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4 Reading actively

4.1 Underlining and highlighting

To be able to make sense of what you are reading, you need to read actively. One method that can help is to use a pen.

Activity 2

Did you underline or highlight any words as you read the Layard article? If not, go back over the first three paragraphs and use a biro or a highlighter pen to mark important words. Try not to mark too many words; pick out just enough, so that you still get the main points if you read only those words.


My selection

I chose to underline rather than highlight. You can see my underlining for paragraph 3 in Box 5.9. Does it look anything like yours? Why do you think I used double underlining in several places?

Text underlined while reading paragraph 3 of Layard

There is no ‘correct’ way to underline. You may have had excellent reasons for marking quite different words. It depends what your mind focuses on as you read.

To me it seemed that the first sentence was telling me that the paragraph was about happiness in a society, rather than the happiness of individuals, so I double-underlined ‘within’ and ‘society’. The focus of the paragraph then stood out clearly. I also underlined ‘any’ to remind me that we were not just talking about the UK. I then tried to pick out words that I would be able to read more or less as abbreviated sentences. Here are all the words I underlined in Box 5.9:

Within any society – rich happier than poorer – 41 per cent top quarter very happy – 26 per cent bottom. Over years proportions not changed – though real incomes risen hugely – all western countries.

On reaching the end of the paragraph I decided that the main point was about the proportions of happy people not having changed, so I double-underlined those words.

Now when I look at the paragraph, its meaning seems to come out to meet me halfway. The thinking I did while reading is visible to me in the underlining, and I quickly connect back to those thoughts when I read the underlined words. If that doesn't work, I can go back to the original words.

I often use underlining rather than highlighting because of its flexibility. I can accurately target specific words, double or treble underline, put an asterisk in the margin to emphasise an important point, put numbers against points, or write brief notes. If a text is particularly important, or I'm gathering material for writing purposes, then I might go through again with a highlighter, picking out a few key passages.

We all work differently. Some people prefer to highlight rather than underline, because they feel it looks nicer and has a less intrusive effect. Experiment with different approaches to find out what works for you.


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