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Active Reading

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Active Reading

Have you ever scarfed down a sandwich? When people do this they do not typically focus on enjoying the flavor, but they quickly gobble up what they are eating without a second thought. Eating quickly is different than savoring food. When people savor food they take note of the different ingredients, flavors, and textures.

Taking the time to savor food like this makes people appreciate it more, just like active reading makes readers understand and appreciate a text! By using different active reading strategies people gain an in-depth understanding of different elements of a text and how an author uses many components to craft a complete work.

Active Reading, Sandwich Example, StudySmarterSavoring foods allow people to taste each ingredient, the same way active reading allows readers to understand all aspects of a text. Flaticon.

Definition of Active Reading

Active reading is a type of reading in which a reader is constantly interacting with the text.

Active reading is the act of engaging with a text while reading it for a specific purpose.

Active Reading Characteristics

Interacting with a text involves many strategies, such as making connections, asking questions, and outlining important points. There is no one way to be an active reader, but developing a few active reading strategies will help readers understand a text in-depth. Active reading helps people become critical readers and thinkers, build their vocabulary, and understand the meaning of complex texts.

Steps in Active Reading Strategies

While different active readers will use different strategies, there are some key steps that all readers should follow to ensure they get the most out of reading.

Step 1 in Active Reading - Preview the Text

Surveying the text before reading is an effective way to introduce oneself to it. Skimming the layout of a text can help prepare the reader for how to approach the material. For instance, in a non-fiction text such as a textbook chapter, there might be subheadings that can tell the reader what main ideas will be discussed. In a fiction novel, the table of contents may also include chapter titles that give the reader an idea of what the story will be about.

Step 2 in Active Reading - Actively Read and Annotate the Text

After previewing the text, it is time to dive into it. To be an active reader, it is important to interact with the text through a variety of strategies. Readers should read in a place with minimal distractions and full concentration. Active reading involves focusing and reflecting on the details of a text, as well as annotating questions and key concepts.

Active Reading Versus Passive Reading

Active reading is the opposite of passive reading, which is reading when distracted or tired. When readers are reading passively, they do not focus on the text and can miss important messages. This chart serves as a reminder of the characteristics of active versus passive reading.

Active Readers Passive Readers
Preview the text before reading and predict what it will be about.Jump right into reading without skimming the text.
Read with a pencil or pen in hand, underlining key ideas and words, taking notes, and writing down questions.Read without annotating or taking notes.
Ask themselves questions about the text to make sure they understand what they are reading.Do not ask questions or check that they can summarize what they read.
Look up unknown words or concepts they encounter while reading.Do not look up unknown words and may skip parts of the reading they do not understand.
Adjust their read strategy depending on the goal of the reading.Approach all texts the same way and do not use a specific strategy.

Once readers have actively read the text they should stop and try to recall what they just read. Crafting mental images or describing what they read in their own words can help them check in with themselves and ensure they are following the reading.

Active Reading, Notes Example, StudySmarterTaking notes while reading helps readers stay actively engaged with a text. Flaticon.

Active Reading Strategies

There are different strategies readers can use to actively read depending on the goal of their reading and their own reading style. These strategies are techniques that help readers focus on a text. Not every strategy will work for every reader or help accomplish every goal, so it is useful to try a few to learn what works best and when to use them.

Before selecting a strategy, readers should identify the goal of their reading. Depending on the goal of the reading, readers will benefit from different combinations of different strategies. For example, imagine a student has to read a passage of text during a test and answer multiple-choice questions about the reading. The goal of reading in this situation is to answer the questions correctly in the allotted time. In another situation, a reader might have to write an essay about the theme of a text. In that scenario, the goal would be to understand the main themes and how the author develops them.

After identifying the goal of reading, readers should use that goal to select an active reading strategy. For example, if the goal is to correctly answer multiple-choice questions in a short period of time, the reader should read the questions first and then read the text with those questions in mind. They should underline information related to the questions, and this will allow the reader to search for answers while reading.

Below is a list of several strategies readers can use to actively engage with what they read:

StrategyWhat It Looks like
Highlighting/UnderliningReading with a pen or pencil in hand, marking important details, quotes, or words. Noting and looking up the definition of unknown terms.
Making predictionsStopping every so often and asking oneself what will happen next based on what has already happened.
Making connections Reflecting on how the material relates to one's own life, other texts, or other concepts.
Asking questionsAsking oneself questions about concepts, such as why a character made a certain choice or how a concept would relate to another field.
ChunkingBreaking down the reading into smaller sections and reviewing after each one.
Making an outlineOutlining the reading with headings for each main idea.
Re-ReadingReading over sections of the text several times. This is particularly useful when an author introduces complex concepts.
SummarizingUsing one’s own words to sum up what the reading was about.


Creating mental images of key ideas in the text.

Step 3 in Active Reading - Recall

Once readers have actively read the text, they should stop and think about what they recall about what they just read. Crafting mental images or describing what they read in their own words can help them check in with themselves and ensure they are following the reading.

Step 4 in Active Reading - Review

Looking back at annotations and notes can help readers ensure they understood what they read. Asking review questions such as “What did I learn?” or “What was the main idea of this text?” can aid in the review process and make sure readers have no unanswered questions about the reading.

Imagine a student is asked to actively read William Shakespeare’s "Sonnet 18" (1609).

To start, they should preview the text to get a sense of what it might be about. During this process they might notice how a lot of the vocabulary has to do with the seasons, such as “summer’s day” (1), “May” (3), “nature’s changing course” (8), and “eternal summer” (9). This suggests that the poem will be about time and changes.

Next, they should actively read and annotate the text. While reading, the student may choose to use the active reading strategies of underlining, annotating, and asking questions. Previewing the text suggested that the concepts of seasons and time are important, so they underline all of the words that have to do with these ideas. They also highlight important images, such as “rough winds” that “shake the darling buds of May” (3) and the “gold complexion dimm’d" (6). The student writes a note on the side that these images show beautiful things becoming less beautiful.

Then after reading the poem, the student recalls what it was about. They remember a speaker describing the person he loves, how so many beautiful things like summer come to an end, and that his love’s “eternal summer shall not fade” (9) because “this gives life to thee" (14). The student reviews this idea and asks: What was the main idea of this poem? What exactly is giving eternal life to the speaker’s love?

By reviewing what the speaker says, the student realizes that the word “this” (14) refers to the very poem itself. Thus, the speaker thinks that his love’s beauty can live on forever through this poem.

Examples of Active Reading

Active reading looks a bit different each time someone does it, since it depends on the text being read and the context it is being read in. For instance, when students have to actively read an excerpt of a fiction text during an exam, they do not have the time to use the same active reading strategies that they could use when reading a fiction book for fun.

Actively Reading Prose Fiction on an Exam

Students are often faced with prose fiction passages on standardized tests. After these passages, students typically have to respond to several multiple-choice questions about the passage. In a time crunch like this, students will not have time to actively engage with all of the details of the text. Instead, they should preview the passage and read the questions before diving into the reading. This will allow students to understand what information they should be looking for.

For instance, imagine one of the questions asks students if the main character learns a lesson about jealousy, pride, stealing, or gluttony. Students should read the passage and underline any words or phrases that relate to these concepts. This strategy will help eliminate potential responses and ensure the reader stays attentive while reading for the ideas in the questions.

Be wary of underlining too much! Underlining is only an effective reading strategy if it is done sparingly. Consider what the most striking words or concepts are, and then underline them or circle words and concepts that seem interconnected—like the vocabulary about seasons in William Shakespeare's "Sonnet 18". If a text has too much underlining it can be difficult to go back and review what the most important elements were.

Actively Reading a Textbook Chapter

Active reading is not always done under time constraints. Even when time is not a factor, active reading still helps students stay on top of studying, while getting the most out of the information. Active reading is particularly useful while reading textbooks, as textbooks are often filled with dense, complex information that may appear overwhelming.

For example, imagine a student has to read a fifty-page chapter from a biology textbook. To read a chapter like this swiftly and effectively, it can help to preview the headings and subheadings before reading, then read the summary at the end first. This will help ensure readers understand what the main ideas of the reading will be. Once reading, they should break it down into chunks—about five to ten pages at a time.

Then, the reader should check in with themselves after each chunk to ensure they can summarize the information in their own words. Readers should also consider making an outline in which they condense the main points of the chapter. This will make studying for an exam in the future easier, because they will not have to go through the entire reading again. Instead, they will have created a shorter text with just the key concepts.

If reading a textbook chapter becomes confusing, it can help to compare the material in the chapter to notes from class. Making connections between how a teacher explained a concept and how a textbook explained a concept can also provide new perspectives on how to understand it.

Active Reading - Key takeaways

  • Active reading means actively engaging with a text while reading it.
  • Active reading is the opposite of passive reading, in which a reader does not focus on or engage with the text.
  • Active reading involves previewing a text, reading with goal-oriented strategies, visualizing what was read, and answering review questions to ensure comprehension.
  • Readers should identify the goal of their reading and select an active reading strategy based on that goal.
  • Active reading strategies include annotating, making connections, asking questions, summarizing, and outlining.

Frequently Asked Questions about Active Reading

Active reading is the act of engaging with a text while reading it with a specific purpose.  

An example of active reading is using a pen to underline keywords in a reading that may answer corresponding multiple-choice questions.

Strategies for active reading include highlighting, summarizing, making connections, making predictions, and visualizing. 

Active reading is done in a place with minimal distractions, with a pen in hand, and involves taking notes on the text that relate to the goals of the reading. 

The steps in active reading are previewing the text, reading with strategies tailored to the reading’s goal, recalling critical information from the text, and reviewing the reading. 

Final Active Reading Quiz


What is active reading?

Show answer


Active reading is the act of engaging with a text while reading it for a specific purpose.

Show question


What is the difference between active and passive reading?

Show answer


Active readers are focused on the text and directly interact with it through strategies like underlining. Passive readers are unfocused and do not interact with the text. 

Show question


Which of the following is something an active reader would not do?

Show answer


Skip over unknown words in the text.

Show question


Which of the following is an active reading strategy?

Show answer



Show question


What are the four steps of active reading?

Show answer


1. Preview the text 

2. Actively read and annotate the text 

3. Recall

4. Review

Show question


What should readers identify before choosing an active reading strategy?

Show answer


The goal of the reading. 

Show question


A student has to read sixty pages from a textbook. Which of the following strategies should she use?

Show answer


All of the above

Show question


What is chunking?

Show answer


Chunking is an active reading strategy in which readers read small sections of the text at a time and review each one to ensure they understand the text as they go along. 

Show question


True or False: Passive readers ask themselves questions to make sure they understood what they read. 

Show answer


False. This is something active readers do. Passive readers do not engage with the text. 

Show question


What does it mean to preview a text?

Show answer


Previewing refers to skimming over a text before reading it and noting the headings, subheadings, or chapter titles. 

Show question


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