How to read effectively and critically

Reading is one of the most important learning activities at university that you can engage in. Reading gives you access to the knowledge and language of a field and therefore provides a foundation for participating in classes and performing well in assessments.

Have a clear reading purpose

  • Reading to understand a topic

    You may be reading to get a general or deeper understanding of a study topic. This is best done when preparing for classes and reviewing key areas studied.

    Extensive reading in a field can enhance your knowledge of major concepts, theories, debates and findings. This helps you to discuss these issues more confidently, reflect on your own viewpoint and develop a wider perspective on your study. This broad purpose is motivating, as it has personal and professional benefits beyond your assessments.

  • Reading to address an assessment task

    You may be reading to gather ideas for an assignment. If so, keep the assignment topic and/or question close by so you can look at it frequently to guide what you read and how you read it. Consider writing a rough assignment plan that lays down the different sections and main ideas you want to include in your writing. This will help you to focus on only relevant readings and save you time. Don’t worry if the plan is very basic, as you can change and refine it as you read.

Choose what to read

If you’re reading to understand a topic, start with core and recommended readings in the subject. These are often comprehensive works in the field that explain the key concepts or issues. You can also search for current research on the topic using the Library website to keep yourself updated on the latest developments. Try using Library Guides for a tailored list of sources for a subject. Another idea is to ask your lecturer for recommendations of texts on a topic. If you have problems understanding key concepts in a subject, you may need to go back to a more basic textbook which explains them at a more fundamental level.

If you are reading to address an assessment task, use the key words from the task to search for relevant sources. Most tasks would ask for some connection to key concepts discussed in the subject, and so it’s important to use core or recommended readings alongside your own research. While theoretical readings can be a bit older, empirical papers, those that report on research findings, are considered recent if their dates of publication fall within the last ten years.

Preview a text

With any text, you will benefit from first previewing its key information to quickly grasp what it is about overall. Try spending around five minutes reading through the title, abstract (if there is one), the introduction and conclusion and any headings or table of contents. For general understanding of a subject, ask yourself:

  • What question(s) do I want to answer by reading this text?
  • Does this text contain new and useful information on my topic of interest?

When reading for an assignment, think about how the text is related to the task:

  • Can this text help me answer the assignment question in any way?
  • If yes, what part of my answer plan does it seem to fit?

Previewing a text helps you to evaluate not only the relevance of a text to your purpose but also its credibility. A text may appear highly relevant to an assignment but may present obvious language problems, biases and inconsistencies. In this case, you may want to forgo engaging with the text if you can, since reading time is precious, and you may have many texts competing for your attention.

Use different ways of reading

You can read different texts, and even different sections of the same text, differently. How you read should depend on what you want to get out of that reading. You can:

  • Skim a text for the main idea

    Skim-reading means moving through the text quickly focusing on main points and the overall message rather than details. You may pay more attention to the first and last sentence of each paragraph, which usually carry the main point, than the elaborating middle sentences. Another way to skim-read a text is to look for key (repeated) words or concepts and how ideas are developed around these.

    This video provides more information on the skim-reading strategy.

    Reading strategy: Skimming video

  • Scan a text for detail

    Scan-reading is great for locating and extracting the detail in a text. It involves finding out where the detail is through previewing or skim-reading the text first. Once you’ve located the detail, read this part focusing on how it addresses your purpose or question.

    Watch the following video to learn more about the scan-reading strategy.

    Reading strategy: Scanning video

  • Read a text closely

    When a text or part of a text is directly relevant and highly important to your purpose, you may need to read it more closely. Close reading means paying attention to both the main idea and the details of a text, as well as the language used to form these messages. Close reading helps you to understand not only the stated but also implied meaning of a text, as it allows you to read between the lines, to predict and interpret the information based on the connection or lack thereof between ideas. You may even become aware of the language used to convey the writer’s attitude and implications, such as repeated words, synonyms, emphatic phrases, metaphors or the juxtaposition of contrasting ideas. Close reading can be very rewarding in bringing you new insight into a text.

    As close reading requires deeper engagement than skimming and scanning, use your judgement to apply it to select sources.

  • Compare different parts of a text

    While reading, you may need to compare different parts of a text to determine the consistency and logical development of ideas. You may, for example, read the introduction and conclusion of a book together to see whether and how its aim has been met, or compare the methods, results and conclusions of a research paper to see how well they align. This method will help you to read texts more critically by linking the information presented in one part to the broader structure and narrative of the text.

  • Reflect on the text personally and professionally

    Connecting to a text can help you to understand and enjoy it more by engaging your own experience. It can also assist in forming your own opinion on a topic with support from the text.

    Ask yourself:

    • How am I feeling about the text?
    • How do I relate to it?
    • Does it resonate with or differ from my own experience?
    • What have I learned through reading this text?
    • How do I want to apply this learning?

Ask critical questions of the text

Asking critical questions helps you to read actively and avoid getting carried away by the details of a text because these questions often require synthesis and interpretation of the whole text. For example, you can ask:

  • What is the key argument or message of this text?
  • What evidence is presented to support this?
  • What makes this evidence convincing or not?
  • How does this text relate to my own ideas/assignment plan on the topic?

Take notes of your reading

It’s crucial to take notes while you read, as it gives you a record of ideas that you can use in your assignments and other study activities. If you’ve taken effective notes while reading a text, you usually do not need to re-read it except for quick checks of details. Effective notes go beyond text highlighting and annotation.

Notes should be taken:

  • In answer to your own questions of the text.
  • In your own words as much as possible – this means more paraphrasing and summarising than direct quoting. Even if you only put down phrases in a dot point format, try to use your own expression. Taking notes in your own words means you’re incorporating others’ ideas into your own writing from the start, making it easier to find your own voice and avoid plagiarism.
  • In a format that can be integrated into your assignment plan or study map. As text annotations cannot be collated easily, consider taking notes in a separate document or on separate cards, which can then be consolidated into a bigger writing or study structure.
  • In a way that clearly distinguishes the author’s idea and your own idea. Reading usually triggers your own reflection and responses, which you can use for study tasks. Consider colour-coding your own ideas to separate them from the author’s, which helps you to know which ideas to reference in your writing.
This video illustrates how to use your notes to turn reading into writing.

Connect multiple readings

A typical challenge with reading at university is you usually need to read not only long and highly specialised texts but also many such texts in a limited time. You may be reading multiple sources to understand different views on a topic or to gather information for an assignment.

Apart from the above reading and note-taking strategies, you also need to make connections between texts and compare them to gain big-picture ideas such as similar and different findings on the same topic. This allows you to make moderate, informed generalisations about what you read.

As you read a text, think beyond the text itself to relate it to other readings. Take notes of any links you’ve identified across different texts in your assignment plan or study map. You can use these links to know how to put together notes from individual readings. For example, you might want to summarise a common finding from three different sources to support your argument or juxtapose two contradictory findings to highlight a problem. Here are some questions to help you navigate multiple readings on the same topic:

  • What key messages are emerging from these readings?
  • What aspects of the topic do they relate to?
  • What are the similarities and differences between these messages?
  • Which messages have the strongest supporting evidence?
  • Based on these observations, what is my view on the topic?

Try jotting down your answers to these questions while reading different sources and come back to revise them often as you continue reading. This will help you to keep sight of the big picture of your topic.

You need to be aware of the time you have for reading as a study task. It’s a good idea to allocate a specific amount of time and specific dates to it. Having a reading schedule will give you limits that help focus your reading so you can move on to other tasks when reading time ends.

Improve your language skills

For readers of English as an additional language and people who are not familiar with academic texts, try to notice how language is being used to develop ideas throughout the text. While complex vocabulary and grammar may be a challenge, these can be observed and learned more easily than the way in which ideas are expressed and the cultural meaning that often accompanies it.

Try the following language tips to improve your reading comprehension:

  • Pay attention to signposting language in a text – expressions such as The aim of this paper is…, The main limitation of this theory is…, Based on these findings, we propose… can help you to follow the flow of meaning.
  • Actively predict what a paragraph or section is about based on the topic sentence and/or heading. After you’ve read it, assess if your prediction was right.
  • Learn terms for key concepts and write down your own understanding of these based on the reading.
  • Participate in discussions of readings in class and on the LMS.
  • Take careful note of the vocabulary central to each subject. Use this vocabulary in your writing and class discussions.
  • Practise your language skills regularly and persistently.

Final tip

To read effectively and critically, you need to engage with texts actively through setting a clear purpose, evaluating sources, using different ways of reading, asking big-picture questions, synthesising information and taking good notes. Focus on what you’re learning through reading and how you can apply it to study tasks and your personal and professional life.

Explore all resources

Two people looking over study materials

Looking for one-on-one advice?

Get tailored advice from an Academic Skills adviser by booking an appointment or attending one of our drop-in sessions.

Get one-on-one advice