Reading skills

You are expected to do much more reading at university than at school or college; it's not called ‘reading for a degree' for nothing.

Here are five tips to help you improve your reading:

      1. Styles of reading

      2. Active reading

      3. A tip for speeding up your active reading

      4. Spotting authors' navigation aids

      5. Words and vocabulary

1. Styles of reading

There are three styles of reading which we use in different situations:

Scanning: for a specific focus

The technique you use when you're looking up a name in the phone book: you move your eye quickly over the page to find particular words or phrases that are relevant to the task you're doing.

It's useful to scan parts of texts to see if they're going to be useful to you:

  • the introduction or preface of a book
  • the first or last paragraphs of chapters
  • the concluding chapter of a book.

Skimming: for getting the gist of something

The technique you use when you're going through a newspaper or magazine: you read quickly to get the main points, and skip over the detail. It's useful to skim:

  • to preview a passage before you read it in detail
  • to refresh your understand of a passage after you've read it in detail.

Use skimming when you're trying to decide if a book in the library or bookshop is right for you.

Detailed reading: for extracting information accurately

Where you read every word, and work to learn from the text.

In this careful reading, you may find it helpful to skim first, to get a general idea, but then go back to read in detail. Use a dictionary to make sure you understand all the words used.

2. Active reading

When you're reading for your course, you need to make sure you're actively involved with the text. It's a waste of your time to just passively read, the way you'd read a thriller on holiday.

Always make notes to keep up your concentration and understanding.

Here are four tips for active reading.

Underlining and highlighting

Pick out what you think are the most important parts of what you are reading. Do this with your own copy of texts or on photocopies, not with borrowed books.
If you are a visual learner, you'll find it helpful to use different colours to highlight different aspects of what you're reading.

Note key words

Record the main headings as you read. Use one or two keywords for each point. When you don't want to mark the text, keep a folder of notes you make while reading.


Before you start reading something like an article, a chapter or a whole book, prepare for your reading by noting down questions you want the material to answer. While you're reading, note down questions which the author raises.


Pause after you've read a section of text. Then:

  1. put what you've read into your own words;
  2. skim through the text and check how accurate your summary is and
  3. fill in any gaps.

3. A tip for speeding up your active reading

You should learn a huge amount from your reading. If you read passively, without learning, you're wasting your time. So train your mind to learn.

Try the SQ3R technique. SQ3R stands for Survey, Question, Read, Recall and Review.


Gather the information you need to focus on the work and set goals:

  • Read the title to help prepare for the subject
  • Read the introduction or summary to see what the author thinks are the key points
  • Notice the boldface headings to see what the structure is
  • Notice any maps, graphs or charts. They are there for a purpose
  • Notice the reading aids, italics, bold face, questions at the end of the chapter. They are all there to help you understand and remember.


Help your mind to engage and concentrate. Your mind is engaged in learning when it is actively looking for answers to questions.

Try turning the boldface headings into questions you think the section should answer.


Read the first section with your questions in mind. Look for the answers, and make up new questions if necessary.


After each section, stop and think back to your questions. See if you can answer them from memory. If not, take a look back at the text. Do this as often as you need to.


Once you have finished the whole chapter, go back over all the questions from all the headings. See you if can still answer them. If not, look back and refresh your memory.

4. Spotting authors' navigation aids

Learn to recognise sequence signals, for example:

"Three advantages of..." or "A number of methods are available..." leads you to expect several points to follow.

The first sentence of a paragraph will often indicate a sequence: "One important cause of..." followed by "Another important factor..." and so on, until "The final cause of..."

General points are often illustrated by particular examples, for example:

General: Birds' beaks are appropriately shaped for feeding.

Particular: Sparrows and other seed-eating birds have short, stubby beaks; wrens and other insect eaters have thin pointed beaks; herons and other fish hunters have long, sharp beaks for spearing their prey.

Whatever you are reading, be aware of the author's background. It is important to recognise the bias given to writing by a writer's political, religious, social background. Learn which newspapers and journals represent a particular standpoint.

5. Words and vocabulary

When you're a graduate people expect you to use a vocabulary which is wider than a school-leaver's. To expand your vocabulary:

Choose a large dictionary rather than one which is ‘compact' or ‘concise'. You want one which is big enough to define words clearly and helpfully (around 1,500 pages is a good size).

Avoid dictionaries which send you round in circles by just giving synonyms. A pocket dictionary might suggest: ‘impetuous = rash'.

A more comprehensive dictionary will tell you that impetuous means ‘rushing with force and violence', while another gives ‘liable to act without consideration', and add to your understanding by giving the derivation ‘14th century, from late Latin impetuous = violent'.

It will tell you that rash means ‘acting without due consideration or thought', and is derived from Old High German rasc = hurried.

So underlying these two similar words is the difference between violence and hurrying.

There are over 600,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary; most of them have different meanings, (only a small proportion are synonyms).

Avoid dictionaries which send you round in circles by using very complicated language to define the term you're looking up, leaving you struggling to understand half a dozen new words.

Keep your dictionary at hand when you're studying. Look up unfamiliar words and work to understand what they mean.

Improve your vocabulary by reading widely.

If you haven't got your dictionary with you, note down words which you don't understand and look them up later.