Have you ever read a book and when someone asks what it’s about … you haven’t the slightest idea? Chances are, you weren’t actively reading. Don’t worry, it happens to the best of us, from elementary school to middle school, high school, and beyond. So, what exactly do we mean by active reading?
Simply put, active reading is the act of becoming involved and engaged with the text. Passive reading, on the other hand, is when we just can’t seem to absorb and comprehend what we have read. We go through the frustration of reading a paragraph over and over, trying desperately to grasp the main idea and key concepts.
Teachers can effectively use active reading strategies even at the pre-reading and early childhood stages. Attentive, active reading is critical for maximum retention and comprehension in virtually all kinds of reading, including fiction, nonfiction, textbooks, and research articles. Because we are all unique, it’s beneficial to gather a collection of strategies that work best for different types of readers. In this blog post, we’ll share several of these techniques.
The Many Benefits of Active Reading Strategies
A primary goal of reading is to gain the ability to comprehend, or in other words, to understand what is being communicated. Reading comprehension helps us more fully grasp the intent, meaning, and purpose of the words on the page. Active and effective reading strategies help us sharpen overall comprehension by:
- Improving learning retention
- Increasing reading fluency
- Boosting vocabulary
- Improving memory
- Gaining critical thinking skills
- Deepening learning (including self-directed learning)
- Enhancing engagement in reading discussions
Without active reading strategies, even reading for pleasure can lose its luster.
7 Effective Tips for Active Reading
Although there are many active reading strategies that students can use, let’s take a deeper dive into seven of them. Along the way, we’ll provide examples and explain how these tips can be tailored for different age groups.
1. Identify Unfamiliar Words and Phrases
It’s helpful when teachers define new words and phrases before beginning a reading activity, particularly for new readers. If students stumble on new vocabulary during the reading process, they may quickly lose interest and confidence.
Students acquire a better grasp of words when correct pronunciation, spelling, and usage examples are provided. It’s always a great idea to make new vocabulary into a fun activity with spelling bees, word searches, or art projects.
A good active reading strategy for independent readers is to pause and guess the meaning of any unfamiliar vocabulary. Then, consider alternate words that might fit into the context of the text. We don’t recommend stopping in the middle of a reading session to check the dictionary. Instead, note unknown words in the margins or on sticky notes, then look them up at the end of a chapter or other stopping point.
2. Make Notes, Outlines, or Highlights
A famous quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin says it all:
“Never read a book without a pen in your hand.”
Although highlighting can be helpful at times, it’s easy to overdo it and end up with a full page of neon pink or yellow lines. Thus, the quest for remembering important information easily morphs into a form of passive reading. A good rule of thumb is to highlight no more than 20% of the entire text.
We suggest that the active reader instead makes notations in pencil in the text or onto index cards (with associated page numbers). Those index cards make great prompt cards when it’s time to study for final exams, especially when kids don’t have time to do any rereading.
Outlines condense lengthy passages and reading assignments into smaller, more digestible pieces of information. Not only do outlines help with text connection, but they are also excellent tools for all kinds of writing tasks.
ADDITIONAL RESOURCE: The 1000 Books Badge Book.
3. Learn the Main Idea and Key Concepts
For younger readers, the main idea is usually in the first sentence of the reading assignment. As we become more advanced in our reading ability, the main concepts emerge in the opening paragraphs, or even later in the reading material.
A firm grasp of the main idea and other keywords or concepts is a major factor in proficient reading comprehension. It takes practice, academic instruction, and trial and error to tackle this skill. This is also another example of how writing an outline or other notes may be helpful.
Readers can also develop confidence and self-esteem by observing how the protagonist and other characters handle their hardships and challenges. As we share in the characters' journey of learning to accept and conquer their struggles, we get ideas (either consciously or subconsciously) about how we can do the same. We learn that we, too, can craft our strategies to deal with the complex world around us.
4. Ask Questions–Lots of Them
Not only do questions offer clarity about what we read, but they also inspire creative and analytical thinking. Students should be encouraged to make note of concepts that they don’t understand. There's also value in questioning the choices of the author and the motivations of the characters.
Questions from teachers can spur lively class discussions, as well as help improve active reading strategies in many exciting ways. Common questions are not only “who, what, when, where, why, and, how,” but also:
These types of higher-order questions challenge students to think even more analytically and critically. Some academic coaches, tutors, and teachers suggest an active reading strategy called “explanatory questioning.” This is when students change major headings into, “who,” “what,” or “why” questions. For example, the textbook heading “Major Freshwater Sources in California” can be alternatively written as, “What are the major freshwater sources in California?” This helps readers remember important information.
5. Think Beyond the Text
When we help our children think beyond the text that is written on the page, we are assisting young minds in expanding to borders that even the author couldn’t have imagined. It allows for an even deeper connection to the words on the page. Making predictions about what may happen next in the story is one way of thinking beyond the text.
Another way of thinking beyond the text is to learn how to make inferences. It’s when the reader thinks about and speculates on what the writer might mean but has not explicitly stated. Some readers can do this without coaching from the teacher, whereas many kids benefit from a guided class or small group discussion.
Let’s take a quick look at a few activities that build skills in making inferences.
- For younger children, look at pictures from books or magazines and try to find clues about what's happening.
- Have group discussions about the feelings and internal motivations of characters.
- Connect what’s happening in the story to students’ prior knowledge, life experiences, or current events.
- “Read between the lines” or make guesses about what characters might be saying to each other.
ADDITIONAL RESOURCE: How a Georgia Middle School Boosted Reading Comprehension by 10%.
So many of us are visual learners. We can capitalize on this characteristic by creating flow charts, timelines, or sketches. All you need is a clean sheet of paper and maybe colored pencils or crayons to have some fun.
When students create timelines of how characters grow and change throughout a story, they gain knowledge of character development. It can be very stimulating for first-time readers to draw their unique pictures of scenery, actions, and characters in their favorite stories.
Many teachers use Venn diagrams to help students comprehend similarities and differences. Venn diagrams can be extremely beneficial for understanding numerous concepts in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
7. Write or Present a Book Summary
The act of recounting a story in one’s own words is an excellent active reading strategy. Teachers and parents can easily adjust activities to accommodate first-time readers as well as more advanced students.
In one major success story, a middle school librarian launched a reading challenge in which students earned badges for submitting book reviews. The media specialist reviewed and approved the submissions, which were then made available for peers to peruse and add to their reading lists. The response from the students was superb, with the library team receiving between 75 and 200 reviews per month.
SQ3R: Then and Now
One of the major early contributions to the art and science of active reading is the SQ3R method, which stands for:
- Survey (to get an overview)
Dr. Francis Pleasant Robinson, a psychology professor at Ohio State University, developed the method during World War II when military personnel were tasked with fully comprehending technical training manuals as quickly as possible. SQ3R is considered one of the first documented systematic approaches for developing active reading strategies. Adult literacy expert and cognitive scientist Thomas G. Sticht referred to this strategic method as, “The reading formula that helped to win World War II.”
The present-day active reading strategies that we shared above overlap with Dr. Robinson’s method in many ways. Many middle school, high school, and college students still use the SQ3R approach.
Oh, the Places We'll Go
As our good friend Dr. Seuss wisely said,
“The more that you read, the more things you will know, the more that you learn, the more places you’ll go!”
Effective active reading strategies are important not just for struggling readers, but for all of us. In fact, we use these strategies daily without even knowing it (thanks to more than a few very dedicated teachers). A handy collection of active reading strategies carries all readers to success and satisfaction as we travel from our early educational years into adulthood.