Becoming an Active Reader Study Guide

Updated on Aug 25, 2011

Practice exercises for this study guide can be found at:

Becoming an Active Reader Practice Exercises


The most important thing you can do to improve your reading skills is to become an active reader. This lesson shows you how to read carefully and actively so that you can better understand and remember what you read.

If you want to earn a high score on a video game, you need to concentrate all of your attention on the game. You need to watch the whole screen carefully and look out for what's coming up ahead. You need to look for certain clues and be able to predict what will happen. In other words, you need to be fully engaged with the game to win.

It sounds a lot like the formula for reading success.

To understand and remember what you read, you need to be involved with what you are reading. In other words, you need to be an active reader. People often think of reading as a passive activity. After all, you're just sitting there, looking at words on a page. But when you read, you should actually be interacting with the text.

Five specific strategies will help you become an active reader:

  1. skimming ahead and jumping back
  2. highlighting or underlining key words and ideas
  3. looking up unfamiliar vocabulary words
  4. recording your questions and comments
  5. looking for clues throughout the text

Skim Ahead and Jump Back

Skimming ahead enables you to see what's coming up. Before you begin reading, scan the text to see what's ahead. Is the reading broken up into sections? What are the main topics of those sections? In what order are they covered? What key words or ideas are boldfaced, bulleted, boxed, or otherwise highlighted?

Skimming through a text before you read helps you prepare for your reading task. It's a lot like checking out the course before a cross-country race. If you know what's ahead, you know how to pace yourself. This head start will give you an idea of what's important in the passage you're about to read.

When you finish reading, jump back. Review the summaries, headings, and highlighted information. (This includes both what you and the author highlighted.) Jumping back helps you remember the information you just read. You can see how each idea fits into the whole and how ideas and information are connected.

Finding Key Words and Ideas

In any text, some facts and ideas are more important than others. To be an active reader, you need to identify key ideas. By highlighting or underlining the key words and ideas, you'll make important information stand out. You'll also make it easier to find that information when you want to write a summary or to study for an exam.

Of course, to highlight key words and ideas, you must be able to determine which facts and ideas are most important. Ask yourself: What's the most important information to understand and remember?

Here are two guidelines for highlighting or underlining a text (you'll learn a lot more about this in the next lesson when you learn how to determine the main idea):

  1. Be selective. If you highlight four sentences in a five-sentence paragraph, you haven't helped yourself at all. The key is to identify what's most important in that passage. Ask yourself two questions:
    1. What is the author trying to say and what is the main idea of his or her passage?
    2. What information is emphasized or seems to stand out as important?
    3. You can also highlight information that you find particularly interesting.

  2. Watch for clues that indicate an idea is important. Words and phrases like most important, the key is, and significantly signal that key information will follow. Watch for visual clues, too. Key words and ideas are often boldfaced, underlined, or italicized. They may be boxed in or repeated in a sidebar.
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