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Active reading

Teaching strategies

Active reading: a guide for teachers and teacher aides

The number 1 reading strategy for struggling readers.

Active reading – intently reading a text with a specific purpose (for example, to learn about a character).

Small group of primary school students sitting on the floor during a class activity.

Successful readers do more than simply read the words on a page. They think about the text not just as they read, but before and afterwards as well. In fact, what a reader does before and after is just as important (at least to their comprehension) as actually reading the text itself. Students who struggle with reading commonly lack these before and after skills. Simple pre- and post-reading strategies can easily be taught however, once teachers are aware of them.i

There are 3 important stages to reading and understanding a text: pre-reading, reading and reviewing (also sometimes called post-reading). We have already discussed pre-reading activities such as prediction, scanning, skimming, questioning, advanced organisers, visualisation and using cues. Pre-reading activities are essential for maximum comprehension and they only need to take a few minutes.

Active reading is reading for a specific purpose such as to learn about an event, character, theme, concept or point of view.

Teachers should move to the reading phase after pre-reading activities. The 3 most common and somewhat universal strategies at this point are:

  1. Shared reading – the teacher and student share the task of reading a passage (often with the teacher reading the more difficult parts).
  2. Guided reading – the teacher helps the student with tricky words and sentences.
  3. Independent reading – the student reads silently on their own.

The final stage of the reading process is the review stage. A range of strategies can be implemented such as writing to learn, advanced organisers, class discussions and summarising.

Embedded within this 3-step process is active reading. Active reading is reading for a specific purpose (such as to learn about an event, character, theme, concept or point of view). Quite often students read to identify important details such as events in a short story or key facts from an article. Active reading is encouraged by teachers who outline the purpose of the reading activity beforehand. These goals are determined in the pre-reading phase (such as with a KWL chart or a timeline) and are revisited in the final review phase after reading the text. For example, a student might predict that a story will have certain characters and plot lines. While reading the story, the student searches for information to confirm or disconfirm their prediction and takes notes. At the review stage, the student thinks about whether their prediction was accurate.

Teachers use active reading to prevent passive reading. Passive reading happens when students read something without being told why they are reading it. Passive readers see and comprehend each word, but subsequently fail to remember much afterwards: they don’t make connections between different parts of the text and they have a very low level of comprehension. Students who passively read a text say things like ‘I read the whole thing and have no idea what it was about’. You may have experienced this yourself. Passive readers are cognitively overloaded as they have no mechanism to sort and organise each detail (such as into relevant and irrelevant information).

Teachers use active reading to prevent passive reading. Passive reading happens when students read something without being told why they are reading it.

Additionally, it’s impossible to remember every detail especially from a long text like a chapter or a book. Teachers should always provide clear reading goals for any text. By directing student attention to search for specific information while reading, teachers encourage them to do 3 things. Firstly, students have to read and comprehend a sentence or paragraph. Secondly, they must decide if a piece of information is relevant to their reading goals. Finally, they have to add each piece of information to a collection (either in their head or to their notes). This final step requires students to add, remove and reconsider what is relevant as new information is uncovered. All 3 stages are completed in a few seconds or less.

By analysing each sentence in this way, students retain significantly more information. When students are not provided with direction, this analysis cannot occur. Equal weight is placed on every piece of information (every sentence). As there is a huge volume of information on any given page, working memory is then overloaded and students forget all of it – hence the common complaint ‘I read 5 times but don’t remember anything’.

Re-reading a passage multiple times may help passive readers, although often it doesn’t. A student can passively read a text 5 times and still have a little to no comprehension of what happened or what it was about.

Passive readers also easily become bored and distracted, they rarely become engrossed in a story or article, they rarely enjoy reading and so they don’t read for pleasure. They avoid reading altogether in some cases, they have lower vocabulary, spelling and writing skills, and they don’t use reading strategies such as visualisation and self-questioning. Active reading on the other hand is an important strategy that teachers should explicitly teach to students of all ages. Unfortunately, however, many teachers have never even heard of the concept of active vs. passive reading.

Foot notes:

  1. Marinaccio, J. (2012). The Most Effective Pre-reading Strategies for Comprehension. Education Masters. Paper 208.

About the author

Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and an author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of Fast Track Training Australia, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.


Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to check his article for accuracy, information may be outdated, inaccurate or not relevant to you and your location/employer/contract. It is not intended as legal or professional advice. Users should seek expert advice such as by contacting the relevant education department, should make their own enquiries, and should not rely on any of the information provided.

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