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Use an efficient approach Critical reading techniques

Having an effective reading and note-taking strategy is important. Time spent thinking and planning can save unnecessary work. If you are short of time, ask your tutor if there is any area of the work that you can skip over or read less thoroughly. Then, when you are reading through your study material.

  • make sure you know why you are reading - what are you going to get out of this text?
  • quickly scan the material for an overview of what it contains
  • then settle down to read it thoroughly.

Know why you are reading

Make sure you think about what you want to achieve and keep the purpose in mind as you read. Is it for an assignment (if so, have the assignment question to hand). Is it for an exam? If so have you mapped out which areas of the curriculum you will focus on? If you are simply working your way through your study materials, check your module guide to see if there are any guiding questions or statements for that particular piece of reading. You may also check the learning outcomes you are expected to achieve for that week.

Quickly scan the material

Before reading in any detail, scan through the materials quickly, simply to get a general impression of it. The aim at this stage is not to get to grips with its detailed arguments, simply to understand how many sections it has, which of them require careful reading and which you can read through quickly, etc. Check the contents pages to see how many sections there are. Check headings, images and summaries (see 'Scanning and skimming' below). Keep in mind what your purpose is.

Read more thoroughly

Once you have an idea of what you are trying to achieve and a general overview of the material, read it in more detail.

  • Take notes, add margin comments or highlight sections.
  • Pay attention to the structure of a text to help you to understand the writer's purpose and argument. Take notice of headings and sub-headings, of opening and closing paragraphs and of other signposts the writer has provided.
  • Try to understand what you are reading, rather than simply memorising what you have read. Consider whether you agree with the content and think about how it compares to any other reading you've done on the same topic. This effort to understand is itself an aid to memorising.
  • As you work through module activities, jot down a record of your work. You'll then avoid the need to work through these activities a second time for assignment questions and revision.

Keep a dictionary or your module glossary to hand and look up any terms you don't understand. Accept that sometimes you need to re-read in order to check your understanding, reconsider particular points of interest and to add to your notes.

Be prepared to read in different ways depending on your purpose. Sometimes you might quickly skim and then you can slow down and grapple with the detail to improve your understanding of the topic.

If you find the material boring or frustrating the reading task becomes harder. The best way to handle this is to be actively critical. Ask yourself what makes it unsatisfactory. Consider why you've been asked to read it. See if others are having the same problems with that particular text.

Re-reading for assignments and exams

When you are faced with an assignment and you go back to a book to look for something specific (say, a reference to a particular theory) try simply scanning the text for the key words and phrases you are looking for. Also, re-read your original notes and apply the same techniques to those.

Scanning and skimming

Fast reading techniques help you to browse text and extract the key points. Once you have the hang of them you can get through a substantial amount of reading in quite a short time.

Scanning - handy when you're looking for a particular word or phrase within a text or when you want to get an idea of the layout of the text (how many sections, where certain topics are covered). Run your eye quickly over the text to locate specific words or phrases that are of interest. You can scan

  • headings and subheadings
  • images and artwork
  • the body text for authors' names
  • the contents page itself
  • the index for specific words.

This will help you decide whether you should read further, and how useful the document might be for your study.

Skimming - a useful first step before reading more deeply. Here you are reading the words quickly to get a feel for how something is discussed. If you think that the text will be useful to you, you can slow down and read in a more focused way. Read quickly to get an overview prior to in-depth reading. Although you may still need to read the entire text, by scanning first you can decide where you want to concentrate your time. Skim the text quickly to

  • get an indication of the scope and content of the text
  • read the first and last paragraphs to get the main points
  • look at the first sentence of each paragraph to see where the content of the paragraph will lead
  • note the key points in the summaries.

Try using coloured overlays or tracking rulers to reduce the glare from white pages (suppliers include Crossbow Education and

There are a range of study skills booklets available to students. If you're not already signed in, sign in to see them all including Reading and taking notes which gives you further information on this subject.

Last updated 4 months ago