Is reading an effective strategy for learning? Does it count as active learning?

This blog is inspired by the third episode of our Learning Science Unpacked podcast, with neuroscientist and Sponge partner, Professor Paul Howard-Jones.


Reading can be incredibly effective for learning when it comes to understanding meaning. For learning leaders, deploying reading in the right ways, at the right times, can be a powerful and efficient way to improve learning and transformation programmes across an organisation.

Abstract representations improve transfer

When we read, we mentally imagine meaning from the scribbled or typed symbols (words), visualising them for ourselves, relating them to our own experience, and activating our visual cortex as if we’re seeing something. The imagination is therefore a powerful tool for learning.

Words are an abstract representation and when we see something in an abstract way, it is better for transfer. Learning something from a diagram, rather than someone showing you how to do something directly, is harder as it requires the information to be processed to gain the gist, but this makes it more flexible to apply to new contexts.

‘Concreteness fading’ is a term used by educators to move gradually from concrete examples (great for initial learning) to abstract understanding (deepening mastery), equipping people to use the knowledge in novel contexts.

Reading is most effective when coupled with reflection

Reading for meaning involves processing information and as long we are prompting people to think about the text, it can be considered active learning. The key is to encourage people to understand what the important issues or limitations are to ensure they are extracting the meaning from the text.


Does reading count as active learning? How does an active learning experience positively influence a learning experience?

Processing information drives application

Discussing, drawing a diagram, enactment, doing a presentation, or reading a text for meaning will encourage learners to process the information in different ways. This creates multiple representations in the brain, so when approaching a context to apply the new knowledge, people are more likely to find a form of it which is relevant to that situation.

The imaginative element of reading, and the transferral of words to abstract concepts in the brain described above, makes reading more ‘active’ than we might at first think. By embedding processes of reflection around reading, this ‘active’ element is compounded, strengthening the impact reading has on learning.

Ultimately, the more ways a topic is represented in the brain, the more accessible it will be and the easier it is to apply. To hear more about multiple representations and their impact on learning, listen to Episode 1 of our Learning Science Unpacked podcast, ‘Practical insights from Learning Science.’



For almost 20 years, Sponge has led the learning industry with inspiring, engaging, multi-faceted learning programmes. Trusted by some of the world’s biggest brands such as Coca Cola, Ikea, and AstraZeneca, we deliver upskilling, reskilling, and behavioural change initiatives for global workforces. Our services range from fast roll-out microlearning, to game-changing custom content. Speak to our learning experts now, to find out how we can help you drive high-impact learning in your organisation.

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