About academic reading

Academic reading is an important yet sometimes difficult skill to learn; however, if you approach it strategically you will find it much easier to master!

Key words: scan, skim, pre-reading, preview

About academic reading

When you get to university, you’ll find you need to get through a lot of readings either from your reading list, or for wider reading in preparation for an assignment. These may be journal articles, chapters in edited books or chapters in textbooks. Many of these academic texts will seem quite difficult, especially to begin with. Don’t despair! You may not have to read every article on your reading list. If you learn how to preview your readings first, you can select those readings or sections of a reading that are most relevant to your needs. There are a range of strategies that you can use to make the task less overwhelming.

Identify your purpose for reading

Your Unit Handbook or Study Guide will have a reading list. This list will usually be divided into required readings and recommended readings. Always begin with the required readings. Ideally, these will be general texts that can give you an overview of the topic. Once you have a general idea of the course content, more specific or detailed texts will be easier to understand.

You will be required to read for a number of situations. For example, you may need to read for: (click to see hidden text)

You will need to prepare for lectures by reading the material beforehand. This will ensure you can follow the lecture and relate the lecture material to the concepts presented in the unit.

Tutorials are often based on readings, so you will need to read these so that you can participate in the discussion. This also includes participation in online learning environments such as the discussion board.

Assignments often involve doing research and reporting your findings in either essay or report format. This will require you to read widely on the subject.

To make the most of your reading, you need to be able to identify your purpose. In many cases, this purpose will be identified in questions included in the Unit Handbook or Study Guide. These questions will make it easier to understand what you are reading.

If there are no questions, you need to identify more specific purposes for reading because why you are reading will determine how you read. The way you read a novel, a newspaper, a telephone book and an academic article will be different because your purpose for reading will be different each time. There are three main types of reading that people do:

  • Reading for quick reference – when you need to find particular information
  • Reading for pleasure – to relax, for fun, because you like the writer’s style
  • Critical reading – to understand/analyse ideas or concepts

Some reasons for reading might be:

  • to locate names or numbers
  • to find a description of an event
  • to find details of an experiment
  • to gain an overall impression
  • to identify the main theme
  • to identify the structure of an argument
  • to identify main points
  • to evaluate the style
  • to evaluate the author’s point of view
Exercise 1: What’s your purpose?

How you read a text will depend on why you are reading the text. Drag the descriptions of how you will read into the correct cell to complete the table:

Some reading techniques

Because there is so much to read when you’re studying at university, you need to read selectively. The pre-reading stage is an important step in the reading process.


Before you begin to read, preview the text. What is the title? Who is the author? When was it published? Who is the publisher?

When you need to find specific information such as a name or a date, you can scan the text. When you scan, you do not actually read the text; instead you search for a particular item. You can also scan a text to identify the sections that are important for you.

To gain an overall impression of a text, you can skim the text. The technique involves reading the title, the first paragraph, the first sentence of each of the body paragraphs and the last paragraph. Also look at any graphics in the text. By skimming a text you can decide if it’s relevant and you can prepare yourself for a more detailed reading of the text. Since you have already gained an overall impression, your detailed reading will be more meaningful.

Exercise 2: Which technique?

Read the description and decide which reading technique will be best to use:

1. You’ve downloaded an article from a database but you are not sure whether it is relevant or not.






2. You are searching for possible answers to exam questions in your textbook.






3. You want to know the results of an experiment in a scientific report.






4. You want an overview of an experiment in a scientific report.






5. You have started a new unit and have just bought the textbook.





Exercise 3: Scanning

You are looking for the following information in the text. When you are ready, click on the icon. You will have 20 seconds to locate the information before the text disappears. Note that to do this exercise successfully, you cannot read the whole text, but must look only for the particular information. You can check your answers once you have read the text:

1. How much more slowly do people read a web page than a printed text?
2. What per cent of people read a web page word for word?
3. What per cent of people scan a web page?


Scan the table of contents and then answer the questions that follow. You will have 20 seconds before the text disappears. You can check your answers once you have read the text:

1. In which chapter(s) will you find information on reading?
2. In which section will you find information on referencing?
3. To which page should you turn to read about preparing for exams?

Effective reading

There is a range of strategies that you can use to ensure you get the most out of your reading.

Be active while you read.

You can do this is by asking questions, making notes and keeping a vocabulary list.

Asking questions

These may be about the purpose:

  • Why has the author written the text?
  • What theoretical perspective does the author take?
  • Are the purposes stated explicitly, or are there underlying biases?

Or about the content:

  • What is the main idea/theme in the text?
  • What evidence is used to support the main points?
  • What are the main points to support it?
  • Is the evidence convincing? Why / why not?

Making notes

When you read a text in detail, you should make notes. Many students indiscriminately highlight material as they read. If you do use a highlighter, use it only on key words and phrases, and always follow up with some sort of written note or summary. Making notes is much better than underlining and highlighting. You are not only summarising the text, but you will also be more likely to remember what you have read.

You don’t need to stick to writing words when you make your notes. Be creative. Draw diagrams and pictures if these help.

What to note:

  • Key elements, such as the theme/thesis/argument, central ideas, major characters or crucial information.
  • The author’s purposes and assumptions (explicit and implicit).
  • Single phrases or sentences that encapsulate key elements or the author’s purpose and assumptions.
  • Details or facts that appeal to you, such as a useful statistic or a vivid image.
  • Items to follow up, such as a question, an idea that offers further possibilities, a puzzling comment, an unfamiliar word, an explanation you do not understand or an opinion you question.

Keeping a vocabulary list

As you read, write down any new or difficult words. Look these up in a dictionary and try to use them in a sentence or explain what they mean in your own words. This will help you to remember the word. Compile a glossary of key terms and concepts in your discipline.


This means:

Survey the text before you read it. This means paying attention to the titles, headings, subheadings or visual material before you read it. Skim the text.
Question before, during and after reading. These questions may include:

What is the main argument?
What are the main points supporting the argument?
What evidence is used to support the main points?
Is the evidence convincing? If not, why not?

You can also formulate more specific questions from headings and subheadings.

Read for the main ideas and main examples.
Recite by writing answers to your questions.
Review by summarising what you have read. If possible, discuss what you have read with others.

Overcoming reading difficulties

As a student, there are times when the reading you need to do makes little sense, even after you have applied various reading techniques. Here are additional ideas to help clear your head and put you back on the road to success.

Read it again
Difficult material such as the technical material in science courses is often easier the second time round. If you read a text and are completely lost, don’t despair. Your mind can work on those concepts while you rest or play. When you return to the assignment, you will see it with fresh eyes.
Look for essential words
If you are stuck on a paragraph, look for the most important words; these will usually be the nouns and the verbs. Look for things and actions, and not what it was like or how it happened.
Hold a mini-review
Stop at the end of each paragraph and recite, in your own words, what you have read, or write a short summary. You can write this in the margin of your text.
Read it aloud
Make noise! Read a passage aloud several times, each time emphasizing a different part of the sentence. Be creative! Imagine that you are the author talking.
Contact your lecturer
Admit when you are absolutely stuck, and make an appointment with your lecturer. Most teachers welcome the opportunity to work individually with students. Be specific about what it is you find confusing.
Talk to other students
Working with others is an important aspect of the learning process. Other students may provide you with a different angle to the text you are having difficulty with. You may also find that being forced to explain what you have read to someone else helps you to grasp the meaning that seemed so elusive when it was all in your head.
Consult another text
Find one in the library. Sometimes a concept is easier to understand if it is expressed in another way. Children’s encyclopedias can provide useful overviews of baffling subjects.
Try to explain to someone what it's about
You often understand more than you think you do. Try to explain it to another person or even to yourself. Write your explanation down. You might be surprised by what you know.
Stand up
Changing positions periodically can combat fatigue. Try standing when you read, especially if you get stuck on a difficult passage, and read aloud. Sometimes hearing the words makes them more understandable, and pacing back and forth can help to focus concentration. For some people, getting up on their feet works wonders.