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Academic Reading Strategies

Reading is dependent on the purpose of the text. What you need to learn from the text directs how you should read it.  For example, you wouldn’t read a micro-biology textbook for class in the same manner you read a novel at the shore. In a similar manner, reading a reading a peer-reviewed research article will require different practices than reading a text book or lecture slides.

What you need to know and do with the content should inform how closely you need to read the text, or the amount of time spent actively engaging the reading. The following section should help frame how to create a blueprint, strategies to prioritize, organize and synthesis information, for academic reading purposes.

Get an idea of the context of the reading. Why is this reading being assigned? How does it ‘fit’ into the whole of the course—what are the main themes, objectives of the course?

The How:

  • Briefly review the syllabus, class notes and previous readings and look for where this new information, reading assignment, fits or crosses over with previous or future material. (This can done any point in the semester, for any assigned reading).
    • Ask yourself: “How does this text coincide with what I am learning?

Get a sense of the whole text in terms of subject/content, author’s purpose and organizational structure by selectively sampling key portions of the text—previewing. This is an intentional way to ‘skim’ a text. Much like watching a preview of a film which gives you a quick teaser, previewing a text provides a big picture, which can help you decide on what to focus on and overall purpose for reading the text.  This can be done with both textbooks, articles, etc. and lecture slides.

The How :

  • Read title, author, and think about the source (textbook, research article, case study, etc.)
  • Read abstract, summary/conclusion, first
  • Read the headings of lecture slides
  • Look at graphic aids (pictures, graphs, tables, etc.) and captions
  • Ask Yourself: “What is this text about?”
  • Gage your prior knowledge of content, ask yourself: “What do I already know?”

Based on the knowledge gained in the preview and what you know about the course context, make predictions about what the text will address as well as how and why it will be addressed. Your predictions do not need to be elaborate or detailed. The goal is to target what you predict to be the main ideas, themes, ‘big picture’ of the material to help you make connections with the new material from what you already know.

The How:

  • Ask yourself: “After reading this text I will be able to…” or “This text will address…”
  • To guide and organize your reading and studying, put your predictions on paper in the form of a diagram, outline or notes.

Using what you know about the course context and what you predict the reading will address ask GENERAL questions about what you’re expected to get out of the text. Think about how the professor is using the text in the design of their course.

The How:

  • Ask Yourself:
    • “What am I supposed to learn from this text?”
    • “What function does the text serve in the course?”
    • “How does this text relate to other assigned texts (including lecture slides or previous lectures)?”
  • Also ask context-content-specific questions—the what, why and how questions about text topics, themes, processes, etc.  To figure how to ask content-specific questions, ask yourself:
    • Use the questions already provided by the text
    • Develop questions using the headings or bolded words in the text
    • Are there any supplemental study guides, handouts with questions from your professor you can use?
    • Are there any questions your professor has asked in the course, often rhetorical, that you remember or noted?
    • What are the learning outcomes, as mentioned above? Is there specific information that might serve as a guide/outline to develop content-sourced questions. 
    • Use available PowerPoint slides that correspond with the reading(s) and look closely for information that overlaps.

Read with your questions and predictions in mind and determine if you were correct or not.

 If you are, then you are most likely understanding the material in the way the author or professor intended. If not, this suggests you are not approaching the material in the preferred way. Repeat some of the steps listed above and look again for any patterns, themes, biases, etc. that run throughout the lecture, chapter, section or entire book.

Once you have established the context and have an idea of the purpose of the text and what you need to understand, determine how close you will need to read the text to accomplish your goals.  

  • Reading Selectively: If you have determined that the reading plays a supplemental role in the class, you will want to focus more of your attention and time studying the lecture slides and only using the other texts when you need more clarification.
  • Reading Thoroughly: If the course readings (lecture slides, articles, textbooks, etc) play a more prominent role in the course, where you much of the information you will be responsible is coming only from that text, then you will need to devote larger chunks of time to reading the text more thoroughly.
  • Chunking: Breaking up the reading into smaller chunks can increase your level of attention and understanding. Therefore, avoid ‘marathon’ reading sessions, split the time spent reading difficult or dense texts into smaller amounts of time or provide  yourself with meaningful breaks between chunks. Take breaks and assess your comprehension. Is the text answering your questions?