Reading techniques

Techniques to manage and get the most out of the reading required for your course.

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Volume of reading

Like it or loathe it, you will find that you are asked to read an enormous amount of material during your time at University.

Some modules will include substantial reading lists that feature a number of books, articles and papers, many of which will be long and complex.

You'll also have the often challenging task of working out for yourself which parts of this material are most relevant to the particular task or subject area that you are currently working on and which are not.

In order to get the most out of any text or set of texts, you need to be ready to adopt a range of different reading strategies depending upon the task at hand and the amount of time you have available to complete it.

There is no magic formula to becoming a faster and more selective reader, but there are a number of techniques that you can practise that will, over time, help you to increase both your reading speed and the quality of your reading.

Do I need to read everything?

Sometimes the answer will be yes. Some reading is mandatory for classes or coursework. If this is the case, you will probably need to read it all with focus and attention. You might want to consider taking notes on it too.

However, much of the reading that you do as part of your coursework will not require reading every text from cover to cover. Instead, academic reading is usually a strategic process of scanning, skimming and selecting the priority texts and parts of texts for deeper engagement.

301 Recommends:

Our Reading and Note Taking workshop introduces you to the different approaches and techniques you will need to take towards your reading and note taking strategies and techniques. Our Putting it into Practise Reading and Notetaking workshop gives you the added opportunity to practically implement these skills.

Take our Reading and Note Taking Digital interactive digital workshop to find out more about developing your reading and note-taking techniques.

Scan reading an academic text

What do you do first when you encounter a new text? Read the title? Read the abstract? Read the full text?

Reading a whole text from start to finish may not always be the most effective or efficient way to make use of your independent reading time. 

Scan reading is often a good first step to allow you to gain an overview of the reading material. You can do this initially by focusing on the following:

  • Title and abstract: an abstract is a short summary of a whole academic text and if available it is usually an ideal place to start.
  • Chapter or section headings: how is the text broken up? How are the main sections organised?
  • Introduction: this should provide you with a summary of the aims and objectives of the text.
  • Conclusion: this is where you will find out what the main take-away messages are from the text.
  • Figures or pictures: data, models, processes, etc. will sometimes be shown visually, which can provide a quick and easy way to understand a complex set of information. 

For a systematic approach to selective reading that will help you to locate the most important information quickly and easily, have a look at the short Study Skills Hacks video here.

Speed reading

Speed reading is an approach to reading that can help you to get through a text more quickly and fluently.

However, speed reading is not something that can be learnt overnight. It takes time, effort and practice to increase your reading speed.

The following techniques are ways to practice and experiment with speeding up your reading. Try them out over time and they should begin to have a positive impact on your overall ability to get through the reading on your course.

Our speed-reading workshop explores ways to read text quickly to help with this process of selection. 

Pacing techniques

Use a pen, your finger or a ruler to help you pace yourself through a page of text. The pacer will help your eyes to move more smoothly and efficiently across the page.

Pacing techniques include

  • tracing a loose "s" or "z" shape through the lines of text
  • drawing a horizontal pen/ruler/card down the page line by line
  • drawing your fingers or pen down one margin of the text
  • drawing a pen or your fingers down the centre of the text

Read further

Read for one minute and mark where you get to. Next

  • add an extra third of the text and mark your new finishing place
  • read again from start and reach your new goal
  • repeat 3 more times

Go faster than comprehension speed. You can read a new text each time.

Read faster

Read for one minute and mark where you get to. Next;

  • read the same amount of text in 50 seconds
  • repeat, reducing the time to 40, then 30, then 20 seconds

You can read a new text each time.

Reading with attention

Read text with comprehension for 3 mins and mark where you get to. Write down one bullet point about what you've read. Next

  • mark out a new section of the same length, read this in 3 minutes, then write another bullet point
  • mark another new section of the same length and add on a quarter more text. Read this in 3 minutes and write out bullet point. Complete twice more

Think using the pacing techniques. Try and retain comprehension and attention while putting pressure on your reading speed.

Focused reading

Setting questions gets you into hunt mode. The process of answering the questions will help you to stay focused and retain important information.

As a rule of thumb, aim for no more than three to five questions, covering both the bigger picture and the detail. Questions should be conceptual rather than fact based.

For example:

  • What is the overall argument of the paper?
  • What are the main examples given?
  • How might this be applied in practice?
  • Why was the research undertaken?

Preview and review

There are a number of ways you can narrow the focus of your reading to make sure that you get everything you need out of a text.

The preview and review technique is one of the most effective ways to read strategically and with purpose.

Follow these steps to create your own reading plan:

1. Read the overview material. For example, the introduction, abstract, index, contents, summary and conclusion.

2. Preview every page for about ten seconds, thinking about identifying objectives and the following questions:

  • What don't I need to read?
  • Which parts are most important?

3. Make a note of important pages or sections to return to.

4. Read the sections relevant to your objectives and make notes.

5. Have you fulfilled your objectives? If yes, then stop. If not, take a break and do something different (preferably overnight) before repeating the steps.

Second-language reading

It can be both rewarding and frustrating to read in a second language, especially when the flow of your reading is interrupted by the need to pause, re-read a section, look up a word in a dictionary and so on.

With a lot of reading to get done in a second language, some of your reading will need to aim for general understanding rather than detailed word-for-word comprehension.

Second-language reading can be broken down into two distinct and complementary approaches.

Intensive reading

Intensive reading

  • involves reading word by word
  • involves understanding every word and form
  • develops higher-level language processing
  • promotes language accuracy

Extensive reading

Extensive reading

  • is reading for general understanding
  • is vital for the development of automaticity in low-level language processing
  • promotes language fluency

When to read intensively or extensively

While some of your reading will need to be intensive (ie reading every word with a dictionary close at hand), most of your reading will be extensive, with the goal of reading for general understanding.

The following is a process to encourage extensive reading:

  • Read a section of text (a chapter, page or section) to the very end, without worrying too much about understanding the details.
  • Can you summarise the meaning of the text? What are the main events, characters, facts and information?
  • Re-read the text – can you build on your understanding from the first read?
  • Once you understand the main narrative, continue to the next chapter or section – avoid the need to understand everything!
  • Keep a notebook to hand to jot down any important or recurrent words to look up later.

With practice, this technique will become easier and provide a more rewarding way to approach texts in a second language.

Top tips

Set yourself targets, for example to read a chapter in twenty minutes. Remember to keep the targets challenging but realistic.

Try reading out loud – this will help with the fluency of both your reading and speaking.

Use your second language as much as possible outside the classroom, for example by joining a student society.

Don't overdo it. Reading in a second language is demanding and you will not be able to maintain full concentration for long periods of time – build in plenty of breaks.

Links and resources

Internal links

Disability and Dyslexia Support Service – Reading

IT Services – Texthelp Read and Write

English Language Teaching Centre (ELTC) - Language Resources 

Reading and note taking interactive digital workshop

Study skills hacks: Reading for memory (video)

Book a workshop

Book a 1:1 tutorial

Academic Skills Certificate

External links

Manchester University – Reading 

Reading University – Academic reading 

Mondofacto – How to read at university 

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The Summer Skills Spark: 5 weeks to ignite your research skills

Are you working on a dissertation or research project this summer? 

The Summer Skills Spark offers workshops to support you through every step of the process. You'll have opportunities to plan your projects, develop your research skills, explore dissemination techniques, and consider a future career in research. 

Collaboration between 301 Academic Skills Centre, the University Library, Digital Learning, and the Careers and Employability Service.

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