What is Active Reading? Strategies for Middle and High School Students

January 19, 2023

Learning and practicing to “read actively” is critical for success in school, and it is also an important life skill. Strong reading comprehension is essential for school entrance exams like the SAT, ACT, SSAT, and ISEE. But its importance goes far beyond scoring well on standardized tests. Active reading builds the foundation for critical and analytical thinking—skills that are necessary to function in our world of abundant online news, information, and interpersonal communications.

What is Active Reading?

Active reading is the process of engaging with the text, to better understand it for its relevance and meaning. As a parent or caregiver, you likely used active reading techniques when reading books to young children. It’s the what, why, and what-if questions you talked about while reading the story together. Up until about sixth or seventh grade, active reading is an important focus of the core reading curricula at school. In later grades, the core curricula assume a level of mastery that not all students have achieved.

In our one-on-one sessions with students, Summit tutors promote active reading skills by teaching strategies that help with reading comprehension and analysis.

Some of our Favorite Active Reading Strategies

We recommend that our students give each one a try. Once they’ve seen them in action, they can pick and choose the techniques that work best for them.

Paraphrase. The process of “translating” ideas for ourselves is critical to comprehension. Summarization is a good way to practice paraphrasing: Identify the main ideas of the text as you read, and try to simplify and restate them in your own words.

Visualize. Don’t just read the words; picture what they are describing to you. The process of mental imaging is helpful for both comprehension and retention.

Ask questions. This is a great way to engage with the text. Ask yourself, why did the author write this piece? What choices did they make to convey their point? How do the ideas they’ve introduced build upon one another to make the larger argument? Try to put yourself in the author’s shoes and think about what you would need to know if you were to write this piece yourself.

Make predictions. Take a moment to think about what you expect will come next. Why? What did the author say or do to set your expectations? If you have a sense of where a passage is headed, this is a good indication that you also have a clear sense of its organization.

Read with your pencil. As you read, underline anything that seems like a key idea or important detail (but avoid underlining everything!). Consider developing your own shorthand! In particular, calling out topic sentences is like leaving yourself a trail of breadcrumbs so you can quickly find your way through the passage next time. That will prove very helpful when you revisit the passage, whether to answer questions or to study.

Annotate. Adding brief notes in the margins to identify where ideas first appear can be especially useful for visual learners. This kind of graphic organizing helps represent the order of ideas in the text, almost like a flow chart, and makes reviewing the text easier.

Monitor your comprehension. In addition to main ideas, it’s helpful to note any contrasting ideas and any points of confusion. Writing a question mark in the margin is a good way to note areas you need to revisit, and it’s certainly worth doubling back to those points after a first read. You may find that you understand previously confusing concepts better once you’ve read through to the end.

Map the passage. “Mapping the Passage” is a top recommendation in all of Summit’s teachings. The technique employs several of the skills discussed above. By mapping the passage, you will identify the main ideas, you will check that you understand them, and you will create an outline that will serve you well to support any future passes through the material.

Students may sometimes find it difficult to maintain concentration when facing a particularly challenging text. By using strategies to encourage and nurture comprehension skills, we help make reading an active experience for our students and help them stay engaged. Contact us to discuss ways in which Summit can support your student’s reading and writing skills.


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