Difference Between Active & Passive Reading

by Christopher Cascio

Recognizing the differences between active and passive reading is important for readers of all ages, including elementary school students, high school graduates and adult casual readers. Understanding these differences will help you make the transition to more consistent active reading practices. Reading actively can help you get the most from your reading experiences, whether those experiences are personal, professional or academic.

Differences in Attentiveness

Whether you read actively or passively depends on how deeply you engage with the material you are reading. When you actively read, you engage intellectually with the material and reread passages if necessary to grasp their meaning. In other words, you are listening rather than hearing. For example, when it comes to hearing you simply receive sensory information. When you listen, you analyze what you hear, question it and form conclusions about it. When you read passively, you don't really question or analyze the information. When you read actively, however, you engage in a dialogue with the information and use it to synthesize a new, refined understanding of the subject.

Reasons for Reading Types

An obvious difference between active and passive reading is the reason why you would engage in one type of reading or the other. For example, if you are studying for a test or preparing to write a paper, you would tend to read actively because you need to think about the material so you can understand it in a deeper way. However, if you are sitting in a waiting room and reading a magazine simply to pass the time, you may not care as much about retaining the information in the text, and therefore you would read read passively.

Critical Reading Practices

While passive reading usually involves the lack of a specific reading practice, and often results from reading when you don't want to read, active reading often involves techniques. For example, if you are preparing for an exam, you might use a highlighter to mark specific passages, or keep a pen with you while you read so you can make notes about important information. Practices such as skimming and scanning are also active reading practices. These techniques are helpful when you are trying to locate a specific bit of information in a text or trying to understand the general idea of a passage in the least amount of time.

Outcomes and Consequences

Ultimately, whether you read actively or passively will reflect in your comprehension level and possibly influence your enjoyment of reading. If you read passively, you will not be able to develop your understanding of the subject as well as if you had read actively and had analyzed the information thoroughly. Likewise, reading passively can negatively affect your level of reading enjoyment. For example, if you are reading a novel with a first-person narrator and don't analyze how the narrator's view of the story skews the storytelling, you might miss out on some deeper themes of the narrative.

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