Active reading: how to become a better reader

Highly effective readers use a collection of mental processes called active reading in order to retain more of the information and make the new acquired knowledge more useful. Reading in a passive way isn’t an effective way to understand and learn.

In order to stay focused and retain more information, it’s important to be highly engaged with the content. Active reading basically means reading something with the determination to understand, evaluate, and remember relevant aspects of what you read. It mostly relies on critical thinking.

active reading

10 active reading strategies

There are many active reading strategies, but here are the ones I find the most useful, in no particular order. While many of these strategies were designed with students in mind, they can work for anyone looking at making the most of what they read.

  1. Understand the author’s purpose. Is the goal of the author to inform, entertain, or advertise their product or services? Take a few minutes to read the introduction or any other material available to become aware of the reason and intent of writing.
  2. Adjust your reading rate. Instead of using a constant rate, adapt yourself to the content you’re reading. This means slowing down to comprehend better new or more complex information, and speeding up when it’s information you are already familiar with.
  3. Annotate the content. Taking notes is a great way to stay engaged with the content. Use the margins or your Kindle to write ideas that pop into your mind when reading something.
  4. Paraphrase. Whenever a new concept seems a bit more complex to grasp, stop reading and try to paraphrase it using your own words. This will force you to assess your level of understanding.
  5. Use chunking. Break down the information down into smaller chunks to retain information more easily.
  6. Connect the dots. Try to actively connect prior to new information by making connections between the text and your personal experience or existing knowledge about the world.
  7. Visually organise the information. Map the content into a graphic to better visualise it and make new connections.
  8. Evaluate the content. Every so often, take a step back and think critically about what you’re reading. Is it well structured, are there gaps in the argument, does the author sound biased?
  9. Consult a reference. Whenever you’re in doubt, use a dictionary or other external reference to make sure you understand a word’s meaning and have all the necessary background information.
  10. Summarise. Once you’re done reading a book, sit down and write your own summary. Bonus points if you publish it online to get feedback and additional perspectives from other readers.

A structured approach to active reading

The SQ3R method covers most of these active reading strategies. It stands for survey, question, read, retrieve, and review, and was introduced in 1946 by Francis Robinson, an American education philosopher in his book Effective Study.

  • Survey. Resist the temptation of reading the book straight away. Instead, quickly skim the content, looking in particular at headings, figures, and tables. This step should not take longer than five minutes.
  • Question. Before starting to read the content, generate some questions. For example, you could turn some of the headings into questions, so you can look for answers in the content of the text later.
  • Read. Now you get to read the content. Use the background work done in the two previous steps as well as the active reading strategies we listed earlier in order to stay engaged. This includes answering the questions you drafted before.
  • Retrieve. Try to recall what you just read and to explain it to other people in your own words. Use the Feynman Technique to ensure you actually understood and learned what you read.
  • Review. Once you’re done reading, write a short summary—again, using your own words.

That’s it. No more passive reading and wasted hours. Make the most of the time you spend reading books and blog posts by ensuring you retain more of the relevant content and can apply it in your day-to-day life and work.


Anne-Laure Le Cunff

I’m an ex-Googler, entrepreneur, and part-time neuroscience student at King’s College. If you found this article useful, subscribe to my weekly newsletter about productivity, creativity, learning, and designing engaging products.

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