow Highlighter: Teaching Annotation Skills to Improve Reading Comprehension. English Journal, 93(5). Retrieved September 13, 2016, from the Yellow Highlighter.pdf

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