active_reading02Do you find yourself having lunch or commuting to and from work and reading an article, only to get to the end of the article and 5 minutes later have only a vague idea, or sometimes no idea of what you just read about? You don’t recall the important pieces of information in the article, or how you could apply them in your life; you basically didn’t learn anything from the article. If this is happening to you and you’d like to actually learn something from reading those articles, it’s time for active reading!

Normal reading

If you’re reading a novel for entertainment you’ll be really interested in what you’re reading and you just remember where you’re up to in the story without trying anything special. There’s no problem here and you don’t need to change the way you read.

Try reading a newspaper article while having lunch during your break at work. If you just read the words from start to finish, you’ll notice that yes, you read the words, however you don’t remember any of it! Wouldn’t it be better if after reading the article, you learned something new, you could recall what you read, and you could apply your learning in other places? This is what active reading gives you.

Active reading

Active reading is more like studying a text back at school or university where you would make notes and prepare for exams. The more you engage all areas of your brain – imagery, building connections to existing knowledge, summarising – the more you’ll understand and remember. However even without turning your lunch time or commute into a full on study session, you can take these key points from the concept of active reading and apply when you’re next reading an article.

Steps to productive reading:

  1. Know your purpose for reading
  2. Skim the article first
  3. Pause and paraphrase what you read
  4. Connect to existing knowledge and images
  5. Think about it again later

Let’s examine these steps to see why they’re important.

Know your purpose for reading

If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will take you there. Similarly if you don’t have a purpose in mind for the reading, you’re less likely to remember any of it or learn something from it as you just read in the words without actively looking for anything.

Before you start reading ask yourself why you’re reading this, e.g. say you are reading to increase your vocabulary. As you read, you’ll pick out any words you don’t know and note them down. After you finish you look up those words and find the meaning, then you try to use those words in conversation or when writing your own documents. This way you have learned a few new words from reading the article.

Without having defined this purpose for reading, you may just skip over the words you don’t know as you can usually get the meaning from the context and don’t need to know those words to read the article – you can see how this results in reading an article and then having no recollection of what you read.

Having a purpose in mind also causes you to pause after reading a section and think about how this achieves your purpose. This engages more of your brain, making your reading more active and resulting in you remembering and learning from the reading.

Skim the article first

Just as it’s helpful to understand the big picture before diving into details on a project, skimming the article first can give you the big picture of what the article is about. This creates a framework and you can then think about how each section you read fits into this framework. It also results in you thinking while reading, trying to relate what you read to your big picture and filling in the gaps in your understanding.

Pause and paraphrase what you read

As you read each section, pause and use your mind’s voice to paraphrase what you read. This again engages more of your brain. It forces you to think about what you’re reading and solidifies your understanding rather than passively reading the words and having them flow past in front of your eyes without ever absorbing them or taking meaning out of them.

Connect to existing knowledge and images

When you connect what you’re reading to your existing knowledge and experience you build more solid, longer lasting memories. The information is intertwined with other pieces of information through connections and this anchors it in your mind so it doesn’t slip away. When you use all of your senses to connect to something, e.g. associating it with a rich visual image, a smell, and what it feels like to touch, you experience it and build a stronger memory.

Connecting to existing knowledge also builds bridges that let you travel further and result in more insights. As you collect data from more sources, collecting the data from the article you just read may be just what you needed to come up with an insight that solves one of your challenges and lets you take the next step in your career. Collect data, come up with insights, and take action. Taking action is the difficult part but that’s a topic for another post.

Think about it again later

If it’s a new technology you read about, think about how it relates to your company’s technology strategy. What would be the benefits of implementing that new technology? Would it be feasible? What would be the main challenges you’d face in implementing that technology? Recalling what you read at a later point in time and trying to connect it to other things will make sure you remember it for much longer, and retain whatever you learned from reading the article.

How do you make your article and newspaper reading more useful?