Reading Strategies


Stack of textbooksThere are three main types of reading that you will use, and each one has a different purpose.

Study reading

Study reading is what most students consider "textbook reading." This is the type of reading you use when reading a difficult text, or something where you must fully understand everything.

When reading in this style, read more slowly than normal. As you read, make notes for yourself and pose questions such as:

  • Do you agree with what the author is saying? (Why, or why not?)
  • Is any part of the text biased?
  • Do you believe what the author is saying?
  • Are any concepts or words new to you?

You might find it helpful to write down these questions, and try to find the answers as you continue reading.

You will probably need to read the material at least twice. The first time is to get a general overview of the material, the writing style and the ideas; the second time is for understanding and to find the subtleties.


Skimming is the type of reading you use when quickly trying to get the general idea. You will skim-read when trying to read a large amount of material in a short period of time, or when trying to get a quick overview.

If you're trying to find useful information in the library, for instance, you won't have time to fully read each article or book that might be relevant - you skim them, looking for key words, phrases or ideas.

Don't use this if you need detailed or in-depth information!


Scanning is used to find a specific piece of information, as quickly as possible; for example, you're reading a history text and you need to find the date of a major event.

Since you know exactly what you're looking for, you can sweep your gaze across the text and train your eyes to only focus on the key word.

It takes a little practice to really get up to speed, but once you've got the knack you'll find that the right words seem to jump out of the page!

This is great for finding nuggets of information in other books, but not so good for finding tentative links.


Reading a novel or work of fiction for fun is a little different from reading for a literature class. You need to look beneath the surface, and find connections between characters, themes... even the historical background from when the piece was written.

The good and the bad news? You will need to read each book more than once.

What do I need to look for?

The main elements of any novel or story are:

  1. Characters (the people)
  2. Setting (both geographical and time period)
  3. Sequence/timeline (to keep track of what happens when)
  4. Problem
  5. Events (both major and minor)
  6. Solution (usually at the end)
As you make notes, keep these headings in mind. Some are more static than others: once you've ascertained the setting and time period and made out a timeline of events, they won't change much. Others will evolve as you get more into the reading.

Example: making notes about characters

Look at what they say, what is implied, and how other characters act around them.

  • How do they affect the problem?
  • Did they cause the problem?
  • Does the setting have any impact on their behavior or their thoughts?
  • Are they acting consistently for their time, or do other characters see them as different or odd? (Think of Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind.)

Other ideas

Some authors, including Thomas Hardy and William Shakespeare, tend to have patterns in their writing.

  • Shakespeare's comedies often involve identity crises, with plenty of confusion.
  • Hardy tends to let his characters create their problem, which emerges later at just at the right time to create difficulties.

If you can read other works by the same author it will help you to notice these patterns, and make them easier to spot in future.

Other types of structure

Once you've read the text through and you've got an idea of who - and what - the characters are, the events and how everything interacts, you may want to consider these methods of organizing, or extracting, even more information from your text:
  1. Comparison/contrast
  2. Description
  3. Point of view
  4. Process/cause and effect
For example:

  • Are characters or events regularly compared to others?
  • Does the author rely more on dialogue, or more on description? (Hint: Thomas Hardy is heavy on description!)
  • How is the book written? Does it use first-person point of view, or the omniscient narrator?
  • How does the plot progress? Do the characters have any control over it?

Don't spend all your time analyzing the writing without thinking of the overall feeling you get!

Try re-reading it later for fun, and see how much more you get out of it when you understand the background and underlying themes, but also read it just for the pure pleasure of reading.

Making Notes

Although related to regular note-taking, there is a slightly different method for making notes regarding literature.

  • Make brief notes in the margins of the book itself, or underline a key word.
    (Check whether any tests are open-book, and whether this is permitted first!)
  • Make separate notes of themes and compare your thoughts.
  • Use color-coded sticky notes to mark key passages or events.
  • Create your own index.
    (The inside cover is a great place to store your final version.)

Creating your own index

As you read, each time you spot a theme or a major point about a character, write it down with the page number. Then when you're trying to see which characters are the most complex, or which are the key themes, you'll have all the information.

Your index will help you to quickly find references for your papers, as well as aiding you in class discussions.

Atticus p4, 10, 14, 45
Racism p57, 60, 77-9
Poverty p3, 45
Class differences p5, 20, 31-2

Don't forget to enjoy reading! Find pleasure in the words, notice how they can change your mood or your attitude towards the characters. A single word can completely alter a scene, so pay attention!

Reading Tips

Find a quiet, comfortable place to read.
Avoiding distrations—whether it's noise or a cramped position—will help you focus on your reading.

Read for a short, set period.
About 30-40 minutes should be enough. Any more than that and you won't retain the information.

Use the headings in textbooks as guidelines.
Many textbooks use both headings and summaries. Use these to get an overview of the chapter as well as making sure you didn't miss anything important.

Don't just use a highlighter.
This is a form of passive reading, and doesn't help the information to sink in. Make proper notes and you'll find them both more helpful and more memorable. Try to put the notes in your own words, but do include key quotations!

Use the glossary if one is provided.
Or write your own - it will be helpful for tests.

Read aloud.
Reading aloud brings the text to life, helps you feel the rhythm of the words, and may change your interpretation by showing you where emphasis may lie. Try it. (Subvocalize if you have a roommate!)

Bring the book to class.
Your teacher may refer to specific passages, comment on the importance of a quote, or initiate a class discussion. It's helpful to have the text there in front of you to make accurate notes or as a reference.