Teaching Active Reading


The problem

Perhaps the best way to understand and appreciate a book is by reading it over and over several times, each time with a different focus or depth of analysis. This is, of course, the approach advocated by Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren.

It’s also an approach problematic for the typical middle school English teacher, since it not only strains the patience of his pre-teen wards but also the strictures of the curricular schedule.

[Although, I’m thinking now, this way can be demonstrated with a narrative poem or one-act play.]

What we often exhort instead is that students actively read, that they highlight what seems important, make shorthand notes in the margins, and generally keep themselves involved as they read. The hope is that by forcing students to think about what they’re reading as read, they don’t just find themselves swept away by the narrative but end up keeping track of what is happening in the story.

The problem, however, is precisely that students don’t find themselves swept away by the narrative. Intense active reading deflates the enjoyment of reading itself and distracts from the kind of escapist immersion that I think is critical to actually understanding the sense of a story. The practice, moreover, already assumes that one is a fairly sophisticated reader — that one can intuit emerging themes and assess the relative significance of passages as they occur and avoid digressive or vestigial narrative stratagems.

Merely encouraging active reading, in other words, does little to demystify a complex story. Normal active reading doesn’t disentangle the various layers of comprehension and analysis.

With this in mind, I sought this year to explicitly teach a reading routine that was dead simple to follow, wasn’t overly onerous to the natural flow of reading, and clarified a very basic level of reading comprehension that can be expected of all my students, regardless of how good a reader they already were.

The routine

I taught the following routine explicitly. I explained it. I demonstrated it on the SMART Board. I followed up to make sure students were doing it right.

I asked my students to focus on only three basic areas of attention. For my 7th graders, it was character, plot, and setting. For my 8th graders, it was character, plot, and motifs.

I asked students to begin their reading by reminding themselves what the current situation of the story was.

As they read, students primarily notes whenever a character does something significant. They may choose to note that by simply highlight that character’s name or, additionally, making a note in the margin as to what major action or revelation was tied in to that character.

I ask my 7th graders to also highlight mentions or descriptions of setting. (The 7th grade has a curricular theme of place and geography).

I ask my 8th graders, on the other hand, to highlight mentions of motifs. I outline which motifs to look out for ahead of time. (I tie motifs to subtext, and the 8th grade has a curricular theme of personal values).

[The 9th grade teacher mentioned that they do something similar with themes, where they assign an icon to each pre-ordained theme and then draw those icons in the margins when those themes become evident in the story.]

Finally, at the end of the night’s reading (about 20 pages == 1-2 chapters), students are to write in their books (or in post-its stuck in their books) what has fundamentally changed in the story over the course of those 20 pages, summarized in a bulleted list of 3-5 major events.

That’s it. The reading routine doesn’t work by itself, however. It needs classroom follow-up.

The follow-up

I used to just follow up the nightly reading assignments with intermittent pop quizzes. The quizzes were short (about 5 questions), easy (multiple-choice), and tested the recall of major facts from the previous night’s reading (no trick questions). The idea was: if you did the reading, you should know the answers to these questions. If you didn’t know, then, in all probability, you didn’t do the reading.

The reading quizzes were a fine source of accountability for about 80% of my students, but I realized this year that a few of my students regularly failed these quizzes even if they did read — even if they did my version of active reading.

So new strategy. Every day I pick a random student, check their book to see if they did the routine, then give them a quick oral quiz. I give them a 5-point assessment based on their apparent recall and understanding of the reading — taking into account, however, their personal strength as a reader. It’s more subjective but seems, paradoxically, more fair.

I then work with the class as a whole in assembling a cumulative set of master notes about the books. I’m a visual learner so I try to organize this information as visually as possible through heavy use of the SMART Board.

We start with a basic table of major plot events, which takes on more columns as students notice what the major conflict is and what sub-plots also emerge. Eventually these plots and sub-plots get mapped out onto a graph of overlapping narrative arcs.

We also create an ever-expanding web of characters to show how characters relate to one another and group themselves into various roles.

My 7th graders further create a map of the settings of the book as we go along.

I then lead my class to scan through the previous night’s reading and highlight together major quotes, discussing as we go along what may make these passages particularly resonant, what meanings seem to be developing.

At the end I have the fodder for half of my unit test: characters, plot, setting/motifs, and quotes. All of which I am confident I covered thoroughly and fairly in class.

After we finish the book, I have more ponderous discussions with my classes about the themes and issues these stories seem to address.


I’ve thought about posting these class notes onto the class web site. I’m not sure if that’s a good idea. I do want students to go through the motions (I call it guided practice) of copying down the notes themselves. It’s also a hassle to take that extra few steps to export and upload those notes onto the web site. For now, I’m going to let it go.


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