A Plan for Active Reading

When you read actively, you use strategies that help you stay focused. Active reading is different from reading novels or magazines for pleasure. Pleasure reading doesn’t require you to annotate, highlight, or take notes. As you read college textbooks, though, you’ll use all these strategies and more. This plan will increase your focus and concentration, promote greater understanding of what you read, and prepare you to study for tests and exams. Here are the four steps in active reading designed to help you read college textbooks:

  1. Previewing

  2. Strategies for Marking Your Textbook

  3. Reading with Concentration

  4. Reviewing


The purpose of previewing is to get the big picture, that is, to understand how what you are about to read connects with what you already know and to the material the instructor covers in class. Begin by reading the title of the chapter. Ask yourself: What do I already know about this subject? Next, quickly read through the introductory paragraphs. Then read the summary at the beginning or end of the chapter if there is one. Finally, take a few minutes to skim the chapter, looking at the headings and subheadings. Note any study exercises at the end of the chapter.

As part of your preview, note how many pages the chapter contains. It’s a good idea to decide in advance how many pages you can reasonably expect to cover in your first study period. This can help build your concentration as you work toward your goal of reading a specific number of pages. Before long, you’ll know how many pages are practical for you.

Keep in mind that different types of textbooks can require more or less time to read. For example, depending on your interests and previous knowledge, you might be able to read a psychology text more quickly than a logic text that presents a whole new symbol system.


The process of mapping the chapter as you preview it provides a visual guide for how different chapter ideas fit together. Because many students identify themselves as visual learners, visual mapping is an excellent learning tool for test preparation as well as reading. To map a chapter, use either a wheel structure or a branching structure as you preview the chapter. In the wheel map, place the central idea of the chapter in the circle. The central idea should be in the introduction to the chapter and might be apparent in the chapter title. Place secondary ideas on the spokes emanating from the circle and place offshoots of those ideas on the lines attached to the spokes. In the branching map the main idea goes at the top, followed by supporting ideas on the second tier and so forth. Fill in the title first. Then, as you skim the chapter, use the headings and subheadings to fill in the key ideas.

Alternatives to Mapping.

mapping A preview strategy of drawing a wheel or branching structure to show relationships between main ideas and secondary ideas and how different concepts and terms fit together and help you make connections to what you already know about the subject.

Perhaps you prefer a more linear visual image. If so, consider making an outline of the headings and subheadings in the chapter. You can fill in the outline after you read. Alternatively, make a list. A list can be particularly effective when you are dealing with a text that introduces many new terms and their definitions. Set up the list with the terms in the left column and fill in definitions, descriptions, and examples on the right after you read. Divide the terms on your list into groups of five, seven, or nine, and leave white space between the clusters so that you can visualize each group in your mind. This practice is known as chunking. Research indicates that we learn material best when it is in chunks of five, seven, or nine.

If you are an interactive learner, make lists or create a flash card for each heading and subheading. Then fill in the back of each card after reading each section in the text. Use the lists or flash cards to review with a partner or recite the material to yourself.

Previewing, combined with mapping, outlining, or flash cards, might require more time up front, but it will save you time later because you will have created an excellent review tool for quizzes and tests. You will be using your visual learning skills as you create advanced organizers to help you associate details of the chapter with the larger ideas. Such associations will come in handy later on. As you preview the text material, look for connections between the text and the related lecture material. Call to mind the related terms and concepts that you recorded in the lecture. Use these strategies to warm up. Ask yourself: Why am I reading this material? What do I want to know?

Strategies for Marking Your Textbook

After completing your preview, you are ready to read the text actively. With your map or outline to guide you, mark the sections that are most important. To avoid marking too much or marking the wrong information, first read without using your pencil or highlighter.

chunking A previewing method that involves making a list of terms and definitions from the reading and then dividing the terms into smaller clusters of five, seven, or nine to learn the material more effectively.

Marking can be an active reading strategy that helps you focus and concentrate as you read. You may prefer to underline, highlight, or use margin notes or annotations. No matter what method you prefer, remember these two important guidelines:

  1. Read before you mark. Finish reading a section before you decide which are the most important ideas and concepts.

  2. Think before you mark. When you read a text for the first time, everything can seem important. After you complete a section, reflect on it to identify the key ideas. Ask yourself: What are the most important ideas? What will I see on the test? This step can help you avoid marking too much material.

Two other considerations might affect your decisions about textbook marking:

  1. If you just make notes or underline in your textbook, you will have to read all the pages again. Instead, consider taking notes, creating flash cards, making lists, or outlining textbook chapters. These methods are also more practical if you intend to review with a friend or study group.

  2. Highlighting or underlining can give you a false sense of security. Just noting what’s most important doesn’t mean that you understand the material. When you force yourself to put something in your own words while taking notes, you are not only predicting exam questions but also assessing whether you can answer them. Although these active reading strategies take more time initially, they can save you time in the long run because they promote concentration and make it easy to review.

Reading With Concentration

Students commonly have trouble concentrating or understanding the content when they read textbooks. Many factors can affect your ability to concentrate and understand texts: the time of day, your energy level, your interest in the material, and your study location.

Consider these suggestions and decide which ones would help you improve your reading ability:

  • Find a study location that is removed from traffic and distracting noises such as the campus library. Turn off your cell phone’s ringer and store the phone in your purse or book bag (someplace where you can’t easily feel it vibrating). If you are reading an electronic document on your computer, download the information you need and disconnect from the network to keep you from easily going online and chatting, e-mailing, or checking Facebook or Twitter.

  • Read in blocks of time, with short breaks in between. Some students can read for 50 minutes; others find that a 50-minute reading period is too long. By reading for small blocks of time throughout the day instead of cramming in all your reading at the end of the day, you should be able to process material more easily.

  • Set goals for your study period, such as “I will read twenty pages of my psychology text in the next 50 minutes.” Reward yourself with a 10-minute break after each 50-minute study period.

  • If you have trouble concentrating or staying awake, take a quick walk around the library or down the hall. Stretch or take some deep breaths and think positively about your study goals. Then resume studying.

  • Jot study questions in the margins, take notes, or recite key ideas. Reread confusing parts of the text and make a note to ask your instructor for clarification.

  • Focus on the important portions of the text. Pay attention to the first and last sentences of paragraphs and to words in italics or bold print.

  • Use the glossary in the text or a dictionary to define unfamiliar terms.


The final step in active textbook reading is reviewing. Many students expect to read through their text material once and be able to remember the ideas four, six, or even twelve weeks later at test time. More realistically, you will need to include regular reviews in your study process. Here is where your notes, study questions, annotations, flash cards, visual maps, or outlines will be most useful. Your study goal should be to review the material from each chapter every week.

Consider ways to use your many senses to review. Recite aloud. Tick off each item in a list on each of your fingertips. Post diagrams, maps, or outlines around your living space so that you will see them often and will likely be able to visualize them while taking the test.

marking An active reading strategy of making marks in the text by underlining, highlighting, or writing margin notes or annotations.