Instructions & Practice

Success in college frequently depends on the abilities to read and write well. This page offers instructions and activities to improve reading and writing skills.


The best way to become a better reader is to become an active reader. "Active readers get involved with the material they read. They think, question, challenge, and criticize the author's ideas "(McWhorter, Kathleen T. Active Reading: Reading and Critical Thinking in College. Pearson, 2012). The following provide instruction and practice in becoming an active reader (links open in new tabs):

Active Reading

The best way to become a better reader is to become an active reader. "Active readers get involved with the material they read. They think, question, challenge, and criticize the author's ideas" (McWhorter, Kathleen T. Active Reading: Reading and Critical Thinking in College. Pearson, 2012).
(Click on topics to expand/contract text)
  • Control External Distractions. Click to find HOW >>
    - Choose a quiet place to study without distractions.
    - Read your textbook assignments when you are most alert.
  • Increase your attention span. Click to find HOW >>
    1. Read with a purpose--set goals for yourself as well as time limits and deadlines.
    2. Keep a piece of paper handy to write down any ideas that distract you--things you need to remember to do, for example.
    3. Vary your reading, working on several assignments in one evening. If you lose interest one assignment, move on to another.
    4. Combine physical and mental activities--highlighting, making marginal notes, writing quick summaries "provide an outlet for physical energy."
    5. Take frequent breaks.
  • Preview before reading. Click to find HOW >>
    1. Read the title and subtitle to determine the overall subject and specific focus of the chapter.
    2. Read the introduction or first paragraph to get an idea about the overall subject and how it will be covered in the chapter.
    3. Read each boldfaced heading and the first sentence under each heading to find out the central thought of each section.
    4. Note any typographical aids--e.g. italics or bolded words may indicate important terms and definitions.
    5. Note any graphic aids, such as graphs, charts, photographs, and tables. Be sure you read the captions!
    6. Read the last paragraph or summary.
    7. Read any end-of-chapter materials, such as study questions, discussion questions, chapter outlines, or vocabulary lists.
  • Review. Click to find HOW >>
    1. Immediate review should take place as soon as possible after reading to fix in your mind what you have read. Strategies: reread each heading and summary, answer study or discussion questions at the end of the chapter, etc.
    2. Periodical review should take place several times throughout the semester, to keep from forgetting what you have read. Strategy: establish a periodic review schedule.
    3. Final review is a last check of material before a test. Strategy: you have taken good notes and made good summaries of your reading assignments, you may just review your notes and summaries.
  • Recall strategies: How can I remember what I need to remember >>
    • Determine what you will need to remember, based on they type of material and why you are reading it (e.g. class discussion, essay exam, or multiple choice exam?)
    • As you read, ask and continually answer these questions (mark your textbook and take notes accordingly):
        o how important is this material?
        o will I need to know this for the exam?
        o is this a key idea?
        o why did the writer include this?
    • Organize and categorize: information that is has a pattern or structure is easier to remember, so when taking notes, try to organize the information into categories--make tables if appropriate.
    • Associate ideas: connect new ideas with what you already know and with other new ideas.
    • Use sensory modes: try to use more than one sensory mode (sight, hearing, touch)--highlight, outline, draw pictures, repeat information out loud.
    • Use mnemonic devices: memory tricks such as rhymes and acronyms can help you remember information (e.g. Roy G. Biv represents the colors in the light spectrum--red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet).
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Reading: Finding the Main Idea

A key skill in academic reading is the ability to pull the main points from a text.

The topic is what the passage is about. The main idea is what the author is trying to convey about that topic.

When reading a passage, ask yourself, "What is the topic?" Then, answer the question, "What is the author saying about the topic?"

Tips for finding the main idea:
  • Identify the topic.
  • Locate the most general sentence in the paragraph--it must be broad enough to include all of the other ideas in the paragraph. (It is usually the first sentence, though it is sometimes the last sentence. Infrequently, it can also be in the middle, with the beginning of the paragraph leading up to it.)
  • Sometimes the main idea is not stated outright--you will need to infer it from the content of the rest of the paragraph.
  • Study the rest of the paragraph--all other sentences will relate to the main idea, giving specific details or instances.

(Note: The main point of a group of paragraphs is called the central thought or thesis.)

The following activities offer practice in determining the main idea of a paragraph.



Vocabulary: Using Context Clues

Sometimes you can figure out the meaning of a word from the words around it in a sentence or paragraph, i.e. the context clues.

Look for 5 kinds of context clues:

  1. definition clues, in which the writer defines the word immediately after its use.
    (signaling words or phrases: means, is, refers to, is defined as)

  2. synonym clues, in which the writer provides a word or phrase that is close in meaning.

  3. example clues, in which the writer provides examples to explain or clarify a word.

  4. contrast clues, in which a word or phrase is included which is opposite in meaning.
    (signaling words or phrases: on the other hand, however, in contrast, despite, but, yet, nevertheless)

  5. inference clues, in which the reader uses logic to figure out the meaning of the word.

The following activities provide practice in using context clues to determine the meanings of words:



Reading: Finding Supporting Details
(from McWhorter, Kathleen T. Active Reading: Reading and Critical Thinking in College. Pearson, 2012)

Supporting details are those facts and ideas that prove or explain the main idea of a paragraph. Some details are more important than others. As you read, it is important to distinguish between

  • major details--the most important facts or ideas that directly explain the main idea
  • minor details--facts or ideas that provide additional information or explain a major detail.

Transitions can help you understand how the details are related to one another and to the main idea:

Time sequences: first, later, next, finally

Examples: for example, for instance, to illustrate, such as

Lists: first, second, third, last, anohter, next

Continuation: also, in addition, and, further, another

Contrast: on the other hand, in contrast, however

Comparison: like, likewise, similarly

Cause/effect: because, thus, therefore

The following activity provides practice in identifying supporting details.



Reading: Understanding Patterns of Organization
(from McWhorter, Kathleen T. Active Reading: Reading and Critical Thinking in College. Pearson, 2012)

Understanding how an author has organized his information can help you figure out the author's message.

The following are common patterns writers use to organize information:

  • Examples: Frequently authors will explain an unfamiliar concept by giving examples the reader may be more familiar with.
  • Definition: In explaining a concept, a writer may define it by telling something of its history, its characteristics, and perhaps how it differs from other, similar concepts.
  • Chronological Order (process): When dealing with events, stories, or processes, writers frequently tell the order in which events happen, starting with the first event and continuing on according to the time in which the events occurred.
  • Listing: Writers may simple list a number of facts when the order is not important.
  • Comparison: A writer may explain something by comparing it with similar items, emphasizing the ways they are alike.
  • Contrast: A writers may explain something by showing how it differs from something similar.
  • Cause-Effect: Writers may explain a concept by telling why it happened, or what effects it has on other actions or events.
  • Classification: Writers frequently explain something by dividing it into parts and explaining each part.

The following activity provides practice in determining how a passage is organized.



Reading: Making Inferences
(from McWhorter, Kathleen T. Active Reading: Reading and Critical Thinking in College. Pearson, 2012)

As you read, you need to pick up clues and go beyond the explicit facts as you try to figure out the author's message.

An inference is an educated guess based on available information. The following strategies will help you make inferences as you read:

  • First, understand the literal meaning, i.e. the main idea and the supporting details.
  • Pay attention to details, which may be clues to unstated facts or ideas.
  • Ask yourself, why did the writer include this information? What does the writer want me to understand from these details?
  • Examine the writer's choice of words, especially emotionally charged words, which will often indicate his/her attitude toward the subject.
  • Make sure your inference is supported by evidence in the paragraph.

The following activity provides practice in inferring information from a passage.


Reading: Analyzing Purpose and Tone
(from McWhorter, Kathleen T. Active Reading: Reading and Critical Thinking in College. Pearson, 2012)

Analyzing a writer's attitude toward his/her subject is crucial in understanding the message and in recognizing bias. Tone is frequently indicated by the words a writer uses; some words have strong connotative meanings: they convey emotional meanings.

To identify tone, ask & answer the following questions:

  • What feelings does the author reveal toward his or her subject?
  • How id the writer trying to make me feel about the subject?
  • What words reveal the writer's feelings toward the subject?

Bias refers to the writer's particular viewpoint or prejudice. To detect bias, ask these questions:

  • Is the writer acting as a reporter or a salesperson?
  • Does the writer favor one side of the issue?
  • Does the writer seem emotional about the issue?
  • Does the writer ignore some views toward the subject?

The following activity provides practice in inferring information from a passage.



Becoming an Active Reader
Finding the Main Idea
Determining Word Meaning
Identifying Supporting Details
Understanding Patterns of Organization
Making Inferences
Analyzing Purpose and Tone


Effective writers need to pay attention to both usage and mechanics, and to rhetorical elements. Usage and mechanics include of punctuation, grammar and sentence structure; rhetorical elements include writing strategy, organize, and style. The links below provide instruction and exercises in all six sub-categories:

  • Punctuation >> 
  • Grammar & Usage >> 
  • Sentence Structure >> 
  • Strategy
  • Organization
  • Style

Last Updated: 10/3/13