How to Actively Read a Piece of Literature

Three Methods:Conducting a Quick Review of the LiteratureResponding to the LiteratureReviewing the Literature

Actively reading a piece of literature is about gaining more than the simple insight you get from reading. When you actively read, you understand more thoroughly the concepts, the meaning, and the intricate details that add value and volume to the text. It’s the difference between observation and involvement.[1] Try to preview, respond, and review the literature and you’ll be well on your way towards active reading.

Method 1
Conducting a Quick Review of the Literature

  1. Image titled Actively Read a Piece of Literature Step 1
    Consider your current knowledge of the literature. Analyzing what you already know about the literature and the author could provide key clues towards better active reading. Knowing the basic concept of the literature or the author may shape your perception about what the author is actually intending to relate.[2]
    • Is the author from a specific region of the world?
    • Does the author hold a position or stance on a subject that may shape his or her views?
    • Is the book a likely response to a current event or related tension?
    • Be careful not to make brash connections between the author’s background and the work.[3]
    • A book titled "Uncertain Future" written in 1942 is probably about WWII.
  2. Image titled Actively Read a Piece of Literature Step 2
    Review the cover. If the piece of literature you are reading is a book, or has a cover with an illustrated title, take a minute to review it. What does the title mean to you? Before continuing, make an inference on what the book will be about. If the book's title is "Richard III," you're in the clear; it's about Richard III. What if, however, the title of the book was "Much Ado About Nothing?" That would not be too clear.[4]
    • Analyze the title and subtitle word choice. Could a synonym have been used? If so, why did the author choose that specific title?
    • If a character is fiercely displayed on the cover, try to determine the action being taken.
    • For a series or sequel, look at the progression from one cover or title to another, and ask yourself what has occurred from book one to two.
  3. Image titled Actively Read a Piece of Literature Step 3
    Survey each chapter before reading. When beginning your actual text reading, make sure to focus on the chapter title/name. Carefully analyze typeface choices like bold and italic words or passages. Ask yourself why these word and design choices would be made in this specific chapter. Asking different levels of questions will help you understand core concepts throughout the text.[5]
    • Create questions or guesses about the oncoming chapter’s purpose or perspective.
      • "Willy Loman battles the devil," may be about a character's battle versus evil or inner demons.
      • A chapter titled, "Cancelled business trip," could be literal, or about a tragic event while traveling.
    • Modify the titles into thoughts or questions related to what may follow.
      • "Willy Loman laments that his son discovered his infidelity"
      • "Willy Loman returns home, disappointed."
  4. Image titled Actively Read a Piece of Literature Step 4
    Analyze any visual clues provided. Being able to use your visual literacy, or the ability to turn a visual representation, like a chart, graph, or illustration, into something meaningful, can be a massive benefit to active reading. It’s important to analyze and interpret any images, and being able to communicate why they are significant. Consider one of the following approaches to glean pertinent information.[6]
    • Look at maps, and attempt to determine where specific people may live, or with whom they may align or feud.
    • Is the technique used an indicator of the time period or target audience?
    • Aesthetically speaking, is the work pleasing or harsh to the eyes? Does that convey meaning?

Method 2
Responding to the Literature

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    React physically and emotionally to key moments. Actively engage physical reactions to critical portions of the book as you would when listening to a friend tell you a face-to-face story. If there is a surprising plot-twist, raise your eyebrows or mouth the word “wow.” The key is to absorb and ingrain the a portion of the story, so the entire tale is memorable. [7]
    • When a villain gains the upper hand, furl your brow in disdain.
    • Laugh out loud when something comical occurs.
    • Tense your muscles during action, battles, or fights.
  2. Image titled Actively Read a Piece of Literature Step 6
    Be a critical reader. Avoid passive discovery of concepts and story subplots.[8] Engage the literature and analyze underlying intentions. Being a critical reader means you understand the words being read, their meanings, and then you anticipate a likely future.
    • Carefully read seemingly insignificant monologues for hints at future revelations.
    • Gather clues about characters to determine their potential outcome. If a character constantly drones on about impending doom or death, is the author attempting to hint at their demise?
    • When making connections about the future of the literature, ensure your connections are based on content rather than supposition.[9]
  3. Image titled Actively Read a Piece of Literature Step 7
    Examine how the author proves their point. While identifying major concepts and themes may be a clear objective, noting how the author proves these points is also important. Once you know the main arguments, look in the text for smaller claims that either support or contradict the primary thesis.[10]
    • Does the author make assumptions to prove his or her point?
    • Are credible characters in the literature providing the evidence? If a doctor declares something a medical emergency, it likely is. If a bystander says the same thing, it could be to mislead a reader.
    • Is thesis-supporting data based on reason or emotion?
  4. Image titled Actively Read a Piece of Literature Step 8
    Make notes while reading. Writing notes about specific sections can be an all-encompassing way for you to summarize all your thoughts and questions related to the topic. It could also help you keep complicated details clear in large pieces of literature. Use a variety of techniques so your notes doesn’t get confusing.[11]
    • Dog ear pages that have details difficult to remember.
    • Use sticky notes or plastic tabs to reference key plot points.
    • Make your own spreadsheet of the various characters, families, allies, and enemies.
    • Draw flow-charts, pictures, diagrams, and other visual aids to help with learning.[12]
  5. Image titled Actively Read a Piece of Literature Step 9
    Create an annotation system. Make sure to focus on important selections, creating your own system, or legend, to identify the reason for the annotation. Being able to quickly focus on the portions you’d like to isolate will help you maintain focus throughout your review. For instance, if you only want to flip through pages and look for unfamiliar words, you could quickly find the words you’ve circled or underlined. [13]
    • Use asterisks to mark curious or interesting selections.
    • Use arrows to connect ideas that appear to be related.
    • Circling words you don't know, or underlining creative language by the author, can be beneficial to your linguistic and grammatical skills.
  6. Image titled Actively Read a Piece of Literature Step 10
    Write in the margins. Connect to what is going in the selection, or summarize the key point. Ensure you identify what the section means to you, what you believe it portends, and any overarching themes with which it aligns or contradicts. Use a few key marks in the margins to quickly convey your methods. [14]
    • A large question mark could be your way of identifying a section you didn’t understand.
    • Mark particularly moving sections, ones which moved you emotionally, with an heart.
    • Exclamation points are attention-getters, for those selections that appear contradictory.

Method 3
Reviewing the Literature

  1. Image titled Actively Read a Piece of Literature Step 11
    Read the first and last sentences or paragraphs of each chapters again. Examine how the book opens and how it closes. Look how each chapter starts, ends, and begins anew. Is there a connection? Is there a pattern? Does the story come to a complete resolution? Do characters grow? Look for the setup and resolution to problems.[15]
    • Improve the process by creating a simply summary at the end of each chapter. Write a few sentences based on what you understood from the reading.
    • Don’t try to speed through. Comprehension is lost the faster you read.[16]
    • Look for critical words that imply additional attention. If you see “however” or “conversely,” you know the content is about to change slightly.
    • Identify emphasizing words like “always,” “paramount,” and “above all else.” These words signify something critical to the story or the current dialogue.[17]
  2. Image titled Actively Read a Piece of Literature Step 12
    Review everything a second time. The literature and your notes should be reviewed as frequently as possible. The first time you read, it’s about familiarization with the story. Subsequent readings should focus on simpler concepts, meanings behind subtle details. Some larger texts may be difficult to read completely a second time, but a thorough review is beneficial.[18]
    • Reviewing helps keep the text and your notes fresh in memory.
    • Regular review may bring about new thoughts as you progress through a work of literature. Something you believe or think early on, may change as you move through chapters.[19]
    • Create exam questions for yourself based upon whether you gained new insight from the subsequent reading.[20]
  3. Image titled Actively Read a Piece of Literature Step 13
    Recite key details. As often as you can, attempt to lock down important details by reciting them consistently. Whether verbal or written, recitation helps commit facts to memory so that the more complicated or subtle details can be grasped. Once you have these details firmly in hand, everything else plays out as a result.[21]
    • Reciting the sequence of events can help with understanding timeline-based tales.
    • Complicated literature can be recited on a cause and effect basis. For instance, Romeo attends a ball and falls in love with Juliet. Lord Capulet stops potential bloodshed, and Romeo overhears Juliet’s shared love for him.
    • Don’t forget to recite your notes as well as the original content. Translating and converting your notes as you read will help form greater understanding.[22]


  • Reading on an empty stomach, or while exhausted, can make reading a burden. Making sure that you are ready and able to comprehend can help you tremendously.
  • Be sure to find a location with minimal noise and ample lighting.


  • Using the techniques listed can drastically elongate reading time.
  • Be sure you're marking up your own book, and not a borrowed one.

Things You'll Need

  • A dictionary, electronic is preferred
  • Ball points pens
  • Notebook

Sources and Citations

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Article Info

Categories: Studying Literature