7 Active Reading Strategies

Woman actively reading
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1. Identify new words. Most of us develop a very bad habit of glossing over words that are vaguely familiar to us, and we often don’t realize we do this. When you are reading a difficult passage or book for an assignment, take a few moments to really observe challenging words.

You will find that there are many words that you think you know — but that you can’t really define. This is very common. Glance over your reading a page at a time and underline every noun or verb that you cannot replace with a synonym.

Once you have a list of words, write words and definitions in a log book. Revisit this log several times and quiz yourself on the words.

2. Find the main idea or thesis. As your reading level increases, the complexity of your material increases. The thesis or main idea may be hidden on the second paragraph or even the second page!

You’ll need to practice finding the thesis of the text or article you’re reading. This is absolutely critical to comprehension.

3. Create a preliminary outline. Before you dive into reading the text of a difficult book or chapter, you should take some time to scan the pages for subtitles and other indications of the structure. If you don’t see subtitles or chapters, look for transition words between paragraphs.

Using this information, you should craft a preliminary outline of the text. By writing out the outline, you will be forming a basic framework or skeleton of the information in your mind.

This helps you absorb the information as you read. Your mind is able to “plug” the information into the mental framework.

4. Read with a pencil. Highlighters can be overrated. Some students commit highlighter overkill, and end up with a sloppy multi-colored mess.

Sometimes it’s more effective to use a pencil and sticky notes when you write.

Use the pencil to underline, circle, and define words in the margins, or (if you’re using a library book) use sticky notes to mark a page and a pencil to write specific notes to yourself.

5. Draw and sketch. It doesn’t really matter what type of information you’re reading, you can always create a mind map, a Venn diagram, a sketch, or a timeline to represent the information.

Get a clean sheet of paper and create a visual representation of the book or chapter you’re covering. You will be amazed by the difference this will make for retaining and remembering details.

6. Make a shrinking outline. A shrinking outline is another useful tool for reinforcing information that you read in a text or in your class notes. To make a shrinking outline, you need to re-write material you see in your text (or in your notes).

While it is a time-consuming exercise to write out your notes, it is a very effective one. Writing is a necessary part of active reading!

Once you have written out a few paragraphs of material, read it over and think of one keyword that represents an entire paragraph’s message. Write that keyword in the margin.

Once you have written several keywords for a long text, go down the line of keywords and see if the one word will prompt you to remember the full concept of the paragraph it represents.

If not, you just need to re-read the paragraph a time or two.

Once every paragraph can be recalled by a keyword, you can begin to create clumps of keywords. If necessary (if you have a lot of material to memorize) you can reduce the material again so that one word or acronym helps you remember the clumps of keywords.

7. Read again and again. Did you know that college students are expected to read materials more than one time? Science tells us that we all retain more when we repeat a reading. It’s good practice to read once for a basic understanding of a material, and read at least one more time to get a more thorough grasp of the material.