Effective reading

While studying at university, you will find that much of your reading is devoted to absorbing and remembering new concepts and facts. Knowing why you are reading helps you to map out a strategy to cover the material more efficiently without reducing your comprehension of it.

The next time you read an article, ask yourself:

  • Why is it important for me to read this material?
  • What information am I expected to absorb?
  • How can I demonstrate comprehension of the material?

The overall purpose provides clues for how you should approach reading the material, and also the effort required to extract what you need.

What to read

Your course leader will guide what you read, but you will also gather more reading material in the course of your research into the subjects you are studying. If you haven't done so already, you should consider taking a Library tour to show you the types of publications that are available (including electronic), where these are located and how they are accessed.

Types of reading material

The amount of effort required to read a particular piece of literature is directly related to the complexity of the material. Consider the difference between the following types of reading material and the approach you might use when reading.

  • Newspaper
    Glance at stories. Scan for information that is of interest.
  • Novel
    Read every word to follow the plot and appreciate literary style.
  • Installation manual
    Scan through material to get an overview of the steps involved. Read the installation steps whilst interacting with the machine.
  • Philosophical essay
    Read each word carefully, stopping regularly, and re-reading to comprehend arguments.
  • Technical article
    Read each word carefully, stopping regularly, and re-reading to comprehend information.
  • Books and journal articles
    During your study much of your research will be in books and journal articles. These are compiled according to a standard structure which, if understood, can assist greatly in the extraction of information.

The structure of a book

  • The title
    The title of a book provides a good indication of the content (eg. The Psychology of Learning, Accounting: A Direct Approach, Taking Great Pictures with your Digital Camera).
  • The dust jacket (hardback) or cover (paperback)
    The dust jacket or book cover summarises the scope of the work and gives information about the author, testimonials, etc.
  • Publication details
    The publication details, usually on the left hand page after the title page, tell you the author(s), publication date(s) and revision or reprint dates. This information can put the work into an overall context and is necessary when referencing the book in an essay.
  • Table of contents
    This sets out how the material is presented. How much emphasis the author has placed on certain topics can be seen by the number of pages devoted to each section.
  • Preface
    In the preface the author describes his/her approach to the subject matter and provides an overview of the major topics covered.
  • Index
    The index (at the rear of the publication) alphabetically lists key words and terms used in the body of the text and gives page references to where they occur in the book.
  • References
    Lists the works used as research, and sometimes quoted, by the author of the text. References are listed at the end of the book. They are useful for finding new sources of material for your own research. Some works provide a separate author index that lists all the authors cited in the work with page references.
  • Appendices
    Appendices are supplementary information such as tables, charts or data that are referred to in the main body of the text but are not essential to the argument. They are placed at the end of the book.

Structure of a journal article

Journals are publications produced by and for researchers and scholars from within a particular discipline. Most disciplines (eg. Physics, Psychology, Economics) generate research articles that are published in journals. These articles usually present the most recent research being conducted in the field. Consequently journals are an important means of communicating current knowledge and best
practice to other professionals, including students.

The structure of journal articles differs slightly from that of books and may also vary from discipline to discipline.

  • Journal name
    This indicates which main discipline is responsible for publication of the article (eg. Journal of Experimental Psychology).
  • Article name
    This conveys information about the specific branch of the discipline and details of the topic being discussed (eg. 'Retrieval of Words from Long Term Memory').
  • Publication details
    As with books, this provides information about the author(s) and publication date, as well as identifying information for full referencing: publication, volume, page, etc.
  • Abstract/synopsis/summary
    This precedes the article and is a summary of the entire article, revealing the main points covered and the conclusions of the researcher. Most journals publish a volume of abstracts on an annual basis to assist researchers in finding relevant information.
  • References
    Lists the works used as research, and sometimes quoted, by the author of the text. References are listed at the end of the article. They are useful for finding new sources of material for your own research.

Reading strategies

There are five distinct ways of approaching any reading task based upon your reading goals.

  1. Overview: To determine whether the material will be useful.
  2. Main ideas: To seek the main points being put forward in the literature.
  3. Specific information: You are only interested in specific points as opposed to all points.
  4. Detailed knowledge: To understand and remember the material to gain mastery.
  5. Entertainment: The information may be useful but is probably dispensable.

Below are details of how to use these reading strategies to determine whether the material you are reading is useful to your study. Once that is clear, use the strategies to obtain what you need from your reading.
1. Overview

The intention here is to swiftly cover the material and determine whether it is useful for your purpose. The main technique used here is called surveying. Surveying is a strategy to obtain a limited overview of an entire piece without reading in detail. The procedure relies on your understanding of the structure of a book or journal.

The steps for surveying are:

  • Look at the title, dust jacket or cover, and table of contents to fond out what information is covered.
  • Read the preface or introduction to determine the dominant themes.
  • Read the chapter headings and sub-headings and the opening and closing paragraphs of each chapter (for a book), or abstract/synopsis and sub-headings (for a journal article).

2. Main ideas
Extracting the main ideas is similar to gaining an overview except that you will be looking for key words. Key words (and phrases) are those that are central to the topic. Once you have identified the key words you can read sections about the key words in more detail.

  • Survey to get an overview. Become familiar with the scope of the material as this will make it easier to identify the main points as they are presented.
  • Skim through the material looking for sections that provide information about the main ideas. Skimming involves looking for information that may be useful by letting your eyes glance quickly over the text and stopping to read important passages in greater detail.
  • Identify the key words/phrases that contribute to your understanding of the topic. Go back and read these sections in detail.

3. Specific information
Finding specific information is similar to reading for the main ideas except you are focusing only on points of interest and ignoring the rest. Finding information frequently involves searching through a large number of references and therefore relies heavily on surveying and skimming. The main factor in finding specific information is to know what you are seeking in advance.

  • Generate a list of questions that you hope to answer.
  • Survey to determine whether the material is useful. If it is, skim looking for key words/phrases that answer your questions. Use the index to locate specific key words.
  • Read and, if necessary, re-read specific passages containing the information you need.
  • Generate additional questions that need to be answered and repeat this entire process.

4. Detailed knowledge
Gaining mastery of the information contained in books and articles requires effort and a systematic approach. An effective study technique to use here is called SQ3R. This stands for survey, question, read, recall, and review and includes some of the techniques discussed earlier.

  • Survey
    Survey the material to decide what needs to be learned in detail.
  • Question
    Decide what you don't understand from your initial survey. Write specific questions that you hope to answer through your reading. Generating questions means that you have specific goals to satisfy, and your reading can be focused.
  • Read
    Read with the intention of answering the questions you raised and identifying the main ideas. Try to anticipate what is about to be covered.
    This is active reading and it will make it easier for you to remember the points you cover. You may need to re-read passages that are difficult to follow. Re-reading is useful because it reinforces the main points and allows you to examine supporting arguments and examples in greater detail. You may wish to take notes while you read.
    NB: Don't use note-taking as a substitute for understanding. Try to postpone any note-taking to coincide with the end of a section, then attempt to recall the main points.
  • Recall
    If you are going to remember the material you read, it is necessary to test yourself on comprehension. Without recalling the information, you are likely to forget it very quickly.
    Systematically recall your material on a section- by-section basis. Plan your reading by setting the points in the book where you will stop and recall. Use the questions you generated to quiz your understanding. If you have difficulty recalling then go back and re-read! Do not proceed unless you are sure you understand, as most written information builds progressively and failing to understand earlier material can cause problems later in the book.
  • Review
    Re-examine the material by surveying the general structure and ideas, raising questions and seeing if you can answer them. Re-read the passages that slipped your mind. The best times for review are immediately after you have covered the material, followed by one or two reviews at regular intervals before you are required to demonstrate your understanding in a test or interview. If you don't review the material, you will find that the main points will soon be forgotten.

5. Entertainment
The information may be of personal interest but is unlikely to be relevant to your course. Nonetheless reading for enjoyment is a valuable pastime, and can be a refreshing break from your study.

Speed reading

Speed reading courses can teach you to read faster, but note that the term speed reading is misleading because speed by itself is not sufficient to ensure comprehension. While the average reading rate is between 230 and 250 words per minute, this figure can be quite deceptive since the reading rate for a magazine is likely to be much higher than that reading a scientific text. Comprehension and strategic reading are the most important aspects of reading for study purposes.

A word about language

In the course of your reading you will constantly be exposed to new words and terminology. Take the time to create your own course dictionary. It is essential that you increase both your common and technical vocabulary as this will allow you to express yourself more clearly in written and oral communication.

You must use your best judgement when encountering new words. If a word is central to your understanding (eg. a technical term), then you should check the meaning before proceeding. If a word doesn't appear to be crucial, then you can probably afford to skip it and keep reading since it is often better to try to decipher the meaning of a word from the context in which it is used.

Need some advice on writing and study skills? Just ASK.

The ASK service is run by Student Academic Leaders (SALs) who have demonstrated abilities in academic writing, research and general all around awesome-ness. Get in touch and find out how we can help.

Ask a FedUni student for information