So much to read!

Because reading is so central to success at university, it is important to develop effective strategies from the outset. Additionally, because there is so much to read, it is important to use different reading strategies depending on the requirements of the reading tasks. A common error that beginning students make is to think that they should read every text word for word from beginning to end. When this becomes overwhelming, the temptation is either to give up or look for a speed reading course! Some elements of speed reading courses are helpful, but a speed reading course alone will not solve all your reading concerns.

Speed reading

Basically speed reading courses teach you at least two strategies which you can practice yourself:

Strategy 1: Reading groups of words

Firstly you will learn to read phrases or groups of words rather than reading word by word (you will know if you read word by word because you will probably be saying the words in your mind as you read – this is called sub-vocalising). Learning not to sub-vocalise is useful, but it will not solve all your reading concerns. On average, people can speak about 100 to 150 words a minute, so if you sub-vocalise while reading, this will limit your reading speed to as fast you can speak. When you consider that the brain is capable of processing information much faster than this, it is easy to see that if you read a lot slower than your brain can work, there is ample opportunity for your brain to be bored and to start thinking about things other than the words on the page! Thus learning to speed your reading up a little, often helps you to concentrate better. Of course it is important to find a balance which is centred on the fastest you can read and still comprehend what you are reading. Reading without comprehension is clearly not reading at all.

You should also avoid sub-vocalising (reading the words to yourself) as this will significantly reduce your speed. One way to stop sub-vocalising is to place your finger under the words and run your finger along the line you are reading, a little faster than you would normally read. This will mean that to keep up you will have to stop sub-vocalising. Another way to stopping sub-vocalising is to think about the meaning of the words rather than using your mental energy to say them. It takes practice to break old habits but if you are serious about learning these strategies, you should probably start with simple texts, such as the newspaper or popular magazines. When you feel comfortable, you can try more challenging texts.

Strategy 2: Avoid habitual re-reading or regressing

A second strategy that you will most likely learn in a speed reading course is to keep moving forwards and not to re-read or regress habitually. Some people, as they read, continually go back and re-read before they have even reached the end of the sentence. This slows the reading process and can even interfere with meaning because the sentence is not read in order. Again, running your finger under the lines will force your eyes to keep moving forward to catch up with your finger, thus breaking the tendency to re-read. It is important to note that re-reading if you do not understand, is important, but to do it habitually, will slow your reading speed considerably.

There may be other strategies that you would learn in a speed reading course, but these are two of the major strategies that you can easily practice on your own. Most speed reading courses will also involve a great deal of practice. While these strategies will help you to read faster, it is really important to note that some texts, particularly those you encounter in your studies can be complex and difficult and when this is the case, speed reading will not help. What you need to do with some complex and difficult texts, is to slow down significantly. Sometimes you will need to read a sentence two or three times to make sense of it and it may even be helpful at times to read aloud. Trying to speed read texts that are this complex or difficult to understand would not be helpful.


In the section on time management, you saw how to allocate time to various tasks, two of which were pre-reading to prepare your brain for lectures and re-reading for revision after the lecture to consolidate what you have learned. Here is a strategy (called skimming) that you can use for pre-reading, but can also be used any time you want a quick idea of what a whole text is about, but you don’t need all the details.

Strategy 1: Skimming

• Flip through the text and look at headings, key words, diagrams or anything that stands out in the text. This will give you a general idea of what it is about and how long it is.
• Read the whole introduction and the whole conclusion to the text.
• Read the first and last sentence (or two if one sentence makes no sense) of each paragraph. Once you have read a sentence, pick one or two key words that capture the meaning or the important idea in the sentence. Never highlight or underline a whole sentence and don’t highlight while you are reading! If you highlight while you are reading you will most likely not be able to choose the most important words. If you highlight a whole sentence, your pages will look bright, but you will not have really thought about what is important at all!
• When you have read the opening and closing sentences and have chosen some key words in each one, write one or two key words in the margin next to the paragraph to state what you think the paragraph is about.

Below is an example of a paragraph with underlining and a summary written in the ‘margin':

The brainstem, made up of the midbrain, pons, and medulla, sits at the base of the brain. The brainstem is involved in sensory input and motor output. Sensory input enters the brainstem from the head, neck, and face area, while motor output from the brainstem controls muscle movements in these areas as well. The brainstem also receives sensory input from specialized cranial nerves for olfaction (smell), vision, hearing, gustation (taste), and balance. The brainstem contains ascending and descending nerve pathways that carry sensory input and motor output information to and from higher brain regions, like a relay center. Ascending nerve pathways bring information through the brainstem into the rest of the brain, and descending nerve pathways send information back that coordinates many activities, including motor function. The brainstem also plays a role in vital functions such as cardiovascular and respiratory activity and consciousness.

Function of brainstem

You may be concerned that there is more detail in the middle of the paragraph that has been skipped over. This is true, and if you have time to read the whole paragraph, by all means do so, but if you are short of time (as most students tend to be), it will be a lot better to do this kind of quick pre-reading than not to pre-read at all. If you do not pre-read, albeit quickly, lectures can be overwhelming because you have no idea what direction they will take and all your energy is spent trying to get notes down, often without any possibility of thinking about what the material means. To use a computer analogy, pre-reading gives you a mental structure or a file and document names, set up before the lecture, so that you already have places to store the information as you receive it. This enables you to think and learn in the lecture, rather than simply recording information.

If you don’t want to write in your textbooks…

Some students are concerned about writing in their texts books. Others borrow text books from libraries. You should definitely not write in borrowed texts, so here is an alternative. Take a piece of paper, write the chapter heading, then the first sub-heading (usually introduction). Underneath the heading write down the keywords that sum up what you think the paragraph is about.

If there are further sub-headings under an existing sub-heading, you should number these, for example, 1.1, 1.1.1 and so on. You can also take these brief notes to lectures with you to compare the lecture and the text book. Obviously if your pre-reading shows that the information in the text is the same as in the lecture, you can write less during the lecture and think more, but if the lecturer is discussing information that is not in the text, you will probably need to take more notes.

Uses for skimming

This skimming strategy can be used for pre-reading and any time that you want to gain a quick overview of a text. When you are researching for an assignment, you can also skim. As you find paragraphs and sections that are particularly relevant, you may choose to read those sections in more detail. As you read sections, you may find that you need to read the previous paragraph or section to understand it more fully. The important point here is that skimming gives you an overview and puts you in a position to choose bits that you want to read in detail. Sometimes it is clear from the title and abstract of an article that it is highly relevant to your task. In this case you will most likely read the whole article and if it is really useful you may read it or at least sections of it more than once.

Strategy 2: Scanning

This is another quick strategy that works well when you are trying to find specific information for example in an article. Imagine you are doing an assignment on the topic:
How effective are hierarchical structures in government?
You find an article which compares and contrasts different types of organisational structures in general and you want to know if it has anything in it about hierarchical structures in government. So now you scan the article by running your finger down the lines (not reading, but simply looking for your key words) – in this case, hierarchies and government. You could, of course also look for synonyms such as bureaucracy, political structure and so on. When you find one of these words, you would read around the word and then make a decision about whether you will read the whole paragraph, section or maybe even the whole text if it there is plenty of information on your topic.

Serious reading

This strategy is useful when you have decided that an article is really important to read from beginning to end. Examples of when you would do a serious read would be if you had to write an essay which critiqued a book, an article or a chapter in a book; or if you had to present your summary and ideas about a reading in a tutorial; or if you wanted to read a highly relevant source for an assignment you were doing or to supplement your lecture notes.

    1. Ask yourself what you really want to find out from the text.
    2. Write thse ideas as questions, or at least think about them as questions. When you are doing an assignment, if you are following the procedure outlined in the section on the assignment writing process, you will already have a list of research questions which you can use (see step 4 and step 6 of the assignment writing process).
    3. Read, by looking for and underlining key words in paragraphs and writing key ideas next to the paragraphs (as discussed above in the section on skimming). However, unlike the skimming strategy, read the whole paragraph and selectively underline or highlight key points throughout the paragraphs as you read. Remember that as you read, you are looking for points that answer your questions. This will help you to focus and not be distracted by the wealth of information that might be in the text.
    4. When you have read the whole text and selectively underlined or highlighted keywords and made notes in the margin, start recording information under your research questions. Try to write your answers to the question without looking directly at the text. This will force you to use your own words and check your understanding.
    5. Once you have written the idea in your own words, go back and check the source to make sure that you have included all the details. You should be able to find the information easily because of the highlighting and words in the margin.
A word of caution

If you copy parts directly from a text, these same words may well end up in your assignment. Using someone else’s words verbatim without putting quotation marks around them makes you guilty of plagiarism, even when you state the name of the author and the date of publication. Plagiarism is a serious offence!

While you can get around this problem by directly quoting the information, it is important to remember that lecturers are much more interested in your summary or paraphrasing of an idea than your cut and paste of an idea with quotation marks around it. It is always better to rewrite the idea in your own words, unless the quote is perfectly stated, highly relevant and succinct. This is because your explanation of an idea reveals your thinking, whereas a cut and paste simply reveals that you found a piece of information on the topic. Always remember that university writing is about revealing your thinking, not just information and facts that you have found.

Using online resources

Many resources are available on-line which means that students don’t necessarily have paper copies of texts. It is still possible to highlight and keyword on-line resources if the document is saved as a word document or cut and pasted into a word document rather than trying to interact with it in pdf format. All the same, some pdf documents are easy to write into with sticky notes and can be highlighed as well.

Reading for revision

In the section on time management, we discussed the need to make time soon after lectures to revise. How much reading you need to do for revision depends on a number of issues:
• How much emphasis the lecturer places on the students reading the text book in detail
• How close the lecture notes are to the text book or books
• How well you understood the lecture
If you had trouble understanding the lecture, you may need to read the whole chapter to figure it out. Sometimes, you may even need to read a simplified text first (a beginner’s text, school book or maybe even an encyclopaedia) to start to get an understanding of the ideas if you are really struggling.
If you understood the lecture reasonably well, and the text and the lecture notes are reasonably similar, you may need to do less comprehensive reading of the text. It may be sufficient to scan to find particular points that need clarification.
When you read to revise, it is important to try to make a one page (preferably A 4) summary of the topic. This will force you to really think about the main ideas and summarise them in a way that will be easy for you to learn later. Some topics are large and may lend themselves to two summaries, but it is important to try to keep summaries succinct, in your own words (where possible) and structured in ways that will help you to remember the topic. This will be covered in more detail in the sections on concept mapping and preparing for exams, but suffice it to say here that concept maps are an excellent way to make one page summaries.

Reflection and Conclusion

Choosing a strategy

• Always think about the task and what you are required to do. Then choose a reading strategy that will be most useful.

Which strategy would you most probably choose to quickly find answers to some questions for an on-line quiz?

Which strategy do you think you might use when trying to read and understand an article for general discussion in your tutorial?

Which of the strategies suggested do you think you are most likely to trial and how close is this strategy to anything you have used previously?