Introduction: Active Reading

Active vs. Passive Reading

Have you ever read a page from a textbook and at the end of the page realized you have no idea what you just read? Successful readers develop active reading habits that improve their reading comprehension, speed, and enjoyment. Active reading involves deeper engagement with the text before, during, and after reading. You can engage with the text by previewing it, linking it with your experience, asking and answering questions, jotting down notes, main ideas, your ideas, and more.  All of the reading skills and strategies listed in this section of the text promote active reading.

A good way to understand active reading is to compare it to its opposite, passive reading.

During Active Reading, You:
During Passive Reading, You:
Adjust how you read depending on the type of text and context within which you’re reading. Read each text the same way.
Examine the purpose of the assignment before reading. Read without examining the purpose of the assignment.
Alter your reading speed as you read based on the significance and difficulty of each passage. Read everything at the same speed.
Preview a text before reading by skimming headings, topic sentences, and key words. Don’t preview; just jump right into reading.
Read with questions in mind. Read without questions in mind.
Stop to monitor your understanding of the text as you read. Don’t stop to think about whether you are understanding what you are reading.
Annotate while you read: read with a pencil or highlighter in hand to mark important passages and jot down notes. Don’t annotate. Don’t have anything in hand. Just read.
Make time to reflect upon and evaluate what you have read. Don’t make time to reflect upon and evaluate what you have read.

Active Reading Strategies – An Overview

There are many different active reading strategies. Some readers apply certain strategies depending on the type of text they’re reading or the purpose of their reading. Other readers find certain strategies that resonate with them and apply those more consistently than others. You should try out all of the strategies listed below to develop your tool kit of active reading skills, and to see which strategies resonate with you. All of the strategies can help you delve more deeply into a text for the purposes of understanding, reacting, applying, analyzing, and synthesizing information.

While the overall purpose of active reading is fuller engagement with—and thus fuller understanding of—a text, there are nuanced purposes to different active reading strategies. Some strategies overlap and fulfill multiple purposes (e.g., a recall diagram includes the main idea and may include background knowledge; Cornell notes involve questions and summaries). The purpose of active reading strategies generally influences when you apply those strategies in the reading process, before, during, and after reading.

Active Reading Strategies by Purpose

Get a Sense of the Text & Prime your Brain to Engage with the Text
  • Titles, Skimming, & Scanning
  • Background Knowledge
  • Context & Predictions
Identify, Understand, and Remember the Text’s Ideas
  • Main Idea
  • Patterns & Questions to Generate Ideas
  • Lists & Questions to Remember Ideas
  • Summary & Paraphrase to Re-State Ideas
Engage, Converse With, & Organize the Text’s Ideas
  • Annotations
  • Notes
  • Cornell Notes
  • Graphic Organizers: Mind Map, Matrix
  • SQ3R & KWL Systems
  • Outline and Reverse Outline


The video below introduces and elaborates on skills and strategies related to active reading, using the before-during-after organization (preview, study-read, review). The video is relatively lengthy, but packed with information.  You may want to take notes, and/or come back to it periodically, as it provides a solid, comprehensive discussion of active reading strategies.

Some Additional Insight into Active Reading

The two videos that follow offer personal perspectives on active reading techniques.  Some of these techniques are explained in fuller detail in this section of the textbook, while others are specific to the video authors.  Know that you can develop your own active reading strategies; what’s important is that you interact with a text before, during, and after you read, to promote not only recall of information, but fuller and deeper understanding of that information.