Active reading: 5 tips to get students learning while reading

So you’ve got your students reading, but how do you get them to remember what they’ve read? And how do you get them to apply this knowledge?

Simply reading through and understanding a text doesn’t mean your students will remember the content and be able to apply it in context. Here are 5 tips to help you to get your students remembering and apply what they read.

1. Pick out key words

Our brains make sense of the information we read by organising it into categories containing banks of information, often linked to previous knowledge or experience.

Key words, phrases or points provide headings for these categories.They are the prompts which unlock our memory banks. Linking with other keywords also helps us make connections with related banks of information, adding depth and detail to responses and encouraging higher order thinking.

Identifying and using key words is a skill which students will need your support to develop. Help them by highlighting subject-specific vocabulary during lessons, in texts and in glossaries. Eventually, your students will start identifying key words themselves.

2. Use thinking and learning styles

Every student (and teacher) thinks and learns in their own unique way with a combination of the main thinking and learning styles– auditory,visual and kinaesthetic.

Replace texts which are old, tired and uninteresting with colourful, nicely laid-out texts which have clear headings and diagrams. This will stimulate readers from all the main learning styles. Preparing resources like this is time consuming so why not share the development of new resources with colleagues to save time?

Remember the activities you set around these texts, such as role play or group discussions, can support various learning styles and help students to remember and apply knowledge.

3. Mentally rehearse

A boy looking out of the window and deep in thought
Boy deep in thought.

Going over things in our own heads is a really good way of internalising and linking knowledge. Allow time for your students to ‘think’ and use their preferred learning styles to rehearse the key words and concepts in their head. This helps them create links between key words and banks of knowledge, adding depth and detail to their responses.

4. Tap into positive emotions, previous knowledge and experience

children working at a table, concentrating on their work
Children working around a table

One of the most powerful ways to activate memory is to activate positive emotions. Stimulating feelings of happiness, enjoyment and achievement engages students at a deeper level, making it easier for them to remember what they’ve read.

Relating texts to your students’ experiences can prepare them to build on their previous knowledge. It is easier to read and remember when the content or key words relate to something familiar: whether it is a character from a novel in English; a species which sounds similar in biology; fractions in maths or indeed any related work in another curricular area.

5. Ask questions

Person writing down thoughts with a marker pen on brown paper
Person writing down thoughts

As teachers, we ask probing questions such as, “How will this affect…?”, “Can you use this along with…?”, “Does this help to explain…?”,“Will this work alongside…?” to help students internalise information. These higher order thinking questions are asked prior to, during, after or as related activities.

Take this to the next stage by empowering students to ask themselves these questions. This actively involves them in engaging their own higher order thinking skills. Make classroom posters of the image below to stimulate this process.

Shona Cochrane enjoyed over 30 years as a PE teacher, guidance teacher and acting Depute Headteacher. She followed a secondment to Careers Scotland as a National Adviser in Enterprise Education by completing a Masters degree in Pupil Support at Edinburgh University.

Following her interest in developing learning and study skills she developed a whole school Reflective Thinking Programme to raise attainment and pupil engagement in S1 to S6. The GTCS awarded her Professional Recognition for this work.

Learn to Learn for CfE was published by Bright Red Publishing in April 2015. 

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