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Active Reading Strategies

Brandon Riederer is an Adjunct Professor of English at Bryant & Stratton College. He has a M.A. in English from National University.


The Act of Reading

The ability to use language is perhaps the most neurologically complex function of humankind. It is what makes us unique as a species. It is amazing to think there are 100 billion neurons inside the human brain; there is one specific neuron lighting up for each and every word you know, and many other neurons firing just to think about saying it. Even more fascinating, though, is the clear evidence indicating that, neurologically, humans clearly prefer to listen and speak as opposed to read and write. Our brains have efficient neural pathways that allow us as children to quickly learn how to listen and speak long before we develop the ability to read and write. Why is this so?

According to the newest discoveries in neuroscience, the human brain was never wired to utilize language in its written form at all. Thus, as we learn how to read and write, our brains literally have to rewire existing neural pathways—the ones used for listening and speaking— as a compensation mechanism. Chalk it up to evolutionary theorists to explain this one: since reading and writing is such a new development (roughly 5,000 years old) compared to the history of humankind (H. Sapiens evolved roughly 72,000 years ago) our brains have not fully adapted or evolved to create neural pathways designed specifically and inclusively for reading and writing.

What does this mean for us? Well, it means reading and writing takes more effort to refine as a skill because we are all at an evolutionary and neurological disadvantage. This means we need to be active readers—engaging and interacting with the text— instead of sitting back as passive readers.


Marking the Text

The easiest and most effective method for engaging the text is marking it. Very simply, you can highlight, underline, bracket, draw stars, draw arrows, annotate the margins, use different colored pens, or whatever else your creative mind conjures. The most important concept is to overcome any hesitation holding you back from marking the text. Do not be bashful with your learning: take the initiative and be aggressive with your approach to comprehending the text. If marking key words, phrases, ideas, or pages helps your comprehension, then just do it!


Active Reading

Being an active reader also goes beyond just marking the text. Anyone can highlight or underline key words, but active readers interact with the text by asking questions, fact check, or reflect on their personal knowledge and experiences as they read. Similar to having a conversation with peers, active reading is a dialogic experience: there should be ‘give and take.’ Practice active reading by asking questions inside the margins of the text about something you read, double checking the accuracy of the author’s claims or statistics, or simply write down how the textual material relates to something you learned or experienced in the past.


Determining the Effectiveness

Sometimes we get lost while reading: it happens. If ever you feel like you are drifting away, just take a five second break and ask yourself: what did I just read about? Reality check: if you cannot answer that simple question in a short sentence or two or you cannot recall a keyword or concept, then you might be wasting your time if you continue. Try rereading from an appropriate spot and vigorously attempt to engage and interact with the text. Reread it a few times if needed or wait a few hours or even until the next day before giving it another shot. Also, there is no shame asking someone else to help you comprehend something you are having trouble reading or remembering. Just ask a friend: “Hey, do you have an idea of what this is trying to say?” or “Do you have a better way to remember this?” You will be surprised how impactful two people can be on each other’s learning experiences with unique and creative ways to remember and learn concepts, keywords, or ideas. Nevertheless, the important concept here is to be humble and periodically check yourself (before you wreck yourself).

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Active Reading Strategies

There are five fundamental active reading strategies: interpretation, analysis, evaluation, judgement, and summarizing. At first glance, these many not seem too different. However, understanding the nuisance of each will lead you to a greater appreciation and awareness of these active reading strategies.

Interpretation: Consider interpretation as the process of making meaning from the text. It is the most subjective or personal approach to reading because it requires readers to reflect on their prior knowledge and experience to generate this meaning.

Analysis: Consider analysis as the process of investigating or examining the text. This approach to reading is more technical because it requires readers to account for variables beyond their personal knowledge and experience to study the textual material within a framework or theory-based model of understanding.

Evaluation: Consider evaluation as the process of assessing the quality, accuracy, or value of textual material. Similar to analysis, evaluation is a technical approach to reading because it relies on external, third-parties as the basis for review such as using an established standard for criteria assessment.

Judgement: Consider judgement as the processing of using interpretations are the standard for evaluations. It is a subjective approach to reading and it is based purely on prior knowledge, experience, and personal taste and preference.

Summarizing: Consider summarizing as the process of surveying, questioning, reading, reciting, and responding of a text in such a way to determine the most important keywords, phrases, or concepts and represent them within a condensed form. This approach is the best for developing reading comprehension!

Other Approaches: interpretation, analysis, evaluation, judgement, and summarizing only cover a basic understanding of active reading strategies. There are many other creative strategies that also work! Here is an excellent resource that explores this topic in further detail:

© 2018 Instructor Riederer


Ann Carr from SW England on December 23, 2018:

I used to do something similar to this with my dyslexic students. Once they got the hang of it, most enjoyed the logical processes and seemed surprised they could cope. Discussion also brings students together over one text, exposing opinions and ideas to benefit everyone.

Great explanation.


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