In the text below, we will discuss what we mean by reading with purpose, how to identify your purpose for reading, and three strategies to engage with texts for the purposes of efficiency, understanding and recall.
Have you ever found yourself staring aimlessly at a text, halfway through and no wiser to the topic? Or have you re-read a text once, twice or three times over and still not comprehended what the author is saying? Then it is likely you are not reading actively. Active reading refers to engaging with the text as you read it. Often engaging with a text comes down to having a clear, pre-determined purpose for reading the text established before you begin reading it.
There is no "right way" to read texts. At university, you will find yourself engaging with a variety of texts for a variety of purposes. The strategies listed below are only three of many approaches to reading actively. These strategies are not prescriptive, but they are a good place to start. You might like to apply these strategies once or twice verbatim, before altering them to suit you.
It is also important to consider other factors, such as your environment and time allocation, when trying to read actively. You might find yourself zoning out if you read for longer than two hours, or you might find you are easily distracted if you are reading in a busy or loud environment. Knowing yourself and your study patterns, and working with them rather than against them will greatly increase your engagements with texts.
Identifying your purpose
Determining your purpose for reading a text prior to doing so will help you engage with the text more actively. Before you read a text, ask yourself why you are reading it. Some examples of questions you might ask include:
- What type of text is this? Is it a journal article, textbook or webpage? Will the type of the text affect the way the information is communicated? Is the text trying to persuade you, just inform you of something, or both?
- What is the point of sitting down and reading this text? Are you looking for evidence for an assessment? Is this required reading?
- Do you need to remember this information later for an exam or similar assessment?
- What do you need to know? What are some connections/questions you need answered from the text?
- What do you already know about the topic of the text?
Answering these questions will help you drill down on what you need from a text, and therefore better understand why you are reading it. Before you begin reading, jot down the answers to some or all of the questions listed above on a piece of paper. As you read the text, return to the answers you have written and check if the text is fulfilling the purpose you identified. Doing so will help you stay centered and on-track whilst reading.
Below are several strategies to facilitate active reading for several different purposes.
Reading for efficiency
When you are faced with a substantial amount of reading for a subject or assessment, you will be looking for ways to read texts as efficiently as possible. The reading strategy below is designed to help you evaluate texts for their usefulness and to efficiently identify key information in a text. It is referred to as the "4-S System".
To determine whether reading the text is useful for you, predict what information the text will provide. Take a look at the text's learning outcomes or abstract, key words, section headings or chapter titles and diagrams or images. If the text doesn't seem useful to you, and if you are not required to read it, don't bother reading it.
Skim over the text to determine its main argument. Pay attention to its learning outcomes or abstract, introduction, section headings, topic sentences, and conclusion.
Determine whether it is useful for you to read the entire text or a few key sections using the information collected above. If you feel it is not useful to read the entire text top to bottom, select a few key sections to read.
Study the text, or the key material you have selected. Read the material and makes notes and highlight passages. Reflect on how the information relates to your purpose for reading it. Once you have read the text, recall what you have read to check if you have understood it.
Reading for understanding
At the crux of reading for any purpose at university is to read for understanding. You may be required to read a text to recall it later in an exam, but you still have to understand it. The reading strategy below is a simple method of reading for understanding, which is referred to as the "PRR Strategy".
Familiarise yourself with the text before you begin reading it. At this stage, you are determining how the text is organised, how long it will take you to read it and how it is useful to you. Skim the text, paying attention to its learning outcomes or abstract, introduction, section headings, diagrams or images and conclusion. Using this information, try to predict what information the text is providing and reflect on how it is useful to you.
Read the text. It may be beneficial for you to "chunk" the text by breaking the text up into manageable sections rather than attempting to read it from top to bottom in one go. Reflect on each paragraph you have read by writing notes and highlighting passages. Think about how what you have just read relates to your purpose for reading it.
Check if you have understood the text by recalling the key points in summary mentally, out aloud or in writing. Check if your summary is accurate by cross-referencing with your notes.
Reading for recall
When you are required to read texts to prepare for an exam or quiz, your primary purpose for reading might be to recall it later. The strategy below integrates determining your purpose for reading the text with extra steps that help individuals remember information. It is referred to as the "SQ3R" strategy.
Familiarise yourself with the text by surveying it before you begin reading, and using the information gathered attempt to predict what the text may be arguing. Take note of the learning outcomes or abstract of the text, section headings, and diagrams or images.
Determine your purpose for reading the text by formulating questions about the text using the information you collected in your initial survey. These questions can be general like those listed in the 'Identifying Your Purpose' section above, or questions that drill down more critically on your topic. For example, a question you might ask would be 'How does this relate to other perspectives on this issue/topic?'.
R1 = Read
Read the text. As you read, reflect on the questions you formulated earlier by making notes and/or highlighting relevant passages as you go.
R2 = Recite
Recite what you have read to check you have understood it. Attempt to recite answers to your questions mentally, out aloud or in writing. You might like to write your answers as a summary for later review.
R3 = Review
Review the material you have just read and evaluate the accuracy of your notes, summary and understanding. The following day, attempt to recall the information in the text again, review the notes and/or text again if needed. Come back to your notes and/or the text as often as you need to before your exam or assessment.
- Adapted from the Sanger Learning Center at the University of Texas at Austin (https://ugs.utexas.edu/slc/study/prr)
- Robin, F P 1946, Effective Study (6th ed.), Harper & Row, New York