George Lucas Educational Foundation

Teaching High School Students Active Reading Skills

Strategies used before, during, and after reading can help high school students locate and retain important information.

March 31, 2023
StockRocket / iStock

Although many people consider reading to be a passive activity, research supports that it’s an active activity that involves complex cognitive processes.

In over two decades of teaching, I’ve heard many students say, “I’m not a good reader.” While secondary educators often don’t see themselves as reading teachers, I see our role in the classroom as one whereby we can teach students strategies that strengthen their reading skills and improve their learning outcomes. By teaching active reading and having students map out their reading, educators can engage students with reading so that they are not only learning to read but reading to learn.

Making the Active Reading Process Visible

It was common for me as a secondary teacher to have students read a text and then analyze it after they’d finished reading. However, when I noticed that students weren’t able to engage in an analytical discussion about a text until they finished reading the entire text and they couldn’t recall what they had read, I was forced to confront the idea that I was doing it wrong. Most of the thinking happens during the reading process, but my classroom was designed to engage in thinking after reading. I had to change what I was doing.

I decided to show my students my thinking process during reading, so I read a story out loud to them and then mapped out my thinking while I was reading. This exercise was an opportunity for students to visualize what happens in the mind of an active reader.

Days later, I discussed the story with my students again, and they still remembered vivid details about it, which revealed that when students engage in the guided active reading process, it can enhance reading recollection. I knew that this process worked during guided reading, so I wanted to build self-efficacy by putting more individual responsibility on students.

Mapping the Active Reading Process

After modeling active reading, I had the students read a story in small groups and map their thinking by using the prereading, during reading, and after reading method. It allowed students to collaborate with each other to construct meaning and explore how we all experience texts differently. I also chose this collaborative reading and mapping exercise so that struggling readers could work with their peers who had stronger reading skills, to engage in the reading process together. 

Then, several weeks later, while reading a new story, I asked students to individually map out their thinking. When I assessed their work, it revealed that students were able to engage in the reading process to construct meaning.

Active Reading Creates Good Noise

I’ve had students say, “Reading makes me sleepy” or “Reading is boring.” However, I’ve found that teaching students how to be active readers and map their thinking has changed how they read. Instead of students silently reading at their desks, the classroom is filled with noise—pencils on paper, dry-erase markers rolling on desks, and students’ voices talking with their classmates about what they’re reading. This noise demonstrates interest and also sparks engagement within my students who initially said they didn’t like reading.

I created a poster with prompts to give students to consider while they read. It provided a starting point for mapping out their thinking process during reading, but they also initiated student conversations. 

Because students paused while they read in order to think, they were engaged in their learning, and the engagement led them to want to talk with their peers to share what they were thinking about. It moved reading from a quiet and solitary activity to a cooperative one with exchanges like this:

“Wowie!! Did you read the part with the ultimatum?”

“No. What page is that on?”

“Page 3. What page are you on?”

“I’m on page 2.”

“Oh. So, what do you think the answer to the riddle is?”

“I don’t know. It’s tricky. What do you think?”

“I already know because the answer is on page 3.”

“Oh. Stop reading and just wait for me to get there. Give me a minute and we can talk.”


Listening to my students’ conversations revealed some interesting things.

First, they used the active reading prompts to launch into mapping their reading and engaging in conversations, but they also moved beyond the prompts to create their own questions. Additionally, they made connections beyond the text to other texts they had read or to their own lived experiences. I heard students say, “This is like the movie I saw because no choice is a good choice” and “This reminds me of a time when I came home from school and something just didn’t feel right.”

Second, the visibility of the mapping, coupled with the conversations that were happening in the classroom, allowed me to identify students who were having difficulty with reading.

Identifying Struggling Readers

Often, particularly in high school, struggling readers can go unrecognized. Their lack of participation in class discussions can be seen as shyness. When they don’t complete reading comprehension tasks, it can look like disengagement, or when they don’t do their reading homework, it can seem like laziness. However, research shows that these are also signs of an adolescent student who struggles with reading.

The students’ maps allowed me to identify those who needed additional support. This visibility allowed me to intervene and support them during the reading process rather than afterward. I sat with these students one-on-one and offered different strategies to help them develop their reading skills. The methods I used included the following:

  • Offering reading materials that aligned with student’s reading level
  • Providing access to an audio reading of the text
  • Reading out loud with them
  • Giving them more time to read so that they could process at their own speed
  • Sharing a glossary of difficult words in the text so that they could better understand the reading

When students have difficulty reading, they often choose not to read, which results in their not submitting work or turning in partially completed work. As a result, my intervention takes place after everyone has finished reading and, often, when we’ve moved forward in the class. When students are taught how to map their reading and then encouraged to use it, it allows them to remain engaged during the reading process and acts as a resource for them to use during small group and full class discussions.

Having notes prompts students’ ideas and willingness to participate. Further, because they’ve read and understood the text, they are able to complete evaluation tasks that occur after the reading, leading to decreased incidents of nonsubmission or partial submission of work.

When students are illiterate or under-literate, they often feel excluded from reading-centered tasks. Yet, interventions with supportive strategies during the reading process helped my students feel included and confident. This led to their being able to engage with their peers in meaningful conversations about what they read.

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Filed Under

  • Literacy
  • English Language Arts
  • 9-12 High School

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