Reading is an essential part of your university studies. From the books on your reading lists to new journal articles in your field, you will almost certainly find yourself reading more than you have ever done before. Some of the literature you may need to read will be challenging at first and will require you to enhance your reading skills and learn new strategies for effective reading. This page is designed to help you in the process of becoming an active and effective reader.
What is effective reading?
Reading effectively means reading in an active way that helps you understand, evaluate, and reflect on a written text. These skills are extremely important to university students regardless of their field or future career path.
An effective reader is flexible and uses different ways of reading at different times.
Reading at university vs reading for leisure
Reading at a university level can be different from reading for leisure. When reading a novel you would read the book from cover to cover but academic reading is often more challenging and includes a process of selection. You will often only read the chapters or pages that are relevant to the subject you are researching.
Why is effective reading so important at university?
Reading is an important way to gain information and will underpin much of your academic study including researching and writing assignments, revising for exams and following up on information taught in lectures. Most academic reading is motivated by the need to find and understand information and develop ideas and arguments.
By reading effectively you will learn to question and survey the text you are reading to gain a better understanding of your subject. By improving your reading skills and learning to read in a more focused way, you will also reduce unnecessary reading time.
When to read?
Here are some useful tips on when to read:
- > Don't leave academic reading for times when you're tired - you will need to concentrate.
- > Plan reading times into your day.
- > Read every day if you can (even for half an hour) - not just when you have to for an assignment or an exam.
- > Take regular breaks when you are reading (after each 30-40 min spent on reading).
- > Make notes to keep your mind focused.
How to read?
Effective reading needs to be active. You need to be consciously thinking as you read. Here are some basic tips that can help you read effectively any type of material:
- > Read with a pen in your hand and be ready to take plenty of notes.
- > Put down your highlighter. Make marginal notes or comments instead.
- > Ask yourself pre-reading questions. For example: What is the topic, and what do you already know about it? Why has the instructor assigned this reading at this point in the semester?
- > Write down key words to help you recall where important points are discussed.
- > Write questions in the margins, and then answer the questions in a reading journal or on a separate piece of paper.
- > Identify and define any unfamiliar terms.
- > Read each paragraph carefully and then determine “what it says” and “what it does.” Answer in your own words by writing only one sentence.
- > Make outlines, draw images or mind maps of the main ideas to help see how ideas are associated with one another and to understand ideas visually.
- > Write a summary of an essay or chapter in your own words. Do this in less than a page.
- > Consider reading important sections aloud and record them to listen them again.
- > As you read try to guess what is coming up and what the conclusions will be.
- > Be critical when reading (check the Critical Reading Strategy down this page and also check our page on critical thinking for further information on how to be critical.)
- > Write your own exam question based on the reading.
- > Teach what you have learned to someone else! Research clearly shows that teaching is one of the most effective ways to learn!
Choose the tips that work best for you or that best suit your purpose. Try also the reading strategies below.
There are various strategies you can be applied to your reading. Reading strategies will vary depending on what type of publication you're reading (whether textbooks, textbook chapters, academic articles, or novels) and depending on your reading purpose (to get a general idea of a piece of work, to locate information, to gain a deeper understanding of a text, to understand and evaluate the content, etc.). You may select one or a few of these strategies for each text that you read.
What is it? Previewing (or surveying) a text (either a book or an article) means that you get a general sense (overview) of what is in a given piece of work without reading the main body of the text.
When to use it? When you need to assess a material so that you can decide it if contains the information you need and if this book/article is useful for your purpose; when you want to identify the sections of the text you may need to read and the sections you can omit; when you want to get a general idea about a book or a journal article.
How to use it? Start by reading: the title and author; the abstract (if available); the main parts (main headings and subheadings, chapter summaries, etc.); review any graphs, tables or diagrams; read the first sentence in each paragraph.
What is it? Skimming involves gliding your eyes very quickly over large chunks of text. It is different from previewing because you are reading the body of the text. The main benefit of skimming is in being able to pick up the key ideas quickly without paying attention to detail.
When to use it? When you want to quickly get the key ideas in a large text (for example skimming the newspaper to get the general news of the day). Skimming is especially useful when there are few headings or graphic elements to gain an overview of a text. Skimming helps you decide whether or not to read the full text. Skimming adds to the information that you picked up in previewing (surveying).
How to skim? Read any bold print and graphics. Start at the beginning of the reading and glide your eyes over the text very quickly (make sure you are actually not reading the text in total). Only read a few words from each paragraph, try reading only the first and last sentences. It may also be useful to read the abstract and/or conclusion. Always get familiar with the reading material by previewing it or skim reading it before you read it in full.
What is it? Scanning is running your eyes (like radar) over part of a text to find specific pieces of information relevant to your current task. You skim read material to get the general picture. You scan when looking for specific information.
When to use it: When you want to quickly find specific information from a large text (e.g. the definition of a term, the result of an experiment, finding your flight on an airplane schedule, etc.)
How to scan text? Don’t read every work. Start by reading the title, headings, subheadings, book index to find the information you need. Move quickly through the body of the text. As soon as your eye catches an important word or phrase, stop scanning and read the relevant section in full.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Previewing, scanning and skimming are reading strategies to save time but they are no substitutes for thorough reading and should only be used to get a general idea of the text and to locate material quickly.
What is it? Intensive reading is reading a text in detail (from beginning to end) with specific goals. Usually the goal of intensive reading is to read a difficult text thoroughly to understand and remember what you’ve read (for example, read a front-line text or a chapter whose content is central to your task or reading a work contract or an insurance claim). The goal of intensive reading may also be to read a text in order to understand and evaluate its content (for example, a journal article relevant to your research).
When to use it? When you have previewed (surveyed) an article and used skimming and scanning techniques to find what you need to focus on, then you can slow down and do some intensive reading to understand and remember the material or understand and evaluate its content.
How to read intensively? Read a text from beginning to end. Underline, highlight and make brief notes. Mark any unfamiliar words or terms. Be alert to the main ideas (each paragraph should have a main idea, often contained in the first sentence or the last sentence). After you have completed the text, go back to the unfamiliar vocabulary and look it up in a subject-specific dictionary. Write down the bibliographic information (and record page numbers).
What is it? Critical reading in an academic context does not mean simply criticizing or “finding fault”. Critical reading means reading in depth by engaging in what you are reading. Critical reading involves questioning, evaluating, categorizing information and making connections within the text and comparing what the author is saying with other experts who have written on the same topic. Critical reading also requires recognizing the writer’s purpose, assumptions and underlying values (social, cultural and historical influences), as well as exploring alternatives to the stated ideas.
When to use it? When you are asked to read thoroughly a piece of writing and evaluate it critically or when you gather evidence to support your argument/research. Even if not explicitly stated, any time you read a piece of writing during your studies at university, you are expected to read critically.
How to read critically? While you are critically reading a section of a book or an article, actively search for information to assist you answer questions regarding the author’s purpose, the content of the text, the structure/framework and the style and format. The sort of questions you need to ask are:
- What position is the writer presenting?
- What evidence is the writer giving by supporting his or her position?
- Is the evidence presented accurately?
- Has the evidence been collected using appropriate methods?
- Is the writer basing himself or herself on a particular theory or approach?
- Are the writer’s claims reasonable?
- How does the writer’s position compare with the positions of other writers in the field?
- Do I agree with the position the writer is presenting? Why or why not?
Further questions which will help you read critically are available in the Critical Reading Questions Handout.
At university it is important to be able to understand what you read and to be able to recall the main ideas afterwards. You can use the SQ3R method to help you remember a reading for tutorials, seminars or to revise for exams.
The SQ3R (SURVEY, QUESTION, READ, RECITE, REVIEW) is an active study strategy that enhances your reading comprehension and learning efficiency by helping you process and increase retention of written information. Although SQ3R method may seem time consuming in the beginning, it is highly efficient. Try this method for yourself by following the steps below:
- Step 1- Survey – skim through the text (book, article or chapter) to get an overall idea what it’s about and whether it can be useful for your task. It may also help to have a glance over the headings, the contents and index. If it looks relevant, go to the next step.
- Step 2 - Question – If you are reading this text for a particular purpose (for example, to answer an assignment or prepare a presentation), ask yourself how it is relevant. Formulate questions (e.g. What? Where? When? How?) based on your needs.
- Step 3 - Read – once you have your list of questions, start reading the text in a focused but fairly speedy way. Read with alertness to answer the questions you posed. Write notes, in your own words, under each question.
- Step 4 - Recall – test your memory by mentally visualizing the main points of the material without looking at the text or your notes or alternative speaking aloud. Plan to spend more time on recall than reading.
- Step 5 - Review – Check how well you recall and if your answers were right by returning to the text. Go over the parts you got wrong or couldn’t answer.
There are many digital applications and platforms, designed to increase reading speed and make reading easier. There are also text-to-speech applications that can be particularly useful for students with reading disabilities.
- Spreeder – a free online program designed to help users read faster and comprehend more. The platforms allows you to adjust your reading speed and take control of information overload by using reduced video stimulation interface. Spreeder also helps you organize all your reading in a cloud library and offers expert training resources.
- Beeline Reader is an online program that can help make reading faster and/or easier by using a color gradient that guides your eyes from the end of one line to the beginning of the text. By displaying text using color gradients that wrap from the end of one line to the beginning of the next, BeeLine facilitates visual tracking and enables the reader to focus on other aspects of reading, such as decoding and comprehension. BeeLine can also help reduce screen fatigue, which is especially important for students who are distance learning. Available as an app, extension or converter. Currently free for students.
- READ ME! - a free reading app that utilizes the RSVP style, along with the BeeLine Reader style. ReadMe! can be synced along between your phone and tablet. The app also supports a font that allows people with reading disabilities, like dyslexia, to read more easily. This speed reading app is compatible with ePub and pdf documents. Works with IOS and Android.
- Natural Reader – a free text to speech tool that can be used in a couple of ways. The first option is to load documents into its library and have them read aloud from there. This is a neat way to manage multiple files, and the number of supported file types is impressive, including e-book formats. There's also OCR, which enables you to load up a photo or scan of text, and have it read to you. Natural Reader also offers dyslexic-friendly font. Works with Windows, macOS, Linux (in browser).
- WordTalk - a free text-to-speech plugin for Microsoft Word. It will act as a 'text reader' and create a spoken sound version of the text in the document and read it back to you as it highlights the words.
- Google Text-to-Speech – a free screen reader application developed by Google for its Android operating system. It powers applications to read aloud the text on the screen with support for many languages.
Further Support and Guidance
If you would like to receive additional guidance how to enhance your reading skills at university, you can request an appointment from BADA Counselors.
References & Further Readings:
- Brick, J., Wilson, N., Wong, D. and Herke, M., 2019. Academic Success: A Student's Guide To Studying At University, Chapter 5: Academic Reading. 1st ed. London: RED GLOBE PRESS.