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Learning to learn 04: Reading

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” Dr. Seuss

What are you reading for?

Before you decide what to read you must first know what you are reading for. What is your purpose for reading? Without knowing what you want from the text, you will find it difficult to know what questions to put to it. Reading is an active engagement with the author, a two-way conversation between someone who knows more about a subject (the writer) with someone who is trying to learn about it.

You also need to understand that active reading is cognitively demanding, which means that you need to do it when you’re at your best mentally. If you’re reading to learn – as opposed to reading for information or for entertainment – you should probably be sitting at a desk with no distractions, and ready to put in a few hours of work. Yes, reading for understanding is cognitive work and should be deeply engaging. There’s no such thing as “only”reading, at least, not when it’s done right.

So, without further delay, let’s start on learning how to read more effectively.

Levels of reading

  1. Elementary (basically, reading words and sentences)
  2. Inspectional (cursory reading for information)
  3. Analytical (critical reading of the text)
  4. Syntopical (critical reading across several books)

1. Elementary reading is essentially what you are doing by reading this website. You’re converting alphabetical notation and symbols into sounds that are combined to form words and sentences. By definition everyone reading this is reading at an elementary level. We won’t spend any more time on this level.

2. The next level of reading is inspectional reading and there are two types; systematic skimming and superficial reading.

Systematic skimming is about trying to make a decision about whether or not you should read the book at all. It includes the following steps and might take up to an hour to do:

  • Reading the cover and preface helps to categorise the type of book that it is, as well as the main ideas that will be covered.
  • Reading the table of contents provides an outline of the main arguments that the author will make.
  • Familiarising yourself with the language of the book by going through the index. This will also help to start identifying some of the concepts that are related.
  • Identifying pivotal points by using what you have learned so far to find one or two chapters and then reading a few paragraphs from them.
  • Reading the last few pages to see how the author is summing up their arguments.
  • Listening to an interview with the author is a quick way to get an overview of the most important points in the book.

Once you’re done the systematic skimming of the book you should have a feel for what the book is about, including the main concepts that are covered. At this point you need to make a decision about whether or not the book deserves more of your time. Is this a book that you actually want to read? If you’re not enthusiastic about the book at this point, you may decide to put it down and move on. If you decide that this is something you want to spend a bit more time on then you’re ready for a superficial reading.

Superficial reading is when you read the book from start to finish, relatively quickly. Don’t stop to think about the arguments, nor to look up terms that you don’t understand. The purpose of superficial reading is not to develop a good understanding of the concepts but rather to get a sense of the overall structure of the book. You may only end up understanding a quarter of what you’ve read but if you’re reading for information that may be enough. For most people reading most books, this might be the poitn at which they’re done with the book. However, if you decide that the book is worth spending more time on i.e. that you want to really understand what the author is talking about, you need to move to the next level of reading.

3. There are four steps to analytical reading. The first step is to categorise the book that you’re reading. This might sound easy but can be quite challenging. In some cases you may not be able to categorise a book without first having read it. An inspectional reading will not only give you insight into the content of a book but will also tell you if the author is making a philosophical argument, for example, or if the book is instructional. Is the book theoretical (i.e. arguing that the information within it “is” true”) or practical (i.e. suggesting ways in which certain information could be “used”).

The second and third steps about determining the overall structure of the book; finding it’s blueprint. You can begin by briefly stating – in a single sentence or very short paragraph – what the whole book is about. Then enumerate the major parts of the book in order, relate the parts to each other, and outline them as you have outlined the whole. In other words, show how all of the parts of the book are organised into a coherent whole. Nothing sufficiently complex can be expressed in a single unit, which is why you can only understand complex ideas by showing how all of its parts are related to each other. Being able to articulate this structure is essential for demonstrating understanding. Good books will have well-defined structure that clearly demonstrates the relationship between concepts.

Finally, it’s important to define the problem/s that the author is trying to solve. Non-fiction books tend to have questions that prompt the writing of the book, which then include the author’s attempt to answer those questions. This may not always be explicitly stated but it is nonetheless important that you identify the questions, stopping short of trying to describe what the author was thinking.

By now you should be in a position to claim that you understand what the book is about, including the main concepts, arguments and their relation to each other. Clearly this type of analytical reading of a book is challenging and should push you to exert mental effort. Understanding something is very different to knowing isolated facts about it. At this point you can probably claim to have an informed opinion about the arguments presented by an author in a book. But developing expertise in a topic involves more than simply having an opinion based on a single book. Developing expertise means being able to analyse a topic or problem across a series of books. And that requires moving to the next level of reading.

4. Syntopical reading is also known as comparative reading and is the most demanding level of reading, as it requires the reader to contrast ideas, vocabulary and arguments across several books on the same subject. The purpose of reading at this level isn’t to understand any single book but to understand a subject more broadly. There are five steps to syntopical reading:

  • Find the most relevant passages from each book. This requires an inspectional reading of all the relevant books you’ve selected.
  • Bringing the author to terms means that you need to reframe each authors’ arguments in your own words. This gives you a unified vocabulary with which to explore the topic.
  • Identifying the questions that you want to answer, seeing that the authors of each book may have answered different questions.
  • Defining the issues that emerge when a question has multiple answers helps to identify different perspectives.
  • Analysing the discussion between different answers to your question is what enables you to have an informed opinion.

How to read more

Before you try to figure out how to read more, you first need to decide if books and reading are important to you. There’s so many other things that you could be doing and which are constantly going to try and draw you to them. Social media, TV, movies, and games are all immediately available on your phone and sending you notifications to come and join whatever it is your friends are busy with. Making a commitment to reading means devoting some measure of your attention to a book or article, time that you’ll necessarily not have available for entertainment. Once you’ve decided that reading is important it makes it much easier to focus your attention when the time comes to read.

Instead of spending your commute listening to the radio or music, you could use the time to listen to books (audiobooks), podcasts, or articles (via text-to-speech apps on your phone). This obviously isn’t the time to deeply engage with a text, as working on a bus or while driving is going to be awkward at best, and dangerous at worst. But this is a great time to listen to lighter texts that probably won’t help you delve deeply into a topic but which will nonetheless help to familiarise you with the vocabulary, social norms and professional practices of your discipline.

Get into the habit of reading. Start by setting aside time to read rather than waiting until you have time to read. If you’re waiting until you have the time to read more then you’re never going to get it. We only do the things that we plan to do, so start including “reading time” in your daily schedule.

Reading faster is not the same thing as understanding more. You may have seen ads for speed reading apps and services that help you to process words and sentences more quickly. If all you want to do is get more information, then this might be worthwhile. But again, having more information is not the same thing as learning or developing a deeper understanding of a topic. If you really want to understand a subject, speed reading is not going to help. The best way to read faster is to read more; to get better at the skill of reading well.

Quit reading books that aren’t moving your closer to your learning objectives. This may not be possible for prescribed textbooks in your programme, especially when your lecturers link their assessments directly to specific books. However, if you’re engaged in independent learning (and to be clear, this is where you absolutely want to be) then you’re free to choose any books related to your topic of interest. And in this case you really should put aside books that aren’t helping you to answer the questions

Carry a book with you at all times. When your books are digital there’s absolutely no excuse not to have a few at hand any time of the day. If you’re standing in a queue, or waiting for a bus, you may want to read something that requires less cognitive effort than the heavier, analytical work of coming to terms with a challenging text.

By keeping your phone in airplane mode you’re going to have to deal with fewer distractions while attempting to read. You may find yourself just getting into a text and then having your thinking disrupted by a friend sharing something that really could wait another couple of hours. Remember that reading for understanding (i.e. learning) is difficult, cognitively challenging, and active, and therefore requires focused engagement without distraction.

Reading academic journal articles

You might take a different approach to reading journal articles than you would for books. For one thing, articles are only ever subsets of much larger domains of knowledge and academic writers often assume that their readers are already familiar with the language and content within their disciplines. Whether or not this is a good thing is beyond the scope of this module. However, it’s enough to know that your approach to reading journal articles will be different to what has already been described in this module.

The British Medical Journal has published a series of ten articles called How to Read a Paper, including titles such as Getting your bearings (deciding what the paper is about), Papers that go beyond numbers (qualitative research), and Papers that summarise other papers (systematic reviews). It’s a wonderful collection of relatively short articles that will help the academic reader (and student) develop a more subtle approach to reading the many different kinds of academic literature.

I also came across this collection of Youtube videos called Reading strategies for research students. Even if you don’t think of yourself as a “research student” the advice provided in these short videos is likely to be helpful to anyone who needs to read academic texts. The presenter also reinforces some of the ideas that we’ve already come across, for example, “…journal articles are a very specific genre with very specific structures and styles, and that’s going to be important to how we read.” In other words, what you’re reading for influences how you read.

Here’s an example of one of the videos.

When you’re in the process of writing an essay (or thesis) you may find yourself collecting your reading material. You may convince yourself that you’re finding all of the relevant sources necessary to write something solid. The reality is that you’re just deferring the work of reading in favour of the easier work of collecting. Inger Mewburn has a phrase that I try to keep in mind when I’m reading articles for information; read like a mongrel. When you read like a mongrel you “…scan the text rapidly, use indexes, the search function, google books or whatever and go straight for the bit that you absolutely have to know and leave the rest for later. It isn’t pretty, but it works.” She’s describing inspectional reading of an article, which is different to the deeper and more critical analytical reading that you’d do when your purpose is to develop expertise within a knowledge domain.

Reading on paper or on a screen?

Before making a decision about which format is “better” you may need to review your purpose for reading a particular text. If your aim is to engage more deeply and actively with the text, you may want to consider reading on paper. There seems to be some evidence that reading on paper facilitates a more active approach to reading. This may be a result of the challenges on marking up text in meaningful ways when working on a PDF, for example.

There also seems to be some evidence that reading on screen changes the way you read, possibly because of the difficulty in navigating digital texts. And reading on screen can be more distracting, as authors often include hyperlinks that take you away from the central text. You’re also more likely to be interrupted with notifications from other apps and services. However, digital formats also enable searching, which makes it easier to find concepts, chapters and notes within the text. You can also export your notes to other apps, making it simpler to work with the text in different places.

In short, you may decide that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all option when it comes to reading format, and that the medium you choose should be informed primarily by your purpose for reading. The fundamental difference may be in how much you need to think when reading the text.


There are few main points to take from this module on reading:

  • How you read is dependent on what you’re reading for. Reading for entertainment or to gather information can be done relatively quickly and without much effort. This is inspectional reading or reading for information, and while it may help you to discover facts, it is not learning.
  • Reading for understanding is active, challenging, and requires you to set aside dedicated time for a critical analysis of the text.
  • There are several levels of reading, and depending on your purpose, you may need to move between those different levels.
  • Reading books, journal articles, or news stories about a subject also influence how deeply and actively you engage with the text.
  • Reading on paper or on screen is likewise influenced by what you are reading and what you are reading for.


You can download a summary of these notes as a slideshow presentation.

Additional resources


If you found this module on Reading useful and haven’t yet signed up for Learning to learn, consider subscribing to the weekly newsletter here. The newsletters include reminders and short readings on the topic for the month. You can unsubscribe at any time.

There are three other modules in the Learning to Learn programme that you may want to explore:

  1. How to create new habits.
  2. How to focus and avoid distraction.
  3. How to take effective notes.