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Effective reading

Reading is a very important skill for success at third level. Reading actively promotes understanding, increases concentration and improves retention. The key is to be effective and efficient.

There are many purposes for reading.  Some examples would be looking for factual information, getting an overall view of a subject, or identifying the author’s main points. The purpose will determine the approach, and thus the strategy you should select.  Many students don’t consider the purpose, instead they just start reading.

In this section we will be looking at ways of making the most of our reading. We describe several different approaches to reading including a well known and successful strategy for making reading work for you.

The purpose of your reading

Have you ever asked yourself why you are reading something?

Thinking about the purpose helps you to focus. Students need to identify the reasons for undertaking a reading task. There are many reasons for reading text, among them are:

  • Get an overview or the gist of a subject or topic
  • Determine if more concentrated reading is necessary
  • Gather supporting evidence for project or essay.
  • Summarise main points
  • Understand material
  • Critique or evaluate
  • Enjoy for leisure



To read for an overview of a chapter


To identify main ideas so you can explain them to another student


To locate specific information

fast until you locate the section you want, then slowly.

To gain detailed critical understanding

Slowly and thoroughly underlining and taking note

Depending on the purpose you can select a strategy that best achieves it. For example, to get the gist of the text skimming or scanning is appropriate. For more concentrated reading and to understand, the SQ3R method will be useful.

Reading strategies

There are a number of reading strategies, it is important to use ones that suit the purpose for reading and that are effective for you.

Reflection This involves spending a few moments thinking about what you know about the subject before reading. This is good preparation.
Scanning / 
It helps you get an overview, get the gist of the text piece. Glancing at headings, main words, illustrations etc.
Speed reading Reading rates can be improved with practice however, speed reading is not useful for depth reading & analysis required at third level.
Ask questions Asking and answering questions while you read - about the author, content, structure, purpose, style etc.
Underlining Landmarking the text piece combined with taking notes.
Monitor / 
Using self review: what did I learn?, can I tell the main points? etc.
SQ3R A flexible method that combines several of the above strategies. Useful for active reading and being able to understand the text.

For a more comprehensive reading strategy please see the section on reading and in particular the SQ3R strategy.


In general, SQ3R is the most recommended strategy because it can be adapted to most purposes and circumstances. You have to try it and change it to suit your needs.  Think about the various purposes of your reading assignments.  Select one of your assignments; use and alter SQ3R to help you read more effectively.

SQ3R involves five steps that can be applied to books, articles, or chapters.  It stands for:

  • Survey
  • Question
  • Read
  • Recall
  • Review

survey gives you a quick preview of what you will be reading.  For a book look over the title page, table of contents, introduction, summaries, index and bibliography.  For chapters or articles glance at the headings, first paragraphs, key words, photos, graphs, exercises.  This will give you an idea of what to expect and activates the thinking process.

Then develop a set of questions, preferably your own.  These can be questions raised from your survey, ones based on your previous knowledge or even the ones in the back of a chapter.  This will make you concentrate more as you read and help you to read more critically.  Even the questions you ask yourselves will vary depending upon the purpose for reading.

Read actively, carefully, critically.  There are several ways to do this:
* Conversational reading - keeping an internal conversation going with the author 
by paying attention to how you react to the information
* Take notes, underline, write key ideas in the margin, and use concept maps
* Try to answer your questions as you read
* Reread difficult bits out loud
* Check new vocabulary
* Use deep processing strategies to understand the material

Strategies for understanding would include looking for the main ideas and attempting to integrate them into your existing knowledge, to look for relationships, links, or patterns and to identify the underlying meaning.  These strategies help to consolidate, and thus retain, the information learned.  You must also recognise critical details the author uses to support his/her argument, such as facts or examples.  If you are reading to memorise, you will want to use recitation, copying and mnemonics.  Once you think you understand what you are reading, evaluate it - is the information provided accurate, limited, biased, and logical?  This is especially important if you are reading for the purpose of analysis and critique.

Try to recall the ideas you have learned in your reading; in your own words try to describe the author’s main ideas and argument.  If the reading is complicated more frequent recall will probably be needed.  You review to see if you have answered all your questions and also to check how well you have recalled the material.  Think of it as self-examination.  Some students combine the recall and review steps; others broaden it and add a re-read step between recall and review.  It is a flexible approach to reading.  Remember to monitor and evaluate if your reading strategy is effective for you and for your purpose!  It is not a set of rules but suggestions for you to try out.

You may want to use support and self-management strategies in conjunction with reading strategies.

Prioritising reading

Sometimes students struggle with the quantity of reading they need to do. There are several ways students can learn to be more selective in order to be able for all the suggested reading on the course.

Some suggestions in dealing with this are:

  • Ask tutors to indicate which parts of the recommended materials are more relevant and why
  • Keep alert for hints and clues about relevant reading dropped by tutors, assigned feedback etc
  • Ask fellow students
  • Ask students in the years ahead - maybe through peer support
  • Share out reading and regularly report on what is worthwhile
  • Note which books / materials are most regularly mentioned in other books as being important
  • Skim very fast through recommended books, decide which might be most beneficial

Use strategies from memory and understanding to aid your reading.

Other resources

Learn Higher resources on reading

Video from The Academic Success Centre at UOIT