So-called “active” reading is one of the most important skills a student can develop. Being an active reader means not just passively letting the words flow by, but deliberately engaging with them. If you read actively, you’ll understand the content you’re reading more deeply, and you’ll form a stronger memory of that content.
Active reading transforms the text into a sort-of partner with whom you have an ongoing conversation. The book doesn’t happen to you because you’re an active participant in the experience of reading it. In classes ranging from language arts to chemistry to history, active reading leads to better outcomes.
So, with that in mind, here are the 3 P’s of active reading:
It’s important to stop every now and then when you’re reading. You need to pause and process, creating opportunities for yourself to reflect on what you’ve been reading, to think about it, to make sure you’ve understood it. You might realize you need to reread some bit or go look up a word you don’t know. This is a major disadvantage of audiobooks; they just flow and flow and flow. I love audiobooks, but they make it much harder to pause.
One thing you might do when you pause is paraphrase what you’ve just read. Can you summarize what’s going on in your own words? If you can’t, you probably aren’t understanding the text. Paraphrasing is a powerful way to take ownership of what you’re reading and stay actively involved in the reading process. It helps form memories and makes you a better communicator.
To make paraphrasing extra powerful, tap into the power of written product and take notes. Later, you might recount the story you’ve read to someone else, or you might do some mental recall practice and talk yourself through the ideas again.
A fun thing to do before you begin reading again is to predict what’s coming next. Making guesses about the future events of a story gets you invested in the story. You want to find out if you’re right, so you keep reading with increased interest. Either you are correct, and your brain gives you a little endorphin hit for guessing right, or you’re wrong, and your brain gets to work figuring out why. Prediction requires thinking critically about the text, which makes for a deeper engagement with it.
It’s also an important skill that makes you a better reader in general. Here’s economics professor and author Tyler Cowen in an interview he did with The Knowledge Project:
“The more you’ve read, the more you know what’s coming in the books you’re reading, so the easier and quicker it is to read them. So like if I read a book now – you know, I’m 56 years old, I started reading when I was three – if someone asks me, ‘Well, how long did it take you to read that book?’ the correct answer is 53 years. It doesn’t matter what the book is. You’re bringing to bear your last 53 years of reading on the book, and most of your reading, your understanding results from your prior investment. So that’s the way to read well: is stick around on this Earth and keep on reading.”1
Non-Fiction and Textbooks
The 3 P’s isn’t just a tool for literature. You can also use it to facilitate deep learning of non-fiction and textbooks.
It’s even more critical to pause often while reading to learn because non-fiction is usually very dense. Plus, pausing creates an opportunity to take notes. Your notes should include your own summary of what you’ve just read – your paraphrasing of the text. And because textbooks tend to be more boring than stories, it’s even more necessary to make predictions to stay engaged.
In a post advising that all textbook reading start with the summary, I mentioned that it is beneficial to preview the section headings and sub-headings in a chapter before reading it because this produces a mental bookshelf on which to put the new information. In the 3 P’s paradigm, this creates an opportunity for prediction. By predicting what’s going to be on the bookshelves, you’re more engaged. In the absence of headings and sub-headings, you can predict what categories of information will be covered in the chapter, and then predict what might go into those categories.
It’s Not a Rigid Formula
The way I’ve laid these out is not a rigid formula. Active reading is fluid and flexible. The 3 P’s can happen in any order.. You might pause, read, pause, predict, read, pause, paraphrase, read, predict, read, and pause. I’ve just laid out the most conventional way to do them.
You will sometimes justify your predictions with paraphrasing. You’ll sometimes pause and do nothing at all before continuing to read. You can even make predictions before you even start reading, just by looking at the title and the cover.
The point is not to force yourself to perform the 3 P’s the same way every time like you’re an employee in a Soviet factory. The point is to remember that you have these tools of active reading at your disposal, free to use at any time.
If you’ve appreciated this article, you’ll also enjoy the story of how Northwest Educational Services owner Greg Smith fell in love with reading and learned to become an active reader in spite of his dyslexia.
Chris Loper has been working as a tutor and academic coach since 2014, racking up over 10,000 hours of experience supporting students.
Along with Greg Smith, Chris is the cocreator of Parenting for Academic Success (and Parental Sanity) – a five-part course offered every summer.
Chris’s most recent endeavor combines his academic and habit-formation expertise to help students thrive in college. Visit SmartCollegeHabits.com to learn more.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons, available on Amazon and through most local bookstores.
He lives in Issaquah, WA where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.
1 “Thinking About Thinking: My Interview with Tyler Cowen.” The Knowledge Project. Episode 39.