Reading actively actually means a series of things. Perhaps most importantly is that active reading
means reading with an awareness of a purpose for reading. Far too often students read aimlessly,
hoping that the key ideas will somehow “sink in” and then eventually “surface” when they need to.
Having a purpose is another way of saying that you have set goals for your readings. In may
university text books, you may find chapters that begin with a brief note on learning goals, but you
may find that you pass over these goals in the rush to get to the end of the chapter.
You can use
goals to focus your attention on specific aspects of a chapter that you are about to read. Without
setting goals you are, by default, saying that everything has the same value and that you want to
learn it all in the same depth and in the same detail. This can sound like an admirable way to
approach reading, but in practice this often leads to frustration. Reading passively can lead you to
forget large portions of the text soon after reading. Sometimes the text seems to resist structure and
logical organization because you have overloaded your mind with new information.
In addition to setting goals and purposes for reading, active reading may involve using the structure
of your reading to construct an overview for your reading which you use to select a focus. The
structures of the reading materials vary almost as much as the readings themselves, but there are
some common features associated with various kinds of readings that readers can make effective
use of. Text books, for example, usually contain chapter titles, introductions, headings, subheadings,
bold face or italicized type, and conclusions. They may also contain chapter learning
objectives, review questions, summary sections, application sections, and notes and key words in
the margins. Clearly these are meant to be used and can go a long way to assisting a reader in
understanding and working with the information there.
Even if a text has few headings, readers can rely on the structures of the
paragraphs contained in the text to access the same kind of information that the more prominent
markers indicate: that is, the main divisions of ideas and how the ideas are elaborated. Novels and
journal articles are bound by different structures, but an awareness of these can assist in an
intelligent approach to the reading of these differently organized texts. The academic introduction
to novels can provide a number of guidelines for how to read the novel, for example, and the
abstract of a journal article serves the function of summarizing the contents of the article for the
reader in simplified language. All of these structures assist the reader in developing an overview of
what is about to be read and this allows readers to guide themselves through the text with a focus in
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