Active Reading Strategies

Dr. Kory Gallagher, Assistant Director of Middle & Lower School
When it comes to making mistakes as a student, I have made them all. In grad school, I was assigned David Worster’s biography of John Muir. I knew how to dissect a book quickly: read the introduction and conclusion, read every topic sentence, pull out the argument and major supports to the thesis and move on. But on that perfect fall Saturday, I made a tragic mistake: I just read.
I read every sentence, every word, skipped no pages, made no annotations, and captured not a single note. Like all of Worster’s scholarship, "A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir" is beautifully written, inviting the reader into a world that is not their own. After twelve hours of simply enjoying a wonderful book, I knew that come our next class I would struggle to find meaningful ways to discuss it in an academic way. 

The art of not getting lost in a book, but analyzing as we go, is called active reading; a skill that requires years of practice to perfect. When our students read for English class, pick up a history textbook, or even try to make sense of a concept in math, active reading is what helps them to make the leap from taking in some information to truly understanding what the author is trying to convey. Students often come to the Student Success Center because they are challenged by determining what is important in a text and what is not, or with remaining focused on the ideas instead of the words as they read. While active reading is a difficult skill to master, the components are straightforward.

If your student reports that they are losing themselves in their class readings, here are some useful tips:

  • Encourage your student to start writing in their books. Taking intellectual ownership of a text by making it distinctly our own is a way to begin to master active reading. Even if at first they are highlighting too much, or taking notes that are not all that helpful, beginning the process is a good place to start.
  • Develop a personal annotation style. When I read, I underline anything I think is important; circle any word I do not know (and then look up, and write in, the definition); put an exclamation mark next to any underlined section I think is pivotal to the whole text; and put a question mark next to anything that is confusing. 
  • Review the English department’s "Style, Voice, and Mechanics: A Guide to Better Writing." This is required for all middle and upper school students and includes a section on active reading (page 35). Note the first appearance of a new character; repetitions of images, phrases, or themes; references to the title; obvious symbolism; shifts in narration; foreshadowing and establishing mood; beautiful or powerful prose; and words you do not know. 
Active reading is a skill we are all constantly working on as readers, and something for which each student has to develop their own personal system. With practice, encouraging words from parents, advice from teachers, and maybe even a visit or two to the Student Success Center to discuss strategies, Barstow students should be expert critical readers by the time they graduate. Just keep working at it!
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    • The English department's "Style, Voice, and Mechanics: A Guide to Better Writing" is required for all Barstow middle and upper school students.