Reading skills

To be a really effective reader you need to be able to vary your style depending on your material and it is likely that you already do this instinctively to some extent. Ask yourself how you would read: 

  • a blockbuster novel
  • a newspaper
  • a poem
  • an instruction manual

When reading for pleasure you may read quickly, with few breaks and without worrying about having to recall details later. On the other hand, when consulting an instruction manual you may read only  one or two paragraphs, but you read them very carefully, making sure you understand all the details. When reading complex material, since your objective is to understand it as well as possible, you will need to adapt your reading style to this purpose.

To become a flexible reader, you need to know how to select and use a reading style that is consistent with your purpose for reading. There are three important reading styles you should learn to use and each one has its own purpose – speed reading, skim reading and scanning. Knowing when and how to use these three reading styles will make you a flexible reader. 

Reading materials when studying

When studying there will be many different types of material that you will need to assimilate, which could include: 

  • course materials
  • books
  • images
  • audio ‘files’ / clips
  • virtual learning materials
  • DVD / videos
  • journals
  • online resources
  • your own notes

The above sources of study material are usually found in 5 main themes; core, texts, suggested reading, course materials and finally other sources which may include your additional research and assignment bibliographies / references.

Speed reading

If you find it difficult to concentrate and your mind wanders when you’re studying, you could consider reading faster! If you read too slowly your thoughts can wander off on a tangent. You can easily train yourself to read more quickly, although it takes practice. To improve your reading speed you should practice: 

  • not reading every word
  • not reading ‘aloud’ in your head
  • reading in ‘fixation’ blocks

The speed reading method:

  • relax
  • focus
  • use a ruler or index card to guide your eyes down the page of text, line by line, or, just run the end of a pen under each line
  • move the pen, ruler or card smoothly across/down the page, and force your eyes to keep up
  • ensure you don’t fixate on each and every word

 You will be surprised how much you take in using this approach! 

Skim Reading

A skimming style is most useful when you have to read a large amount of material in a short amount of time. When using the skimming style, you should identify the main ideas in each paragraph and ignore the supportive details. Because you are looking only for the main idea in each paragraph you read, a lower level of comprehension is to be expected than if you were using a more in-depth strategy. The aim of skim reading is to get the general idea, gist or overview of a texts content. The aim of this method is not to have a detailed understanding of the text. This approach is highlighted by the famous Woody Allen quote… “I read War and Peace…it’s about Russia!”  

The Skimming method

  • get an overview of the text through the contents page
  • read the first and least sentence of each chapter, section or paragraph to see where the text is going and what it’s covering.


Scanning is what you do when you read very quickly for a specific piece information within a larger amount of material. Since you know exactly what you are looking for, move your eyes quickly over the reading material until you locate the specific piece of information you need to find. An example would be when looking up a number in a phone book. You can use headings and titles and formatting clues – for example bold or indented text to help you hone in on what you’re looking for.

So in summary before you begin your next reading assignment, identify your purpose for reading. Decide if you are reading for a high level of comprehension, trying to get a general idea about what you are reading, or looking for specific information. Then use the reading style that is most appropriate for your reading purpose. Remember, if you are an auditory leaner you may wish to read out aloud or record your notes.