Active reading: how to become a better reader

We are inundated with an unprecedented volume of information. A recent survey by the team at Heyday found that the average person consumes four articles, more than 8,000 words and more than 200 messages daily.

Yet, research suggests that we forget up to 70% of new information within 24 hours if we don’t actively engage with it. This “forgetting curve” shows that despite our voracious content consumption, we retain only a fraction of what we read.

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.

Ten active reading strategies

Active reading is a metacognitive approach to reading that emerged from educational psychology in the mid-20th century. While its roots can be traced back to ancient Greek and Roman rhetorical practices, the modern definition was formalized by psychologist Francis Robinson in the 1940’s. In short, active reading transforms passive absorption into an interactive, analytical process.

There are many active reading strategies, but here are some of the most immediately useful. While many of these strategies were designed with students in mind, they can work for anyone who wants to make 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 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. Organize the information visually. Map the content into a graphic to better visualize it and make it your own. You can craft a simple mind map, or be creative with collages and other forms of visual thinking.
  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 another external reference to make sure you understand a new concept or an unfamiliar word’s meaning and have all the necessary background information.
  10. Summarize the ideas. Once you’re done reading a book, sit down and write your own summary. Bonus points if you publish it online to learn in public and get feedback and additional perspectives from other readers.

A structured approach to active reading

The benefits of active reading are substantial and supported by research. Active reading strategies can not only improve your reading comprehension but also enhance your analytical abilities and critical thinking. Active recall practices, a key component of active reading, also has a positive effect on your long-term memory retention.

If you want to apply a simple technique for active reading, the SQ3R method covers most of the active reading strategies mentioned above. It stands for survey, question, read, retrieve, and review, and was introduced in 1946 by Francis Robinson in his book Effective Study.

The SQ3R method of Active Reading
  • 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. Active reading will help you 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.

As philosopher Mortimer J. Adler put it, “In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.”

Active reading is not just about improving comprehension; it’s about transforming how we interact with knowledge. By reading with not just your eyes but with your mind fully engaged, you can turn each time you read into an opportunity for growth.

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