Active reading strategies to use for every age group

Active reading strategies engage learners with the written word. The strategies help learners with comprehension and analysis.

Educators have long used active reading strategies with memorable names like SQ3R , but all of the strategies have one thing in common: they help learners remember what they read.

Active reading strategies for elementary school

Elementary students depend on explicit reading instruction to engage fully with their texts. Try strategies like these:

  • Help students connect to the text before they read a word. Ask open-ended questions that allow students to connect prior knowledge to what they’re going to read. Talk about the title, the pictures, or the set of vocabulary words before reading.
  • Give students graphic organizers that help students think about concepts. For example, use a Venn diagram to identify similarities and differences between two texts. Maps and webs make abstract concepts concrete.
  • Teach the vocabulary students need to learn. Give every student a long strip of colorful paper as a bookmark. Have students write down unfamiliar words and the page number where it can be found. When they look up a word, they can write the definition on their bookmarks.

Middle and high school strategies

Reading and writing go hand in hand, and one of the best ways to engage older students in active reading is through writing.

  • Follow the signs. Reading texts have clues for their readers. Teach students how to navigate not only headings, sub-headings, and titles of illustrations and charts, but also key phrases like “most importantly.” Use these clues to build a summary outline.
  • Highlight key concepts. Too often students feel compelled to highlight everything in the text because it’s all important. They are so fearful of leaving out something important that they have difficulty isolating supporting details from topics. It’s like not being able to see the forest for the trees. Instead, replace highlighters with pencils. Ask students to jot down key concepts on small slips of paper.

Strategies for college and beyond

College students may find themselves giving their reading a cursory glance rather than make meaning of the texts assigned to them, but they still benefit from using active reading strategies.

  • Encourage students to write notes in book margins. As an alternative, affix sticky notes or highlighting tape in margins and write on those. Create a brief dialogue with the text by jotting down a few words or phrases. These trigger memory when revisiting the material. The same strategy will work with e-books as well.
  • Read backward. No one worries about spoiler alerts in textbooks, so students can read the summary at the end of a chapter first. Then they continue working backward one section at a time, noting visuals and sidebars along the way.
  • Maintain a reader’s journal. Have students write the gist of the material on the left-hand page and their personal connection to their summaries on the right-hand side.

Every student, regardless of age, needs active reading strategies. They can implement many of these active reading strategies at every grade level. Have your students try a variety of strategies to find what works best for them. The same approach may not work for everyone, but everyone should develop a few ways that help them engage with their reading.

The best way to become a better reader is to develop active reading strategies that work at every level.


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