Research and reading

Effective reading strategies

Practically every university course will require you to do some reading as part of your study. How much reading will vary depending on the subject.

Some useful resources from CDU Library are:

Effective reading strategies

It is important to adapt how you read to suit the material and your purpose for reading. Depending on what you are reading and why, you will find some of the following strategies useful.

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Skimming involves reading key parts of the text. You can use it when you need to get an overview of an author's main line of argument.

There are two basic skim-reading techniques:


This strategy is based on the idea that all well-written articles, essays and chapters of books are structured in the following way:

  • introduction
  • body
  • conclusion.

This means that the central ideas should be presented three times:

  • noted briefly in the introduction
  • discussed in detail in the body of the text
  • reviewed briefly in the conclusion.

The beginning and ending paragraphs of a text should provide summaries of its central ideas.

The strategy here is to carefully read:

  • the first few paragraphs of each chapter or section
  • the final paragraph or conclusion of each chapter or section.

First sentences

This strategy assumes that the first or opening sentence of each paragraph introduces the main point(s) to be discussed in that paragraph.

Reading only the opening sentence of each paragraph often gives you a clearer understanding of the author's reasoning and the structure of the argument than just relying on the introduction and conclusion.

Once you have established that the material is what you need then you can re-read it.

First sentence technique

The first sentence technique is also an effective strategy to use when note taking from books (and/or chapters of books) and articles. It can be used to create effective summaries of other people's writings - remembering, of course, that the sentences are still the author's words. Once you have created the summaries you will still have to rewrite them in your own words. This is known as paraphrasing.

Most people use scanning to read web pages when surfing the internet. Scanning helps you establish where in a book or article specific information is located.

How do I scan?

Suppose you have found a book whose title looks very promising in terms of the information that you are seeking.

Step 1: Open the book and look at the table of contents, located at the front of the book. It will list most, but not necessarily all of the following subsections:

  • a preface
  • a list of diagrams or tables or illustrations
  • an introduction
  • the various chapters in sequence from 1 to n
  • a conclusion
  • a bibliography
  • an index.

Step 2: Read the chapter headings. Do they contain the information that you are looking for? If not, then go to the index at the back of the book.

Step 3: Search the index for relevant topics or key words. If this also draws a blank, then the put the book away and look for another that might be more fruitful for your topic.

Step 4: When you find a relevant reference:

  • in the table of contents go to the appropriate section of the book and read the first two paragraphs. These often contain a statement about what information will be covered. This will help you to assess whether the material is relevant for your topic. If you are still uncertain about the usefulness of the material, then read the final two paragraphs of the summary
  • in the index go to the appropriate page or pages in the book. Find the paragraph in which the reference appears. Read the paragraph. If necessary, read the paragraph before and after the one specified by index entry.

Looking for key information involves looking in a given paragraph of passage of words for the key words that are relevant for your topic. It is a process that can be used in conjunction with scanning.

Finding key information

Key words and ideas are often found in the opening paragraphs of a chapter or subsection of a chapter. Pay particular attention to the opening sentence and the opening paragraph.

Look for any hints given by the author. These might include:

  • underlining
  • bolding
  • italics
  • subheadings
  • section breaks.

Reading in detail helps you to:

  • gain a full understanding of material
  • analyse and evaluate what you have read
  • follow instructions or directions
  • understand difficult terms or ideas.

Analytic reading involves reading in an active and systematic way so that you gain an understanding of what you are reading.

Two approaches to understanding what you read are:

  • the SQ3R technique
  • thinking through reading.

The SQ3R technique

S - Survey
Glance through the whole chapter, section, or article
Read the introduction
Read the headings and subheadings (How is the text organised?)
Read any content overview, chapter summary or ...
Skim for key questions, key information

Q - Question
For each section ask:
What is the main point?
What evidence is there to support that point?
What examples explain the main point?
How does this section fit in with the rest of the text?

R1 - Read
Begin to read the material section by section. Actively search for the answer to the questions you have asked yourself. Make notes about important points.

Link the information with what you already know and use this to help evaluate the author’s statements.

R2 - Recite
After reading each section, recall the important points – say these aloud and write them down in the margins of the text. Make your notes in short phrases rather than full sentences. You may also highlight key information.

R3 - Review
Look back over the whole chapter or article at the way the information fitted together and how it addressed each of your questions. Think about what you have understood from the reading. Summarise the main ideas of the text in writing. Rewrite the notes you have taken (or paraphrase underlined sections) for easy review/reference later.

Thinking through reading

This technique involves enhancing your understanding of what you read by recognising the level of information that it contains. This involves three levels of recognition:

  • what does the writer say?
    • this is literal recognition. It is concerned with the surface information conveyed by the writer's words.
  • what does the writer mean?
    • this is interpretive recognition. We infer meaning from what the writer says. This is what is usually meant when we talk about reading between the lines.
  • how do I connect this with what I already know or need to know?
  • this is connective recognition. We look for connections between the literal and interpretive meanings with what we already know or need to know. In this way, we can:
    • find new solutions for problems
    • reach a new understanding
    • change our view.

Critical reading involves exercising your judgement about what you are reading. It involves you evaluating the arguments or positions presented by the writer. You ask questions of the claims or statements made by the author, and then seek to provide answers for those questions.

Common questions include:

  • what is the evidence for this argument?
  • do I agree with it?
    • if so, what is my evidence for agreement?
    • if not, what is my evidence to counter the author's argument?
  • what alternative perspectives are possible here?

Make a note of your answers and any other relevant questions and challenges that you think of.

Reading and thinking critically involves more than claiming that some idea, argument, or piece of writing is faulty. It involves presenting a reasoned argument that analyses what you are reading. Being critical, in a scholarly sense, is concerned with advancing our understanding, not closing it off.

The most effective way to read a difficult text is to break the task into parts, and only work on one section of the text at a time.

For each section:

  1. scan the section checking headings and subheadings and look at how the text is organised
  2. read the introductory and concluding paragraphs to get a general idea of what is in that part of the text
  3. read the text, shorter sections at a time. As you read, Look up any key words that you don’t understand and can’t guess from the context;
    at the end of each part:
    • look away and try to restate what you think the text is saying
    • write down a few notes
    • mark any parts that you do not understand and come back to them later.
  4. even if you don’t understand very well what you are reading, keep on going as the ideas may become clearer later in the text
  5. reread parts of the text that are still not clear to you
  6. if you are still finding the text difficult, leave it for 24 hours and come back to it. You may find that a second or third reading will give you a better understanding of the text.


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