Effective Reading

See also: Critical Reading

When studying, especially at higher levels, a great deal of time is spent reading. 

Academic reading should not be seen as a passive activity, but an active process that leads to the development of learning. 

Reading for learning requires a conscious effort to make links, understand opinions, research and apply what you learn to your studies. 

This page covers the following areas: how reading develops, the goals of reading, approaching reading with the right attitude and developing a reading strategy.

Everything we read tells us something about the person who wrote it.  Paying close attention to how and why the author writes something will open ourselves up to their perspective on life, which in turn enriches our understanding of the world we live in.

How Reading Develops

Learning to read as a child usually results in the ability to read simple material relatively easily.

As we develop our skills in reading, the process often becomes more challenging.  We are introduced to new vocabulary and more complex sentence structures.  Early school textbooks offer us facts  or ‘truths’ about the world which we are required to learn; we are not, at this stage encouraged to question the authority of the writers of these published materials.

As schooling progresses however, we are led to consider a range of perspectives, or ways of looking at a topic, rather than just one.  We learn to compare these perspectives and begin to form opinions about them. 

This change in reading from a surface approach (gathering facts) to a deep approach (interpreting) is essential in order to gain the most out of our studies.

Reading becomes not simply a way to see what is said but to recognise and interpret what is said, taking into account subtleties such as bias, assumptions and the perspectives of the author. 

Academic reading, therefore, means understanding the author’s interpretation of reality, which may be very different from our own.

The Goal of Reading

Most of us read in everyday life for different purposes – you are reading this page now, for a purpose.

We read to gain factual information for practical use, for example, a train timetable or a cinema listing. For such documents we rarely need to analyse or interpret.

We may also read fiction in order to be entertained; depending upon the reader, a level of interpretation may be applied, and if reading fiction as part of an English Literature degree, then analysis of the author’s writing style, motives etc. is imperative.

Many of us read newspapers and magazines, either in print or online, to inform us about current events.  In some cases the bias of the writer is explicit and this leads us to interpret what is said in light of this bias.  It is therefore easy to view a particular article as a statement of opinion rather than fact. Political biases, for example, are well known in the press.

When reading academic material such as textbooks, journals and so on, you should be always reading to interpret and analyse. Nothing should be taken as fact or ‘truth’.  You will be engaged in, what is termed as, critical reading.

When you read while studying an academic course, your principal goal will be to gather information in order to answer an assignment question or gain further information on a subject for an exam or other type of assessment. 

Underlying this is the more general theme of learning and development, to develop your thoughts, to incorporate new ideas into your existing understanding, to see things from different angles or view-points, to develop your knowledge and understanding and ultimately yourself.

Learning therefore comes about from developing your understanding of the meaning of the details. It is therefore crucial to engage with the text as you read, in a process called active reading.

Active Reading

Active reading is the process of engaging with the text as you read. Techniques for making your reading more active include:

  • Underlining or highlighting key phrases as you read. This can be a useful way to remind yourself about what you thought was important when you reread the text later. However, it is important not to highlight too much. You might, for example, consider reading a paragraph at a time before highlighting or underlining. This will allow you to identify the most important ideas within it. Alternatively, you might find that it is best to read a whole chapter first, to get a sense of the main ideas, then go back and highlight points that build the argument.

  • Make notes in the margin to highlight questions or thoughts. You can do this in both ebooks and hard copies, or use post-it notes if you do not wish to mark the book (for example, if it is a library book). This process helps you to engage better with the content, and therefore makes what you read more memorable.

  • Use the signposts within the text itself. Look out for phrases such as ‘crucially’ and ‘most importantly’. These highlight areas that the author(s) felt were important.

  • Break up your reading time with periods where you write down summaries of what you have read. You can either do this without referring back to the text, or simply use draw on the text. This will help you to focus on the most important ideas.

  • Asking yourself questions about the author’s intended meaning, or the effect they wished to produce. This is a process called critical reading, and there is more about this process in our page on Critical Reading.

Necessary Reading Materials

When you are engaged in formal study, for example at college or university, there will be distinct areas of reading that you will be directed towards.

These may include:

  • Course Materials

    Course materials will vary considerably from one institution to another and also across different disciplines and for different teachers.

    You may be given course materials in the form of a book, especially if you are taking a distance-learning course, or in hand-outs in lectures.  Such materials may also be available online via a virtual learning environment (VLE). 

    You may be expected to make your own notes from lectures and seminars based around the syllabus of the course.  The course materials are your main indication of what the course is about, the main topics covered and usually the assessment required.  Course materials also often point you to other types of reading materials.

  • Core Texts

    Core texts are the materials, usually books, journals or trusted online resources which you will be directed to via the course materials.

    Core texts are essential reading, their aim is usually to expand on the subjects, discussions and arguments presented in the course materials, or through lectures etc.  Remember that core texts are primarily what you will be assessed on. You will need to demonstrate comprehension of theories and ideas from these texts in your assignments.

  • Suggested Reading

    As well as indicating core texts, reading lists may also recommend other sources of material.

    Suggested reading will not only increase your comprehension of a subject area but will potentially greatly enhance the quality of your written work.

  • Other Sources

    Perhaps one of the most important academic reading skills is to identify your own additional reading materials.

    Do not just stick to what you have been told to read but expand your knowledge further by reading as much as you can around the subjects you are studying.  Keep a note of everything relevant you have read, either in print or online, as you will need this information for your reference list or bibliography when producing an assignment.

See our page: Academic Referencing for more information on how to reference correctly.

Attitudes to Reading

Often, when we begin to read books relating to a new topic, we find that the language and style are difficult to follow.

This can be off-putting and disheartening, but persevere; specialist subject areas will contain their own specialist ‘language’ which you will need to learn. Perseverance will mean that you become more familiar with the style of writing and the vocabulary or jargon associated with the specific subject area.

More generally, academic writing tends to use a very cautious style or language. The writer may seem to use elaborate, long sentences, but this is usually to ensure that they are saying precisely what they mean. 

See our page: Writing Styles for more information about the various styles of writing that you are likely to encounter.

A useful aid to reading is to have a good quality dictionary to hand; however, you may find a specialist dictionary is necessary for some subject areas – there are many free online dictionaries also.  Even though a dictionary can be useful, it should not be relied upon too heavily.  Dictionaries do not often take into account the context and, therefore, you may not fully grasp the meaning the author intended by simply looking up a word or phrase.

Fundamentally it is important to remain detached from, and be objective towards, what you are reading, in order to see and understand the logic within an argument.  Objectivity differs from subjectivity which means bringing your own emotions and opinions to what you read.  Being objective allows you to stand back and be emotionally detached from your reading. This allows you to focus attention upon what you are reading and not on your feelings about what you read.

It helps if you have a genuine interest in the subject that you are reading about.  If you find that you are reading something that is designated as relevant then it is important to try to develop an interest so that you may get out of it what is required.  You may, in such circumstances, find it useful to ask yourself questions as you read, such as:  “Why does the author find this theme interesting or important?”,  “How does what I’m reading relate to what I already know about the topic?