7 Active Reading Strategies for Students

Teacher Reading with a Student
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Active reading techniques can help you stay focused and retain more information, but it's a skill that takes time and effort to develop. Here are some strategies to help you get started right away.

1. Identify New Words

Most of us develop a bad habit of glossing over words that are vaguely familiar to us, often not even realizing we are doing so. When you read a difficult passage or book for an assignment, take a few moments to really observe challenging words.

You will likely find that there are many words that you think you know—but that you can’t really define. Practice by underlining every noun or verb that you cannot replace with a synonym.

Once you have a list of words, write the words and definitions in a logbook. 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 will likely increase as well. The thesis or main idea may no longer be provided in the first sentence; it may instead be located in the second paragraph or even the second page.

Finding the thesis is crucial to comprehension. You’ll need to practice finding the thesis of the text or article each time you're reading.

3. Create a Preliminary Outline

Before you dive into reading the text of a difficult book or chapter, 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 can craft a preliminary outline of the text. Think of this as the reverse of creating an outline for your essays and research papers. Going backward in this way helps you absorb the information you are reading. Your mind will, therefore, be better 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

No matter what type of information you’re reading, visual learners can always create a mind map, a Venn diagram, a sketch, or a timeline to represent the information.

Start by taking a clean sheet of paper and creating a visual representation of the book or chapter you’re reading. You'll be amazed by the difference this will make for retaining information and remembering details.

6. Make a Shrinking Outline

A shrinking outline is another useful tool for reinforcing the 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 also 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 each word will prompt you to remember the full concept of the paragraph it represents. If not, re-read the paragraph and choose a more accurate keyword.

Once every paragraph can be recalled by a keyword, you can begin to create clumps of keywords. If necessary (e.g. 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

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 the material, and read at least one more time to grasp the information more thoroughly.

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Fleming, Grace. "7 Active Reading Strategies for Students." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/active-reading-strategies-1857325. Fleming, Grace. (2023, April 5). 7 Active Reading Strategies for Students. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/active-reading-strategies-1857325 Fleming, Grace. "7 Active Reading Strategies for Students." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/active-reading-strategies-1857325 (accessed May 29, 2023).