College Reading & Writing: Making Meaning

Reading and writing in college have a purpose that goes beyond gaining and retaining information.  College reading and writing focus on making meaning, which involves three things:

  1. Identifying what an author means or intends (which may be different than the literal words the author writes)
  2. Determining what you, yourself, think about the author’s meaning, which creates your own understanding and meaning
  3. Articulating your thoughts in writing, which may involve comparing your thoughts and the author’s, agreeing, disagreeing, providing evidence for your stance, and more, to express the meaning that you have made

Read on for a fuller explanation…

College Reading & Writing

Meaning is created when you understand the intention behind the words. You create meaning as you read by identifying and thinking about the author’s ideas so that they make sense to you. You facilitate meaning as you write by clearly presenting your ideas to your readers. A study of college reading and writing will help you develop that shared understanding between reader and writer more fully.

You may be thinking, “I understand what I read now and others understand my writing. What’s so different about college reading and writing?”

Most of the reading and writing that you do on a daily basis probably falls into two categories:

  1. reading and writing for quick information (scanning), and
  2. reading and writing for entertainment

You read websites, blogs, newspapers, and more for information.  You may read labels, instructions, or memos for quick information. You may or may not react to what you read when you read for information.  Your response might often be “o.k., I understand.”  As you scan information, most likely you think about it once, decide to remember or forget it, and then move on. You may write to provide quick information as well, if you e-mail or text your friends and relatives, or write brief memos to colleagues.

You read novels, blogs, magazines, and more for entertainment. Entertainment reading and writing let you break out of your reality for a while and use your imagination to understand or create another type of reality.

Neither quick information nor entertainment reading assumes that you will recall, reflect on, or react to information in writing, while college reading and writing do just that.

Here’s a preview of what you’ll read in this text about college reading and writing.

Reading for Meaning

When you read for college, it is assumed that you will recall, reflect on, and react to the information you read, so you can develop your own ideas based on, and in response to, the author’s ideas.

You may be expected to evaluate the validity of others’ ideas. You may be asked to analyze an argument or evaluate a theory by applying it to a real situation. You may be asked to synthesize ideas and information from many sources as the basis for evaluating a theory or process.

Wait a minute! How can you do all that at once? How can you read, think, recall, apply, critically reflect, and develop your own ideas? You can’t. College reading involves learning a method of approach in which you break down reading into different parts or stages and apply various skills at each stage.

Before reading

Preview the information.  Skim the text to get a sense of the information.  Jot down questions that occur to you as you skim.  This primes your brain to start thinking about the information, and provides you with a tool to use after you read to test your understanding.

During Reading

Note your reactions and thoughts while you read; this is called “annotation.”  Jot down questions that occur to you upon fuller reading.  Note your reactions to ideas, whether you agree or disagree.  Note any words or concepts that are not clear, so that you can research them more fully.

After Reading

Try to answer your initial questions, and go back to re-read if you need fuller information to provide an answer. Review and reflect on the thoughts you jotted down as you read.  Define the author’s meaning and intention. Consider and define your own reaction to the author’s meaning and intention.

Writing for Meaning

Writing is just like reading; both involve moving through “before,” “during,” and “after” stages in a process. These processes can help you identify and offer your own insights, which is the purpose of most college writing.  And, like reading, the writing process is not always linear. You may move back and forth among prewriting, writing, and revising to rethink, rebuild, and rewrite, so that you can clearly articulate the meaning you made based on what you read.


Prewriting literally means “before writing.” It is the period during which you start thinking about:

  • the content of the writing – What do I want to write about?  What insights did I gain through reading, and what meaning did I make?
  • the audience for the writing –  Who will be reading this?
  • the purpose of the writing – What’s my intention (e.g., inform, analyze, etc.)? What’s the one main concept I want to explain? What do I want my reader to learn/think/do as a result of reading this?

Prewriting techniques help you generate both ideas and a sense of direction for writing in order to create a draft. In other words, prewriting provides a “growing time” during which you nourish your thoughts until they are ready to bloom into a written draft.


Writing essentially involves:

  • developing your thoughts so that you clearly and fully explain your meaning
  • arranging those thoughts so that your ideas link and make sense logically

You create raw material when you prewrite; you give that raw material more substance and form when you write.


Revising involves a shift in focus from self to others. During the prewriting and writing stages, you focus on explaining your own insights and meaning as you create, develop, and organize your ideas. Revision, on the other hand, asks you to evaluate your written draft in terms of your reading audience and your writing purpose. Does the draft provide enough information so that your reader understands your meaning? Does the draft provide appropriate information to advance your purpose? Does the draft provide information in an accessible form so that your reader doesn’t have to struggle in order to understand your ideas or your language? Revision makes you remember that others need to preview, read, recall and, above all, understand your information.

The Reading & Writing Connection

The diagram below identifies the stages in the reading and writing processes, stages with their own strategies to help you reach the common ground of sharing meaning with others through the written word. It also encapsulates the major terms, concepts, and processes that you’ll be learning via this text.

You may notice that the reading and writing parts of the diagram essentially mirror one another. As you work through this course, you will see that reading and writing are simply two sides of the same process. The diagram also implies the major concepts that you are reading about:

  • Reading and writing are processes that you move through over time and not all at once.
  • The purpose of college reading and writing is to recall, react to, and reflect on information in order to develop your own ideas and meaning.
  • Reading and writing processes are not merely personal but involve an intellectual relationship between you and others.
  • Reading and writing processes focus on the creation of meaning which occurs when author and audience understand what the words both say and intend.

The video below discusses the linkage between reading and writing, in terms of making meaning.