The Role of Active Reading in
Interpreting & Writing About Texts
Based on a Tri-Fold
Model for Reading and
Inquiry: The Trivium
Grammar Stage Þ What?
Logic Stage Þ How?
Why, or So What?
Active Reading Defined Reading can
either be passive or active. “Passive [or non-critical]
reading is a process of absorption. Active
reading is a process of
interpretation and reflection, whereby a reader constructs meaning, establishes
significance, and reflects on the limits of his or her understanding. Active
readers are often conscious of their moves and can describe them” (Salvatori
128). Active reading is “recursive”—“a reading that returns the reader to a
previously covered terrain. A deeper, more thorough, interpretation” (128).
Because good writing about literature depends on good reading of it, this is the
kind of skilled reading we need to develop and hone for this course.
of active reading:
down and know that a second (or even a third) reading is in order.
the preliminary, “grammar” stage, read with a pen or pencil in hand in order to notate your
subsequent, more studied readings – the logic and rhetoric stages – begin to
furnish the work with explanatory / interpretive notes (annotation) as
you embark the process of 1) judging the merit of a work’s claims (evaluation);
2) assessing how the parts of the work fit into the whole (analysis); and 3)
forming an interpretive position about the meaning, significance, and relevance
of the work as a whole (argumentation).
facilitate your understanding at all levels, ask questions
– basic or “practical” as well as theoretical or “interpretive” – and begin
to respond to them in writing.
System: “a pattern of marks readers employ during the reading process to
remember certain elements of a text and record their reactions to these
elements. Such notations function as a method of retrieval, allowing readers to
return to a text, recall their first impressions, move beyond, and complicate
the.” Readers who employ a system of notation find themselves reading more
actively and respond better in class discussion (and on quizzes!), since while
they read they actively engage themselves in the process of thinking about and
writing to a text. (Salvatori 19)
for developing a system of notation (adapted from Gardner,
circle, or otherwise highlight passages that strike you as particularly
important and relevant.
notes in the margins as to why certain points strike you.
for unusual features of language.
for and take note of recurring motifs, words, symbols, images.
a system of shorthand and coded symbols (i.e., ? for question or confusion; !
for a surprising idea, something unexpected; (¶)
to make something stand out).
furnishing a literary work with explanatory notes; responding to a text with the
goal of interpreting, establishing, and constructing meaning. You might annotate
a significant passage or two, focusing on how isolated and salient places in the
text form larger patterns of meaning.
Questions: “If you are reading well, your textual annotations and notes will
probably be full of questions. Some of these may be simple inquiries of fact,
the sort of thing that can be answered by asking your instructor or doing some
quick research. But ideally, many of your questions will be more complex and
meaty than that, the sort of probing queries that may have multiple, complex, or
even contradictory answers. These are the questions that will provoke you and
your classmates to think still more critically about the literature you have
read. You need not worry—at least not at first—about finding answers to all your
questions. As you work more with the text, discussing it with your instructor
and peers, writing about it, and reading other related texts, you will begin to
respond to the most important of the issues you’ve raised. And even if you never
form a satisfactory answer to some questions, they will have served their
purpose if they have made you think” or in some way frame your interpretation of
the text (Gardner 7-13).
remember, have definitive, generally simple answers and are often grounded in
“literal,” surface-level meanings of a text; there is little complexity and
depth. Theoretical or interpretive questions require more lengthy, in-depth
responses that are not conclusive but matters of “lawyer-like” persuasion and
evidence-based argumentation. Until you have answered all the basic questions
about the text (such as “What is taking place?” “Who is this about?” and so
forth), you will not be able to answer the interpretive or theoretical ones with
complexity and nuance. Nor will you be able to achieve the level of specificity
and depth that produces sharp analytical and argumentative writing.
about the text:
These questions might focus on issues such as genre, structure, language, style,
the presence of certain images, etc.
about the author:
Questioning how an author’s age, gender, religious beliefs, family structure,
and other factors might have an impact on the writer’s expression and may lend
relevant critical insight to the study of a particular text.
about the cultural context:
Questioning how a particular time and place, the wider social and cultural
context of the author’s life and its influence on the production of the text,
inform or even challenge our understanding of the text.
about the reader:
This type of questioning takes into account how different readers may filter the
same text—through personal associations, emotions, shared cultural
experience—and with different outcomes. It is worthwhile, for example, to
consider the difference (and implications) in how a work’s originally intended
audience may have responded to a text versus how the text affects its
It is crucial at all stages
of the reading process to respond to questions through “informal” writing. The
goal here is two-fold: (1) to discover meaning by responding to a question that
makes you “rethink” and “reread” a text and your initial responses to it; and
(2) to climb the level of specificity, both in your questioning and writing, in
order to move from a more “obvious” to more complex examination of the text at
hand. Oftentimes you will find that this informal writing leads you to discover
a “driving question” (the key question or “problem” your essay will address),
the findings of which you will present in your paper in the form of the thesis
idea (see handout on “Thesis Construction”).
adapted and cited directly from Janet Gardner’s Writing
About Literature and
Mariolina Salvatori’s The
Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty