How to Improve Your Reading for Understanding

Original Editor - Michael Rowe

Top Contributors - Ewa Jaraczewska, Jess Bell and Kim Jackson  

Introduction[edit | edit source]

Reading is a two-way conversation between the author and the reader, between someone who knows more about a subject and someone trying to learn about it. Reading is considered "the primary source for obtaining knowledge and information" and a "gateway to success in education."[1] Regular reading becomes a habit only when the act of reading is persistent, constant and done critically.[1] Reading and learning are linked, so effective reading strategies can help a learner achieve learning success. Positive reading attitudes lead to positive reading experiences and good academic performance.[2]

Reading is a process that requires motivation, interest, purpose and strategies.[3] To be actively involved in reading, an individual must be critically engaged with the text, understand the intention for reading, stay focused and mentally committed.[3] Active reading is "reading with questions in mind and searching for answers."[4] It is a skill and a process that needs to be developed and requires effort.[5][6] Because active reading is cognitively demanding, individuals need to do it when they are at their best mentally.

This article summarises how to improve your reading for learning and understanding.

Levels of Reading[edit | edit source]

According to Mortimer Adler's classic, How to Read a Book,[7] there are four levels of reading: elementary reading, inspectional reading, analytical reading, and syntopical reading. These levels are discussed in more detail below.

Elementary Reading[edit | edit source]

  • The level of reading taught in elementary (primary) schools
  • Converting alphabetical notation and symbols into sounds that are combined to form words and sentences

Inspectional Reading[edit | edit source]

Inspectional reading is considered a deeper reading experience. It is divided into systematic skimming and superficial reading.

Systematic skimming is a quick check to decide if the reading material deserves more time and attention. It includes the following steps:

  • reading the cover and the preface
  • reading the table of contents
  • checking the index and glossary of terms to familiarise yourself with the language
  • finding core chapters and reading a few paragraphs from them
  • reading the last pages to get a summary of the author's arguments
  • listening to an interview with the author, if available, to learn what the book is about

If the reader decides that the material is worth reading, they move on to superficial reading. Superficial reading is considered a first step towards analytical reading. Superficial reading enables you to:

  • read the text from start to finish relatively quickly
  • get a sense of the overall structure of the text

Analytical Reading[edit | edit source]

Analytical reading is a critical reading of the text. It is a thorough reading that engages the reader's mind. There are four steps in analytical reading:

  • Step one: Categorise the book. For example, is the book instructional, theoretical, or practical?
  • Steps two and three: Determine the overall structure of the book or its blueprint. To do this, you will need to:
    • describe what the whole book is about
    • list the major parts of the book in order
    • relate book parts to each other
  • Step four: Define the problem the author is trying to solve

Syntopical Reading[edit | edit source]

Syntopical reading allows the reader to synthesise knowledge from several books (or reading materials) on the same subject. Completing the following five steps allows for a broad understanding of a subject:

  1. Find the most relevant passages from each book through inspectional reading
  2. Reframe the author's arguments in your own words - this gives you a unified vocabulary with which you can explore the topic
  3. Identify the questions that you want answered
  4. Define the issues that emerge when a question has multiple answers
  5. Analyse the discussion between the different answers to your questions and establish an informed opinion

Why and How to Read More[edit | edit source]

Reasons to Read More[edit | edit source]

Reading widely helps to:

  • appreciate the topic under study
  • identify the main authors whose opinions are important for the study
  • gain a better overview, or scope, of a topic
  • generate more and better ideas

Commit to Reading[edit | edit source]

Committing to reading is about making the time to read. It can be accomplished in the following ways:

  • listening to books via audiobooks or text-to-speech features built into apps
  • listening to podcasts featuring relevant authors in the field
  • setting up your environment so that reading is easier to do than watching TV
  • setting aside time to read by including “reading time” in your daily schedule
  • removing the temptation to fill time with passive entertainment, like streaming apps on your phone
  • getting into the habit of carrying a book at all times
  • staying away from reading books that are not helping to move closer to the chosen learning objectives
  • avoiding interruptions while reading

Reading Journal Articles[edit | edit source]

Reading journal articles requires different skills and approaches than reading books or textbooks.[8] It typically involves inspectional reading of an article and extracting only what is needed.[9]

The British Medical Journal has published ten articles in a series called How to Read a Paper. These articles are listed below. They provide an overview of different approaches to reading journal articles.[10]

If you are involved in research, the following short YouTube videos will help you improve your reading strategies:

  1. Introduction to critical reading introduces reading as an active process
  2. Reading with purpose explains how knowing the purpose of reading drives reading strategies
  3. The reading process discusses why you should read and write simultaneously
  4. Anatomy of a journal article presents key features of journal articles
  5. Reading as a dialogue defines reading as a social practice or a dialogue between the writer and the reader
  6. Print or screen reading? Do you print a paper or not?
  7. Reading critically means asking questions
  8. Practical strategies on how to read more effectively
  9. Reading as part of your writing practice explains how important it is to be active and write as you read
  10. Reading to improve your own writing highlights how it is necessary to get some distance from your work
  11. Reading to improve your writing as reading other people's work can improve our own articulations
  12. Cultural politics of reading focuses on not becoming overly pragmatic

Taking Notes While Reading[edit | edit source]

Note-taking during reading is a crucial step to improve reading for understanding, as reading and writing are linked to learning.

"You should always read with a pen in your hand. In this context, I'm talking about a metaphorical pen, where the idea is that active reading is an interaction with the author or authors of a text."[21] -- Michael Rowe

When reading, you should always think about what an author is trying to say. It is reasonable to ask questions in return:

  • questions and comments should be annotations within the text
  • your annotations should form part of your literature notes, which in turn become your permanent notes

For more information on literature notes, permanent notes and note-taking, please see: How to Take Notes for Learning.

On-paper vs. On-screen Reading[edit | edit source]

The following table highlights some key differences between on-paper and on-screen reading.

On-paper reading On-screen reading
The reader can engage more deeply and actively with the author It changes the way the text is read, possibly because it can be difficult to navigate digital texts
It facilitates a more active approach to reading It enables the reader to search for information, which makes it easier to find concepts, chapters, and notes within the text
It feels easier to skip around meaningfully It allows annotations to be exported to other apps, which makes it easier to work with the text in different places

On-screen reading can have some negatives:

  • notifications from apps and services can interrupt reading
  • it can be more distracting, as authors often include hyperlinks that take the reader away from the central text

Conclusions[edit | edit source]

  • Active reading is an essential part of learning practice
  • Active reading is a skill that can be improved
  • The first step of reading a text is knowing why it needs to be read
  • There are four stages of reading:
    • Elementary reading is sufficient for reading news or entertainment
    • If you are reading as part of your learning, you will need to step up to inspectional reading
    • Analytical reading is a critical reading of the text
    • Syntopical reading allows you to synthesise knowledge from several books and develop an informed opinion
  • You may need to move between different reading levels when reading a text

Resources[edit | edit source]

  1. Kleon A. How to read more. Austin Kleon blog, 2019.
  2. Mewburn I. Beware the couch. Reflections on academic reading. The Thesis Whisperer blog, 2019.
  3. Rana Z. You are what you read, 2017.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 Alsaeedi ZS, Ngadiran NB, Kadir ZA, Hamood Altowayti WA, Al-Rahmi WM. Reading Habits and Attitudes among University Students: A Review. Journal of Techno Social 2021;13(1): 44-53
  2. Samsuddin SF, Aspura YI. Understanding the Reading Habit and Reading Attitudes Among Students in Research University Library in Malaysia. Journal of Academic Library Management (AcLiM), 2021;1(1): 12–23.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Lidadun BP, Chiuh N. To Use or Not to Use Monroe’s Sequence for Reading? A Preliminary Study. International Journal of Academic Research in Business and Social Sciences 2021: 11(7): 183– 207.
  4. Sun TT. Active versus passive reading: how to read scientific papers? Natl Sci Rev. 2020 Jun 19;7(9):1422-1427.
  5. Carey MA, Steiner KL, Petri WA Jr. Ten simple rules for reading a scientific paper. PLoS Comput Biol. 2020 Jul 30;16(7):e1008032.
  6. Castles A, Rastle K, Nation K. Ending the Reading Wars: Reading Acquisition From Novice to Expert. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 2018;19(1): 5–51
  7. Adler, M. (1972). Adler, M. (1972). How to read a book: The classic guide to intelligent reading.
  8. How to read and understand a scientific paper: a guide for non-scientists. Available from [last access 23.09.2023]
  9. Mewburn, I. Reading like a mongrel. Available from [last accessed 23.09.2023]
  10. How to read a paper. Available from [last accessed 23.09.2023]
  11. Greenhalgh T, Taylor R. Papers that go beyond numbers (qualitative research). BMJ. 1997 Sep 20;315(7110):740-3.
  12. Greenhalgh T. Papers that summarise other papers (systematic reviews and meta-analyses). BMJ. 1997 Sep 13;315(7109):672-5.
  13. Greenhalgh T. How to read a paper. Papers that tell you what things cost (economic analyses). BMJ. 1997 Sep 6;315(7108):596-9.
  14. Greenhalgh T. How to read a paper. Papers that report diagnostic or screening tests. BMJ. 1997 Aug 30;315(7107):540-3. doi: 10.1136/bmj.315.7107.540. Erratum in: BMJ 1997 Oct 11;315(7113):942. Erratum in: BMJ 1998 Jan 17;316(7126):225.
  15. Greenhalgh T. How to read a paper. Papers that report drug trials. BMJ. 1997 Aug 23;315(7106):480-3.
  16. Greenhalgh T. How to read a paper. Statistics for the non-statistician. II: "Significant" relations and their pitfalls. BMJ. 1997 Aug 16;315(7105):422-5.
  17. Greenhalgh T. How to read a paper. Statistics for the non-statistician. I: Different types of data need different statistical tests. BMJ. 1997 Aug 9;315(7104):364-6. doi: 10.1136/bmj.315.7104.364. Erratum in: BMJ 1997 Sep 13;315(7109):675. PMID: 9270463; PMCID: PMC2127256.
  18. Greenhalgh T. Assessing the methodological quality of published papers. BMJ. 1997 Aug 2;315(7103):305-8.
  19. Greenhalgh T. How to read a paper. Getting your bearings (deciding what the paper is about). BMJ. 1997 Jul 26;315(7102):243-6.
  20. Greenhalgh T. How to read a paper. The Medline database. BMJ. 1997 Jul 19;315(7101):180-3.
  21. Rowe M. How to Improve your Reading for Understanding Course. Plus, 2023.