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How to read books and take notes effectively

Wednesday 11th, December 2019

Subahaa Maheswaran

So, you’ve got a bunch of books to read over these school holidays. Reading and taking notes for them can be rather difficult.  So, where do you start?

1. Make plans to read your books

I know it seems like an incredibly daunting task to read up to 3 books (if you’re in year 12), but if you plan out when you are going to read, suddenly this big task can be broken up into smaller, much more achievable tasks.

Don’t try to allocate entire days to reading a book. Speaking from own experience, its not a good idea and you’ll just fatigue yourself.

You can either plan out your reading by chapter, number of pages or number of minutes/hours. Personally, I alternated between reading by chapter and hours. Usually, when I would start reading a book, I would plan to read for 1-2 hours a day but as I approached the end, I would plan to read a certain number of chapters on a particular day, to be able to finish the book faster.

Ultimately, it’s up to you and what you’re comfortable with. Maybe, instead of sitting down for one hour straight, you can break up reading into five 20-minute intervals during the day. You could make a goal for you to finish at least 30 pages a day. Little progress every day adds up over time.

Also to consider; plan the order of the books you are going to read. One book may be very short and easy to read whilst the other is much longer and more complex. You could try to read the longer book first so you have more time and less pressure to finish it or you could finish the shorter books before tackling the hardest to get through. I personally did the latter but only ended up reading that book (Year of Wonders) once during the summer holidays while I was able to read the others twice, so again it’s up to you.

2. ACTUALLY read them

I know you may be tempted to go and watch the movie version or search up the plot summary on Sparknotes. You should not be just relying on these things as you’ll end up having a very surface level understanding of the texts and lack detail and complexity in your essays.

To ensure you truly understand the texts your school is studying, read them! Who knows, you may end up enjoying the books.

If not, try to remember that once you start reading a book, it will eventually end and you won’t be reading it forever. Maybe reward yourself for reading with food, a movie, social media, videogame, etc.

Tip: use an audiobook – if you’re the type of person to end up reading the same page for an hour, an audiobook could be useful. However, make sure to be following along with the actual book.

Note: if one of the texts you are studying is a play, then it’s okay if you go watch the movie version or stage performance version of it. However, at least read the play once because some scenes from the original play may be cut or changed plus it offers divergent experiences of the text.

3. Read them at least twice

If you really want to do well, I think reading your texts at least twice during the school holidays or before you study them in school would be the best strategy.

1st read: just read the book

Don’t do anything. Just read the book and take in the story. You may end up confusing yourself if you try to do too much.

I do recommend though that if there are any words you don’t understand, to make note of them and search up the meaning in a dictionary. If you just dismiss the word and just assume the meaning, you may end up misinterpreting the story.

2nd read: book tabs, highlighters, notes

Now that you have a basic understanding of the text, you need to analyse it. Read the book, but now be aware of textual and/or literary elements. You could put tabs on certain pages or highlight certain quotes, etc. However, make sure to allocate colours to particular things: one colour for themes, one colour symbols and more.

When I was reading ‘The Crucible’ for the second time, I used tabs and allocated one colour to marking the pages where the next Act began, a colour for particularly important, quote-worthy scenes, etc. Again, you can do this however you wish.

You can also just make little notes on pages rather than trying to highlight an entire passage. I did this mainly for symbols, motifs and foreshadowing.

4. Make notes on themes, setting, characters, symbols, the author

Now this would be technically occurring during your second read of the book and afterwards. There’s lots of different ways you can make notes but they should be covering most of your bases: themes, setting, characters, symbols and more.

What I did last year was that I used an old unused diary and divided into three sections: chapter summary, quotes and why. After I would read a chapter for the second time, I would whip out my little book, summarise what happened in the chapter, write down some quotes from pages I had tabbed and then write why I chose those quotes. It was in the why section that I would make links to themes, symbols, characters, etc. For me, having this little book at the end of the year with compiled notes from all the books I had read was incredibly useful leading up to the exams.

Even just, making notes just brainstorming themes present in the text you just read, listing off settings, names of characters and potential symbols will set you on the right path.

I also would recommend that you conduct some research and make notes on the authors. Much of the focus in essay writing is authorial intent so the more you know about the author, the better understanding of why the texts are written in a certain way.

5. Begin to make quote sheets, mind maps, read it again

Now is the time for further, deeper and greater consolidation of your base knowledge to ensure you do well in the SACs and the final exam.

For especially the final exam, quote sheets were extremely helpful.  I had ones for characters, themes and symbols. It made it so much easier than having to constantly flick through my books multiple times trying to find the perfect quote.  Making mind maps to visually map out character development, relationships, link themes to symbols could also be very helpful.

And finally, you could always read your books again (if you have time and the capacity to do so). I ended up reading my single text response book three times in total and my comparative text analysis books twice in total.

Of course, there are so many other things you could do to effectively read your texts and take notes– these are just some suggestions and things that worked for me.

Subahaa Maheswaran

Year 12, 2019

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