Active Reading: How is rhetorical context like a phone call?

Learning Objectives

  • Use questioning as a reading strategy
  • Identify the rhetorical context of a passage

Understanding the idea of rhetorical context is a good way to think about reading as a conversation. Like any conversation, the exchange of ideas between the text and the reader is affected by the context. Think of how different these two conversations would be, based on the context:

Two people talking in a dance club A man and a woman both shaking hands. both are wearing suits.

As we saw before, reading is often more like a telephone conversation, where both people are in very different settings. Unless you know what setting the other person is in, some of what they say can be confusing:

Split-screen photo of a young man talking to an older man on the phone. The older man is at a baseball game.
“Hi Dad, just calling to say hello.”
“Hi kid. Can’t talk now. Big man jammed him with a cutter! Tied up at the stretch!”
“Uh… what?”

Scholarly Articles: Talking to the Experts

If you’re reading an article for a Management class, you might imagine a phone call like this:

A split-screen photo. On the left, a corporate meeting room with people around a table and one person standing up and presenting. On the right, a man on the phone.
The expert:

“The results of our panel time series and dynamic linear estimation models suggest that early CSP adopters are more likely to experience both greater firm profitability and increased stock market valuation as a result of their higher CSP levels.”[1]



“Firm profitability sounds good. Wait, though, what’s CSP?”

Reading scholarly articles sometimes feels like being in a conversation where everyone knows what’s going on except you. To insert ourselves into the conversation, we have to figure out which terms or ideas are keeping us in the dark.

Does it help to learn that CSP refers to “Corporate social performance,” and refers to the way organizations understand their responsibility toward society and the environment? Knowing this, we might guess that the rhetorical context of the article—the conversation it’s part of—has to do with the question of whether social responsibility can be profitable.

Meanwhile, your own context—that is, your reasons for reading the text—will determine how deep you want to dive into the details. Do you really need to know exactly how “panel time series and dynamic linear estimation models” work, or is it more important to get the overall point the authors are trying to make?

Different Contexts

With other reading situations, we’ll find that we understand everything in the text, but the contexts are so different, it’s hard to know how to respond to it. Maybe you’re reading a magazine article that was written 100 years ago with the intention of entertaining people and offering advice. A century later, you’re reading it for a history class with the purpose of learning about popular views of marriage in the early 20th century. Now our conversation looks more like this:

A split screen image. On the left, an engraving of a man on an old-time candlestick telephone. On the right, a woman on a modern cell phone.
“The first ‘don’ts’ advice to women is: don’t be extravagant. Every man wants to be financially independent, and a husband loses interest in providing when money he earns is spent foolishly.”[2]



“Nobody’s ‘providing’ for me; I’m an independent woman!”

“Who decides what’s ‘foolish’ and ‘extravagant?'”

“It seems like you’re making a lot of assumptions about how this household works!”

Active Reading

OK, so why do we keep harping on this telephone conversation idea? The image of the telephone reminds us that reading shouldn’t be passive, like watching TV. Ideally, it’s a conversation between the text and you. The text may say things that you agree with, or things that make you furious. Sometimes it’ll say things you find important and enlightening. Other times it won’t make sense at all, and you’ll have to ask for clarification.

This conversation with the text is called “active reading,” and it’s the key to effective reading in college (and beyond).

To keep track of your end of the conversation, you can write down your notes, questions, definitions, interpretations, and reactions. Some people like to write in the margin of a book, others keep separate notebooks or files of notes. If you’re reading online (like you probably are now), it can be helpful to cut-and-paste key passages into a separate document, so that you can take notes and find them later. Make sure to include the URL as well! As a general rule, whenever you take notes on something, write down the source information as well.

Let’s practice some active reading. We’ll be reading the first few paragraphs of an essay called “Progress in Play: Board Games and the Meaning of History,” by Alex Andriesse. We’ll reprint the parts you’ll need, but in case you’re interested, here’s a link to the essay, with pictures of the board games.

Writing Workshop

Open The Working Document to complete the following Writing Workshop.

Step 1: Get an Overview

First, as in any conversation, it helps to have a sense of the general topic. Academic reading isn’t (usually) like reading a thriller; there’s no downside to knowing in advance what’s going to happen. A good pre-reading strategy is to look at the title and the section headings (if there are sections) to get an overall sense of what the article is about.


Many academic articles start with a summary of the essay, called an “abstract.” Reading the abstract can help you get an overview of what’s going to happen in the essay, and which pieces of information will be particularly important. Note, though, that abstracts are very condensed, and often contain technical language or unusual vocabulary. You may need to look up unfamiliar words to get the point of the abstract. (In the abstract below, we offer definitions of some of the more obscure words).


This article has an abstract, so let’s read it:


“Players moving pieces along a track to be first to reach a goal was the archetypal* board game format of the 18th and 19th century. Alex Andriesse looks at one popular incarnation** in which these pieces progress chronologically through history itself, usually with some not-so-subtle ideological***, moral, or national ideal as the object of the game.”

(* archetypal = typical;  **incarnation = (here) physical version of something; *** ideological = relating to a system of ideas or beliefs).


Between the title and the abstract, we know a lot about what the point of the essay will be. This isn’t just a list of board games throughout history; it’s making a specific argument about board games in the 18th and 19th century (1700s-1800s): that the object of the game was related to a national ideal. Now as we’re reading, we’ll be well equipped to spot the thesis sentence of the essay. Let’s try it now.

Step 2: Begin a Conversation With the Text

In the Working Doc template, we’ve provided a “margin” for you to take notes on this text. You’re going to do three things in each box:


  1. Ask yourself whether there are any words, names, or concepts you would have to know more about to understand the main point of the passage. These aren’t just words or names you don’t know; they are words that are blocking you from understanding the point of the passage (see the example below for an example of unknown words that probably don’t block your understanding).
  2. Write a short sentence (or sentence fragment) summarizing what the passage is about in your own words.
  3. Think about whether this passage seems particularly important for understanding the main argument of the essay. Often, readers will put checkmarks or some other marker in the margin next to passages that seem important, so they can find them later.


Ten thousand years ago, in the Neolithic period, before human beings began making pottery, we were playing games on flat stone boards drilled with two or more rows of holes. By the Early Dynastic Period in Ancient Egypt, three millennia later, board games were already represented in hieroglyphs. And on the wall of Nefertari’s tomb, built in the twelfth or thirteenth century BCE, someone painted the queen playing Senet, one of three Ancient Egyptian board games whose pieces have come down to us, along with Mehen and Hounds and Jackals.

The ancient Greeks, for their part, had Tabula, an ancestor of backgammon; the Romans added Latrones, an ancestor of chess. All across the ancient Near East, people played the Game of Twenty Squares, while in ancient China they played Liubo and in ancient India Moksha Patam, which was rechristened Snakes and Ladders when colonials imported it to Britain in the Victorian era. Wherever there has been civilization, strange to say, there have been games played on boards.

Are there any words, names, or concepts you don’t know about, but need to know more about to understand the point of the passage?

There are lots of names and details, like “Neolithic,” “Nefertari,” and “Moksha Patam”, but we don’t really need more information about them to get the point.

What does this passage mean (in your own words)?

Board games are old.

Is this passage important for understanding the main argument of the essay?

Not really. The abstract talks about “archetypal board game format of the 18th and 19th century” — this is background information about ancient games. The last sentence sums up the point: every civilization seems to have board games of some sort.

Until about the seventeenth century, these games tended to be traditional folk inventions that could not be traced back to a maker. Their boards were also relatively abstract, consisting of squares, triangles, spirals, or holes. Are there any words, names, or concepts you don’t know about, but need to know more about to understand the point of the passage?

What does this passage mean (in your own words)?

Is this passage important for understanding the main argument of the essay?

With the advent of the Enlightenment and the rise of capitalism, however, the board games of Europe — like so much else on the continent — began to change. By the end of the eighteenth century, games were being produced for the marketplace promoting everything from ferry rides to colonial conquest. Are there any words, names, or concepts you don’t know about, but need to know more about to understand the point of the passage?

What does this passage mean (in your own words)?

Is this passage important for understanding the main argument of the essay?

To appeal to consumers (a category of persons that had not previously existed), these games were made to be played on boards printed with pictures that represented specific places, people, and things. The artists who designed them strove to attract the public eye and capture the public imagination, appealing to the modern craving for what Walter Benjamin would call “novelty and shock”. Are there any words, names, or concepts you don’t know about, but need to know more about to understand the point of the passage?

What does this passage mean (in your own words)?

Is this passage important for understanding the main argument of the essay?



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  1. Brower, J. and Dacin, P.A. (2020), An Institutional Theory Approach to the Evolution of the Corporate Social Performance – Corporate Financial Performance Relationship. J. Manage. Stud., 57: 805-836. doi:10.1111/joms.12550
  2. L. McGee "Nine common Causes of Unhappy Marriages," American Magazine, March 1924, 29. AQI Illouz, Eva. Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. University of California Press, 2008. 51.