One of the primary goals for high school teachers is to prepare students to enter and engage the complex world that surrounds them.
Still, to reference Thoreau, we want students to suck all the marrow out of life and not simply be passersby in their own experiences. We want students to take action, to question, and to come to their own conclusions about the problems presented to them. To meet this end, teachers engage students in a variety of skill building activities, and for my money, one of the most important is active reading.
What Is Active Reading?
Active reading asks the reader to view a text as fluid, something that is open to questioning and interpretation. An active reader doesn’t read a text simply to attain information and then regurgitate it during class. Instead, we make connections, ask questions, infer what’s to come, or interpret the author’s intentions.
Types of Active Reading
For me, active reading boils down to three skills: making connections, asking questions, and making inferences.
There are three types of connections a reader can make — text-to-self, text-to-world, and text-to-text.
Text-to-self asks, “How does what I’m reading relate to my life experiences? What stake do I hold in what I’m reading?”
Text-to-world expands this connection by asking, “How does what I’m reading relate to the world around me? How does it reflect or contrast the workings of the world beyond my personal experiences?”
Text-to-text tends to be the most difficult as it asks, “How does this text connect to other texts I’ve read?” or “How does one part of the text relate to another part of the same text?”
To come to conclusions about a reading, often the best strategy is to ask questions about it. This can range from the motivations of a specific character in a novel to an author’s purpose.
Even if you’ve had trouble comprehending a portion of the reading, asking clarifying questions builds meta-cognitive awareness (knowledge about your own thinking process). These questions could then be used in-class to gain a better understanding of what you found confusing.
To make an inference means to project an understanding or judgment about a text. This means you may not know what will happen next in a novel or what the author intends, but based on the evidence, you can draw an educated conclusion.
How Active Reading Is Accomplished
The easiest way to engage a text is to write on the pages exactly what you’re thinking when you’re thinking it. However, if the school issues your books, you may not have this liberty.
If this is the case you can use any of the following strategies I recommend to my students:
Sticky notes: Have a pad of sticky notes handy as you read. When you have a thought jot it down and slap it onto the page to which it refers.
Keep a dialogic notebook: Fold a page of your notebook in half. If a quote or a passage stands out to you, jot it down on the left side of the page. On the right side, write down your commentary.
Write a rapid reaction: After completing your reading, write down three aspects that you found important, two questions you have about the text, and one part you thought was surprising.
Why Active Reading Is Important
We live in an age in which infinite information is only a web browser away. And this is exciting. However, when it comes to the availability of information, more isn’t always better.
Often it’s hard to separate the garbage from the good stuff, the truth from spin. Actively reading a text, watching a newscast, or listening to the radio means to not passively accept what someone tells you as gospel. Instead, you’re in charge of your own education, your own truth making.
So next time you sit down to read that novel or that op-ed, ask tough questions and make connections. Be a part of the information, not just the recipient.