How to Read the Cards

Reading tarot cards is a little bit like putting together a puzzle. When you work on a puzzle, first you gather all the pieces, and then you put them into connecting order, and eventually a picture will emerge. With tarot, once we gather all the information from the cards – their images and symbolism, their suit, their number, their orientation (upright or reversed), and their position in the spread – then we can develop the narrativeor the story of the reading, and discover the meaning of the reading by relating it to our original issue or concern.


Here is a common process for doing a tarot reading for yourself (example readings will follow): 

  • Create the space. Choose a physical location to lay out the cards (some people use a special cloth or light a candle) and clear your mind.

  • Choose the issue or question you’d like to focus on. Clear and open-ended questions tend to work best.

  • Choose the card spread. You can use one of the spreads listed at the back of this book, or you can pull a few cards randomly.

  • Shuffle and lay out the cards:

    • First choose a method for shuffling: shuffle as you would a regular pack of cards, or cut the deck repeatedly, or use the “messy pile shuffle.” While you shuffle, keep your energy focused on the issue or question you’ve chosen. 

    • When you feel ready, lay out the cards according to the spread you chose. Some people lay out all the cards face down and turn them over one at a time as they read each card; other people lay out all the cards face up and look at the reading as a whole before they begin individual card interpretations. Try each, and choose your personal preference.

  • Read the cards one at a time:

    • Look at each card image, and reflect on any feelings, body reactions, or memories that come up.

    • Try embodying the card image – put your body in the position of a figure or symbol on the card, and see if you have additional reactions.

    • Once you have a sense of the card, use this book (or another tarot card meanings guidebook) to discover the specific card meaning. Then relate that meaning to the card’s position in the spread. 

  • Read the spread as a whole:

    • Note the general emotional tone of the reading – is it empowering? Cautious? Joyful? Realistic? Does it hang together and make sense? (If not, check out "What If a Reading Doesn't Make Sense?").

    • Note any repetitions – several cards of one suit or one number, several Major Arcana or Court cards, several reversals – these can be hints toward the meaning of your reading.

  • Relate the reading to your question or issue. Create the narrative, your interpretation of what the reading is telling you about your issue.

  • Record and reflect. Many tarot users keep a tarot journal where they record the date, the spread name and the deck they’re using, any pertinent details that might have affected the reading (such as a particular trigger or life situation), and the card meanings and narrative. It can be very helpful to go back occasionally through the journal and reflect on life changes. 


A more traditional tarot reading, done by one person for another, can be performed in a very similar way: you can visit a professional tarot reader, or you can do a reading with a friend where you take turns being the reader and the “querent” (the person with the question or issue). Sometimes the outside viewpoint of another person can bring a new level of clarity to the reading.


reversal means that a tarot card’s meaning is different if the card is upside down, or reversed, rather than upright. Some tarot readers use reversals – and some don’t, believing they tend to be negative and their additional information is unnecessary. In basic terms, the reversed meaning is the opposite of the upright meaning. Reversals can be interpreted in many ways, including that the energy described by the card is blocked or out of balance, that the card needs some extra attention in the reading, or that the source of the influence is internal rather than external.


Another way to interpret reversals is to look at the upside down image on the card and imagine what’s happening. For example, the traditional upright meaning of the 5 of Wands is strife and competition: tension, impasse, being at odds. Reversed, this card could mean avoiding conflict (the opposite meaning), or uneasiness with tension (blocked energy), or difficulty knowing our own perspective (extra attention), or working through hostility (internal rather than external influence). The traditional image for this card is of 5 men using their wands to fight each other; the reversed image could appear as though the men are dropping their wands into the sky. The specific meaning of this particular card in the reading in this moment will be further clarified by the card’s position in the spread.