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Reading strategies

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Being able to read effectively means more than just being able to understand what is written on the page. In this section, you can explore different reading strategies to ensure your reading, and in turn your assignments, are first-class.

Reading for different subjects

Different reading strategies are needed for different subject disciplines, and even for different kinds of writing within the same subject. Subjects in the humanities and social sciences often require fairly rapid reading of large amounts of information. Reading for these subjects requires you know where to look for the information you need, and to use contents and index pages very closely.

You may also be asked to read about the same topic from different angles. This means that you need to ‘get a feel’ for what is written rather than knowing all the details. Be selective about what you read depending on your purpose and interest.

Science subjects tend to require slower and closer reading of smaller amounts of text. Generally, you will need to work through what is written in close detail, making sure you understand the different steps. For most subjects, you need to change between different reading strategies.

Reading for any subject

1. Be selective. You are not expected to read books from cover to cover.

2. Change strategy. You need to develop skills in changing from one kind of reading to another, depending on how useful the information is for your purposes.

3. Use the index pages at the end of a book. Find the exact pages for what you need.

4. Read from paper. Avoid reading for long periods from computer screens if using the internet: print out an electronic copy in a font that suits you.

5. Set targets. It is easy to lose focus when reading. Set yourself targets to complete a reading task, with clear objectives for what you want to achieve.

6. Focus. Jot down a list of questions before you read and as you go along. This will improve your attention - and save you from getting side-tracked.

Reading for different purposes

For all subjects, you will need to know how to change quickly from one kind of reading to another.

1. Browsing : looking over a text to see how it ‘feels’, whether it appears to be the right kind of book, what it contains that might be of use, getting a general feel of the contents. You often take in more information when browsing than you may think at the time.

2. Checking: looking in the contents or index to see whether the book contains specific information that you know you want - or which looks useful.

3. Focusing in: allowing yourself to read more closely when you spot something that looks more useful. It is also important to notice when the text is less useful, and to return to browsing.

4. Fact-finding: looking for specific facts and data.

5. Background: This is additional reading, which gives you a sense of the bigger picture. Select texts that are general and which you find inviting or easy to read. Read these selectively and at your own pace. This is best undertaken in vacations if possible.

Reading for understanding

The main purpose of reading is to understand - not to get through text at speed for the sake of it. Comprehension is increased if:

1. You are clear about what you are looking for.

2. You discuss your reading with others. Each person is likely to make sense of different aspects, and you can pool your ideas.

3. You read something that gives you a general overview first. For complex ideas, choose the easiest book first and work up to more complex texts.

4. You keep active. Set yourself targets and jot down questions to answer. If the book is yours, underline key points, use highlighter pens selectively, write summaries in the margin. This prevents you from ‘drifting off’ or simply reading the same text over and over without taking it in.

5. Read in short bursts of up to twenty minutes, then take a few minutes break before starting again.

6. Make notes of key points as you go along. This can create natural breaks every few minutes in your reading that can help maintain attention. See making notes.

7. Change reading speed. Often, reading faster can help memory of what you are reading, so it makes more sense. Browse quickly and focus in more slowly only where needed.

Change the text

Many people read less efficiently because they are not aware that their eyes have preferences for reading different fonts and colours. Where possible:

1. Have your eyes tested regularly.

2. Check whether you read more efficiently with larger text.

3. Experiment reading text printed on different coloured papers or using different coloured filters or lens over the text.

4. If you have access to texts through the computer, experiment with different font styles and sizes and different colour backgrounds and text.

5. See whether you read more easily in bright rooms, with certain kinds of light or in dim lighting.


  • Which three things can you do to improve your reading?


The Study Skills Handbook This content has been written by Stella Cottrell, author of The Study Skills Handbook.