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How to Take Notes While Reading

In this article, you will learn how to take notes while reading by watching a tutorial video, reading step-by-step instructions, or downloading a free & printable Quick Reference Guide.

Video Tutorial:

In this video, I explain some helpful tips for taking notes while reading. You can find step-by-step instructions and a free, printable quick reference guide below.

Step-By-Step Instructions:

Here are four simple steps to take organized and useful notes while reading. Follow the four steps below in order to save time, increase organization, and be more successful when taking notes while reading. These note taking strategies can be used in all subject areas and in all grade levels from middle grades all the way through higher education.

Use the links below to navigate to specific steps outlined in this article.

Two important notes to mention before going further:

  1. If you are using a borrowed book, from a friend or the library, you probably don't want to highlight and write all over the book. Instead, you can use different colors and sizes of Post-it notes to mark up the text. Then when you are done reading and studying with the book you can remove your sticky notes and return the book in the same condition as you found it.

  2. Another option to consider if you have to use a borrowed book is to try and find a digital copy. Many libraries have digital copies of books available which you can "check out" on your computer, tablet, or phone just as you would "check out" a physical book at the library. You can perform the note taking strategies discussed in this article with an eBook in the same way you would a physical book. Two other benefits of using a digital copy of a book are that your work is more accessible and more protected. It is more accessible because most eReader applications allow for access across devices so you can work on your computer as well as any other device you have and you can access your work from pretty much anywhere at any time. The digital book is also more secure because it is less likely to be lost or misplaced than a physical copy of a book.

Use a highlighter to mark anything in the book that you might need to refer back to later. The brightly colored highlight will make it easier to find what you need when flipping back through your book without wasting time having to re-read lots of text. Some types of things to consider highlighting are key terms, vocabulary words, possible quotes for a paper you are writing, or a passage that was personally meaningful or impactful.

Highlighting while reading is a simple strategy to start using and a great skill to become an expert at. The trick is to highlight, but not to highlight too much. The purpose of using the highlighter is to make the most important points stand out from the rest of the text so it is easy and quick for you to refer back to them later. If too much of the text is highlighted, the information in the book will be more difficult to navigate instead of easier.

A general rule of thumb is to try and only highlight one to three sentences per page. This is of course not a definite rule but it is helpful to keep in mind while reading and taking notes with a highlighter. If you find yourself starting to highlight too much in one section or on one page, take a few minutes to reread that area in order to find just the most important sentences and highlight those. Usually if you spend a little extra time rereading and analyzing a section, you will be able to highlight less while still making sure the important information is noted. This will make your notes more effective and save you lots of time when you try to go back later and use your highlighted notes for studying or writing a paper.

Another way you can make your highlighted notes more organized and more effective is to break them into categories.

Using different colored highlights for different categories of notes is a simple yet amazingly effective tool for taking notes while reading. The first thing you need to do is determine what different categories of notes you might find in a text and assign a different color to each category.

Category & Color Examples:

1. "Key Terms & Definitions : Yellow"

2. "Possible quote for paper : Pink"

3. "Other : Green"

It is important to write down your category and color choices somewhere like the front of the book that is easy to refer back to. Accidentally switching or mixing up category colors part way through a book can be very confusing and end up wasting a lot of time trying to fix so be sure to choose one color for each category and continue to use that color throughout the entire book.

After highlighting your book notes in different colors, you will be able to use your notes much easier and faster. For example, let's say you didn't use different colors and in one chapter of a book you ended up highlighting thirty different sections. In order to find one of the key terms defined in that chapter later you will have to look through thirty different highlighted notes. However, if you had highlighted your notes into different categories and all of the eight key terms in that chapter were highlighted in pink, then you could very quickly find the information you needed by scanning through for just those eight highlighted areas.

The margins are the spaces on the edges of the pages between the words and the end of the page. It is very useful to utilize this open space when taking notes while reading. Use the margins next to your highlighted sections to write down quick notes or symbols to remind you why that section was important.

If a lot of time has passed between when you first read a section of a book and when you are going back to use the notes from that book, it can be hard to remember why a certain highlight was important. It can also be difficult to remember what the context of the whole chapter or section around the highlight was as well. To avoid having to reread lots of the text when you refer back to your notes, write notes to remind yourself in the margin. While there are lots of different possibilities of notes to write down, try to answer these two questions in the margins as often as possible:

  1. Why was this highlighted section important to me when I first read it? i.e. why did I highlight it?

  2. Why is this highlighted point important to the context of the whole section or chapter surrounding it?

Here are some examples of some possible quick notes next to highlights in the margins:

1. "Vocabulary word - Chapter 12"

2. "Possible quote for section 2 of research paper"

3. "Sounds similar to book I read in English class"

A quick note about context in regard to taking notes while reading - It is important to be thinking about and writing notes about the context of the quotes you pull out of a text because you don't want to use the quote incorrectly when constructing a paper after reading. You can't take someone's words or sentences and use them to say or represent something that they didn't originally say or represent in the text where you got the quote. This is called using a quote "out of context" and while you may never do this intentionally, it is important to accompany your highlighted quotes with notes about context so you don't accidentally use the quote out of context.

It is a great habit to transfer your highlights, notes, and quotes out of the book and record them in a digital or physical notebook after each reading session. It would be devastating to spend a lot of time taking detailed and organized notes in a book and then misplace the book. Transfer your notes out of the book so they are protected by being recorded in more than one place.

It is highly recommended that you transfer your notes into a digital notebook on a computer that is connected to cloud storage system such as Microsoft One-Note or Google Drive. Cloud based storage systems like the ones mentioned here can automatically save your work online so it can't be lost and you can access that work from virtually anywhere on any device.

Starting to use the note taking strategies discussed in this article while reading may seem tedious and difficult at first but after using these methods repeatedly, they will become much easier and much more useful. Being an expert at note taking while reading will help you succeed at all levels of school, work, and everyday life.

Downloadable & Printable Quick Reference Guide

Click here for a free printable "How to Take Notes While Reading Quick Reference Guide." This guide gives directions and tips for taking useful and organized notes while reading that are easy to refer back to after reading.


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