Reading to Learn


Academic reading is an active process. Students should be proactively visualizing a narrative, thinking of historical events in context, imagining real life examples and applications of scientific concepts, and most importantly, annotating and taking notes as they read. It is this sort of engagement that results in comprehension and understanding.

All too often, though, we see students take a far more passive approach to the reading they have to do for school. They sit down with their novels or textbooks in distracting environments or at the end of the night in bed, they don’t have a pencil or highlighter in hand, and worst of all, they read without stopping to think about what they are reading. Fifteen minutes, thirty minutes, or an hour later, they close their book and declare their reading “done,” yet they likely cannot tell you most of what they “read.”

This divide between active and passive reading is a crucial one to bridge. If a child can learn to read more effectively, she will become a better student, seeing gains in every subject - it’s that simple. Below you’ll find suggestions for proven reading comprehension strategies, but no matter which approach they use, kids should be sure to stop and summarize often! With so many ideas, challenging words, etc., it is easy and completely normal for students to sometimes lose track of what the author is saying. Good readers, adults, teens, and children alike, consistently monitor their understanding and often have to re-read and look back to make sense of a text. Although this will result in slower reading, and it may feel like extra work, it will end up saving students time in the end as they won’t have to endlessly reread to find the information they need to do their work!

  • Underline or highlight with purpose! A simple guiding rule is that a student should almost never highlight more than a quarter of the words on the page; given that the goal of highlighting is to help a reader pick out the most important information in a reading, a sea of color will only serve to mask the importance of those details.

  • On a related note, using different colors for different themes, or picking a separate color for important dates, vocabulary terms, or names will help to prioritize and categorize key details.

  • It is also helpful to keep in mind that a good nonfiction paragraph always includes a topic sentence, supporting details, and a concluding sentence. This often makes the task of highlighting “the important stuff” a bit more explicit.

  • While highlighting is great, annotation is even better! When students takes notes in their own words, it ensures that the brain continuously processes and synthesizes important ideas and details. This rephrasing will help them to check in on whether they actually understand what they are reading, and it will solidify the information in their memory. Plus, jots will create an easy-to-navigate map of the text whenever students need to return to it to study for an exam or find quotes for a paper, just like those color coded references.

  • Lastly, there is good old note taking. Whether students create a chart of character traits and relationships, a timeline to organize dates, or a diagram to map out the steps of a scientific process, well organized notes are an amazing tool to support processing and retention, plus they serve as a study guide for the inevitable test or quiz as well.

Next Level Annotations

As students grow older, the demands of their classwork evolve; rather than merely summarizing plot or retaining historical dates, students are challenged to think critically, as they take their base of skills and knowledge and use these tools to forge original analysis. In parallel with this evolution in their education must come an evolution in the way they read, and in the way they annotate. With luck, students will have been building up simple annotation habits for some time by this point — but now, the purpose of annotation shifts, from a tactic for staying engaged with the reading, to an active commentary that records insight and evidence with a grander end goal in mind: the analytical essay.

When students read with the aim of collecting evidence to use in an essay, they do so under a variety of different circumstances. Some teachers might provide a framework or prompt before reading begins — others will wait until after the class has finished reading a text before distributing the essay assignment. In either case the goal of annotation is the same: to activate the mind as students read, and start them down the path of critical analysis. The key here is reading with a clear purpose. If the prompts are distributed ahead of time, students should come up with a key — by numbering them for example — and mark the text with the appropriate number whenever they find a quote that could be of use in responding to that prompt. For visually-oriented learners, pens or post-it notes in different colors for different themes can enhance the process. Even if they don’t have the list of possible prompts before they begin reading, students should use a site like LitCharts to preview the text, searching for important themes that they can annotate in a similar way, as these are likely to be helpful for the eventual essay. It’s best to focus on two or three themes at a time — and remember that one piece of evidence might be helpful for more than one theme, and should be marked with more than one number or color. 

If they’re writing a research paper, and using sources that they find independently, many students will find that the challenge is sifting through the text to find relevant evidence. Here, too, there is a shift in the approach to reading; rather than starting from the beginning and reading a stack of library books through the end, students should begin with a focused question and use strategic searches to isolate the evidence they need. This means using the table of contents, learning to navigate an index, focusing on headings, and searching intelligently through online databases. As students encounter the information they will need, they should be compiling quotes into a central location, making sure to include source information and page numbers as they read and record to smooth the process of creating a bibliography later on. Online tools such as,, and the reference materials at Purdue’s Online Writing Lab make creating citations easier than ever, but most students will need an introduction to the process — both in order to understand the required formatting and its intention, and to avoid unintentional plagiarism. 

The right kind of annotation will make the process of writing a critical essay or research paper ten times simpler, and much more effective at the same time. Not only can annotation provide the kind of record that students can easily transfer into a brainstorm and outline, it will activate their way of thinking about the text as they read, setting them up for success as writers.

Teaching Technology


Letter from Mara

While it is hard to imagine a world without iPhones, iPads, laptops, and immediate access to information, in the not so distant past, personal computers and internet connected devices were specialty items. I vividly remember learning to type with a Mario video game on our boxy family computer, the sound of the dial up internet tone connecting to AOL, and getting my first laptop - a turquoise iMac that seemed like the coolest thing in the world. I also remember computer classes in school that were geared towards helping us learn how to use new technology to develop computer literacy. 

Nowadays, we see toddlers on iPhones, children who can navigate just about any app or program you put in front of them without a moment's hesitation, and teenagers who can't be away from their devices for more than a few minutes. Any child in school today has certainly earned the title of "digital native," yet we often assume they are more digitally literate than they actually are. With that in mind, this month's posts are all about helpful tips to teach students digital literacy - learning to touch type, how to do internet research, how to identify credible sources, and how to organize digital materials. It is never too late to develop these skills, and they are all central to being an efficient and effective student!

Students of the Digital Age

In a world of supposed ‘digital natives,’ we’ve forgotten that certain computer literacy skills still need to be taught. Although it’s true that kids growing up in a world of omnipresent gadgetry have a natural ease with certain aspects of the digital world that might escape their parents, this does not translate into automatic mastery of the essentials, such as organizing materials, evaluating the reliability of sources, safeguarding privacy, and even typing. Guiding students toward best practices in these areas is a vital part of teaching them to succeed both in and out of the classroom.

For a certain generation of students--those raised on instant messaging in a world of desktop computers--typing practice was a natural part of growing up, and a bit of guidance toward proper technique made all the difference. Nowadays, since most students learn to type in their free time on phones and iPads, touch-typing on a more traditional keyboard is a much neglected skill. As students enter middle and high school, a growing proportion of their work is typed, rather than handwritten -- but for many, this is a laborious process, one that hampers the transmission of thought from mind to page. A few daily minutes of practice with free online resources, including the appropriately named, can quickly improve a student’s approach, saving hours of time in the long run.

Anyone who uses a computer regularly -- which is to say, nearly everyone -- knows the importance of keeping an organized desktop, file system, and inbox. Computers serve as a portal to increasingly vast realms of information, and an important repository for personal data. Without some level of structure, this mix can quickly become chaotic. Parents and teachers can help by explicitly guiding students through the process of building nested folders by school year and subject, on the desktop and in cloud-based systems such as Google Drive. A long term research project might deserve a folder of its own, where source material, drafts, and notes can be stored together. 

Digital time management tools can also be of help to many students; iCal and Google Keep provide electronic alternatives to supplement traditional paper planners and to-do lists, with programmable reminders, color-coding, and the ability to share appointments and tasks. Many schools now have their own version of an online portal for students and parents, where teachers post assignments, grades, and course materials. This should be a resource for students that is checked daily and then processed and recorded in their own planners. 

Finally, students benefit from a clear explanation of the guidelines for evaluating the reliability of different sources online, and for keeping their own information safe from potential hackers or other unwanted eyes. In an online world without clear editorial standards, students need to understand how biases function and be guided toward reputable sources, learning to be wary of taking what they read at face value. Parents should also have a plan for discussing how to choose and manage passwords around the internet, what information to share and what to keep private, and how to deal with the dangers of operating in the public forum of the internet, while feeling like you’re in private. 

Meet a Tutor: Meg


Tell us a bit about yourself! Where are you from originally, and what brings you to New York?

My name is Meg Ryan. I grew up in Yorktown Heights, New York. After receiving my Bachelors degree from SUNY Albany, I quickly enrolled at Hunter College for my Masters degree. After going to school and student teaching in New York I realized I loved this city and moved here permanently. 

What was your favorite subject in school? 

My favorite subject in school has always been Math. I’ve always enjoyed the content throughout the years and continue to enjoy problem solving.

What is your favorite book?

I love way too many books to pick just one. Right now, I’m loving A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman.

What’s one piece of advice you’d like to give to every student reading this?

My advice to all students is to ask more questions. Ask for help when you need it and ask for more information when you want it. More often than not we associate questioning with not knowing, when it reality it’s the only thing that helps us continue to grow. 

What’s your favorite word? 

My favorite word is separate. It sounds odd, but as a young student I always misspelled the word. Every time I write it, I still remember how difficult it was for me back then. 

How do you spend your free time?

I enjoy spending my free time with my family and friends going to new places and trying new things. 

What does learning mean in your life?

Learning is critical in my life. As a teacher and tutor it’s easy to assume we are teaching kids to learn skills. As adults, it’s critical for us to continue learning in as many ways as possible. 

Digital Hunting and Gathering

Students today have more access to information than ever before. This can be both a blessing and a curse; unreliable sources are as prevalent as reliable ones and can easily mask themselves as credible, especially online. Once students begin to differentiate between reliable and unreliable sources, the next step is learning best practices for taking notes and citing sources online. While having specific and ready-to-go information at the tip of one’s fingertip can seem like a benefit, it can also lead to far more plagiarism and far less analysis and independent thought. It is important for these ‘digital natives’ to have a clear set of guidelines when collecting research, taking notes and keeping track of citations from online sources.

Once a student has established that an online source is in fact reliable (see blog post on Finding Reliable Information), he/she should create a research document. Depending on the teacher’s specifications, this document can exist online as a google document, on a word processing program such as Word or Pages, or on an old-fashioned piece of lined paper! The form doesn’t matter as much as the format; however, if using a digital document to collect research, there is more of a temptation to “cut-and-paste” information gathered online, and thus more of a risk of inadvertently plagiarizing. Students should collect online research the same way they might collect research from a physical book: read the information, jot down notes in their research document, and then analyze those notes in their own words. When students copy and paste information, either in the effort to save time, or because they believe it is articulated in a clear and concise way, they run the risk of not being able to distinguish their own words from the author’s once they incorporate their research into their essay. Any information that is pasted from somewhere else should be clearly marked as such. 

On that note, it is also important that students initially group their research by source; this way, they will avoid losing track of what information came from which source, and whether it is their words or the words of the source’s author. For every source from which they collect information, notes or evidence/quotes, they should keep track of the website, the author’s or organization’s name, and if applicable, the page number. This will not only help with citations when they start the writing process, but will also save them a lot of time and energy when it comes time to create the bibliography. If research is taken from a digital PDF, the student should always download or bookmark that PDF and keep track of the same bibliographic information that they might with a physical article taken from a magazine or journal. Once the information is gathered by source, students can then go back and color code the information based on subject, in adherence with their argument. This will make it easy to transition from the research phase to the writing phase and make it easier to visualize the diversity of opinions they are analyzing. 

Because it is easier to find information online, it is also easier to encounter biased information. As students collect research from different sources, they should be careful to read for language that might indicate author’s bias; this does not necessarily disqualify a source as unreliable, but it should alert the student to the need to find a different opinion or viewpoint, and to then make their own assessment of the validity of the information gathered. If an author uses “I think” or any inflammatory language to present information, it should be understood that that information is almost certainly subjective, if not biased. The same is true for fact-checking information from a source that is not a scientific journal or credible news site; facts and statistics should always be double-checked against at least two other sources before the student decides to use them in a paper.

Living in the digital age has made information accessible in a way that was never before possible. We are able to compare news and opinions from around the world and, in doing so, be more connected to the world around us. However, the saturation of information available to us also means that it can be difficult to parse out the credible information from the biases of partisan authors. It will take some practice and digital fluency to be able to fully distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources, but our most important tool is patience and perseverance; by searching for and finding a diversity of opinion and news, and then taking notes in a way that does not mirror those words found online, students will have a much higher chance of having a complex and well-thought out argument that in no way plagiarizes someone else’s work, whether credible or not.

Meet a Student: Sam

What is your favorite book?

I really love the Harry Potter series. Fantasy books are my favorite.

If you were a teacher, what subject would you teach?

I think I’d want to teach a STEM class. I went to a coding camp this summer and really enjoyed it, and I like anything having to do with computers.

What have you learned about yourself as a student since you started with tutoring?

I’m not a good editor! I know what I should do when I write, but it’s hard to pay attention to so many details when I read my own writing.

Outside of school, what do you like to do for fun?

Anything having to do with computers and electronics, and I also like to play tennis.

How do you like to prepare for a test?

I’ve only had spelling tests really, and I just practice writing the words out for a few days before the test. I’m a good speller.

What is your favorite word?

I have no idea. I know I use the word “like” too much so that is like a bad favorite word.

What is one goal, big or small, that you have for the next year?

To become a better writer.

Finding Reliable Information

In the age of the internet, when just about anyone can write just about anything online, the ability to judge which information is trustworthy (and which is not) is an important skill. Below are a list of sites that are trusted by most readers.

The New York Times is one of the the most widely-respected papers in the world, with articles on a broad variety of topics. Read 10 articles/month for free. []

NPR [National Public Radio] is a publicly funded news organization that, as its name suggests, mostly produces radio shows (that you can often listen to online). NPR also has written content across a variety of topics, which is reliable and engaging. []

The Wall Street Journal another well-respected paper, is focused first on business but offers articles on a variety of topics comparable to the NYTimes []

The Washington Post is a paper based in Washington, D.C. focused on politics, but has articles on a variety of topics like the NYTimes or the WSJ. []

National Geographic is one example of a “specialty” news site, which focuses on a few important topics. For NatGeo, those topics are geographic and environmental news, with famous photographic journalism. []

Wikipedia: Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia with content created and edited almost entirely by users. This project has created one of the best all-purpose sources of information to start learning about background information on almost any topic you might be interested in, but most teachers will not accept Wikipedia as the final source — try clicking through the hyper-linked endnotes to find original source material. Wikipedia is also not the best source for news/current events, because when it does include writing on current events, entries and edits might be biased toward the writers’ point of view. []

News sites tailored to students:

“Kidspost” is a student-friendly collection of articles from the Washington Post. []

Newsela is a news aggregator that collects stories from around the web and adapts them for students. [

PBS Newshour Extra has current news stories geared toward students grades 7-12 (but this is not a firm rule) - there is also a student voices section, with student-written articles and opinions []

Time for Kids is published weekly as a resource for student news, aimed primarily at elementary/middle school students. []

Kids Sports News Network (KSSN) has great examples of clear, simple writing about controversies in sports - unfortunately it no longer produces new content. []

Back to School


Letter from Mara

I don't think any of us are quite ready for the new school year to begin, but alas, it is just weeks away! As the Smarten Up team begins our first sessions of the year with students, two big ideas come to mind - organization and goals. In order for any student to have a successful start to the year, he or she needs to be organized, and it is important to consider the resources necessary to achieve that goal before the first day of class. With that in mind, our first article is all about the tools and materials students (and parents) should be thinking about in these last couple weeks of summer. On a related note, it is equally important for students to begin the new school year with a set of goals in mind. Our second article speaks to how goals can impact a student's mindset as he or she begins the year, and the importance of setting SMART goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. Lastly, many families are also deep into the realities of test prep season, so we've also included an article on Smarten Up's approach and perspective on the ISEE, SSAT, and SHSAT. 

We look forward to learning with you this year! 

New Beginnings

Summer is winding to a close, and that means it’s time to head back to school. As with any fresh start, the new school year brings with it new opportunities, along with new pitfalls. How can you set your student up for success in the new year? 

At Smarten Up, we place a real emphasis on executive function skills — the skills that help students work smarter to meet deadlines and learn most effectively. If students can start the year on the right foot with regards to the organizational of their materials, task management, and engagement with their class materials, they will be in a better position to learn and thrive this year. Likewise, if students begin by procrastinating on readings and test review, lose track of their materials, or miss an odd homework assignment, they’ll quickly start to slide down a path that will only get more difficult as they fall further behind. 

Practically, this means insuring that students have a plan for managing their work with some sort of physical or digital planner, that they have all of the organizational infrastructure they’ll need to keep work and notes from different classes in order, and that they are held accountable to the systems they plan on using. The first few weeks will involve proactively figuring out where and when homework is posted for each class, navigating the rhythm of a new class schedule and the internal schedule of quizzes and assignments for each course, and getting to know the standards and requirements of each individual teacher.

Students should also be reminded of the importance of relationships with these teachers; behavior in the first few weeks of school can form impressions that last for the whole year. If students can demonstrate a willingness to work diligently, ask interesting questions, and support their classmates’ learning, they’ll earn a relationship that can pay off when they need a bit of extra help or flexibility with a deadline. For high school students, these relationships are also key for college applications as recommendation letter season rolls around. 

As part of building a positive relationship with their teachers, students should establish a channel of communication that is respectful and direct, without intruding unnecessarily on the teacher’s time. It can be very useful for students to be in touch with teachers over email when they need to ask a clarifying question about a major assignment or upcoming test, but given the informality of most digital communications, students will often need some coaching to understand the requirements of a more ‘professional’ email, with correct grammar and punctuation. As a young classroom teacher, I regularly received emails with no capitalization or punctuation from students—and while I was more forgiving than many of my older colleagues, in the worst case these emails risk being perceived as rude or lazy. Parents can help guide these emails with younger students, while supporting a movement toward self-advocacy that will serve them in high school and college.

The new year should be an opportunity for a fresh start for students—part of our role as parents and educators is ensuring that this fresh start includes an awareness of the extra work—not explicitly assigned or explained—of forming good habits and relationships. These executive function skills are central to being a strong student, and we often assume that students understand what it means to be “organized” or “prepared.” Now is a great time to begin to have that dialogue with your child, and should he or she be resistant to help from a parent, our amazing team of Smarten Up coaches are always here to help!

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