Reading Techniques

Student readingLike 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 including a number of books, articles and papers, many of which will be long and complex in character. You'll also have the sometimes challenging task of working out for yourself which bits 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. Often this will require a process of selection and targeted reading that may be different from the ways that you have read in the past. There is no magic formula to become 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 it all?"

Sometimes the answer will be yes. Some reading is mandatory for classes or coursework and if this is the case then 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, reading is often a process of scanning, skimming and selecting the priority texts and parts of texts for deeper engagement.


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. 

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. 


Explore the tabs below to find out more about different approaches to reading: Speed reading will help you to get an overview of a text quickly to help with this process of selection. Focused Reading will help you to dig deeper and improve your focused reading. Reading in a Second Language involves a range of additional challenges.

Speed Reading

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 learned 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.

Pacing Techniques:

Pacing techniquesUse 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:

  • An ‘s’ or ‘z’ shape through the lines of text
  • A horizontal pen /ruler / card down the page
  • fingers / pen down the side
  • pen / 3 fingers down the centre

Read further:

Read for 1 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
  • Going faster than comprehension speed
  • Can change by reading new text each time

Read faster:

Read for 1 minute and mark where you get tp. Next;

  • Read the same amount of text in 50 seconds
  • Repeat, reducing the time to 40, then 30, then 20 seconds
  • Can change by reading 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 and read this in 3 minutes and 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

Further information:

Top Tips

Reading on a screen

  • Declutter the screen and close extra windows
  • Use large-point text for reading on screen
  • Use an easy-to-read font (sans-serif)
  • Avoid left/right scrolling in window

Reading on paper

  • Use a pacer
  • Vary reading speed according to the demands of the text and the goal of the reading
  • Increasing reading speed on paper will increase reading speed on screen (and vice versa)
  • Practise!
Links and resources

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Focused Reading

Focused Reading

Setting ObjectivesSetting 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

Preview and ReviewThere are a number of ways you can narrow the focus of your reading to ensure 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: introduction, abstract, index, contents, summary, 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 part(s) are most important?

3. Make a note of important pages/sections to return to
5. Read the sections relevant to your objectives and make notes
6. Have you fulfilled your objectives? If yes, then stop. If not, take a break and do something different (preferably overnight) before repeating the steps


Study Skills Hacks: Reading for Memory

Watch this short video for advice on setting reading objectives and previewing and reviewing a text to improve understanding and recall.


Further information:

Top tips
  • Try to avoid distractions - switch off your phone to allow yourself to concentrate fully
  • Set yourself time goals. For example, read with full concentration for 20 minutes, then relax with a short break
  • Keep good notes as you read - it may feel as though you will remember the important information now, but will you remember it in one month's time when you need it?
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Second Language Reading

Second Language Reading

Second Language ReadingIt 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

  • Reading word by word
  • Understanding every word and form
  • Develops higher-level language processing
  • Promotes language accuracy

Extensive reading

  • Reading for general understanding
  • Vital for the development of automaticity in low-level language processing
  • Promotes language fluency

Whilst some of your reading will need to be 'intensive' (i.e. 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 (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/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.

Further information:

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
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