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Reading and making notes

Expert guidance from Study Advice at the University of Reading

Reading is one of the essential activities of studying - it's not called reading for a degree for nothing! However it can be daunting when you're faced with an extensive reading list. How do you know which ones to read? Or which bits of the text to read? What can you do to make reading complex texts more manageable? And how can you avoid it taking all of your time?

This guide will suggest ways for you to improve your reading skills and to read in a more focused and selective manner.

Setting reading goals

Before starting to read you need to consider why you are reading and what you are trying to learn. You will need to vary the way you read accordingly.

  • If you are reading for general interest and to acquire background information for lectures you will need to read the topic widely but with not much depth.
  • If you are reading for an essay you will need to focus the reading around the essay question and may need to study a small area of the subject in great depth. Jot down the essay question, make a note of any questions you have about it, and don't get side-tracked and waste time on non-relevant issues.

Below is an excellent short video tutorial on reading and notemaking developed by the Learning Development team at the University of Leicester.

Choosing the right texts

It is unlikely that you will be able - or be expected - to read all the books and articles on your reading list. You will be limited by time and by the availability of the material.

To decide whether a book is relevant and useful:

  • Look at the author's name, the title and the date of publication. Is it essential reading? Is it out of date?
  • Read the publisher's blurb on the cover or look through the editor's introduction to see whether it is relevant.
  • Look at the contents page. Does it cover what you want? Is it at the right level? Are there too few pages on the topic - or too many?
  • Look through the introduction to get an idea of the author's approach.
  • Look up an item in the index (preferably something you know a bit about) and read through one or two paragraphs to see how the author deals with the material.
  • Look though the bibliography to see the range of the author's sources.
  • Are the examples, illustrations, diagrams etc. easy to follow and helpful for your purpose?

To select useful articles from journals or research papers:

  • Read the summary or abstract. Is it relevant?
  • Look at the Conclusions and skim-read the Discussion, looking at headings. Is it worth reading carefully because it is relevant or interesting?
  • Look through the Introduction. Does it summarise the field in a helpful way? Does it provide a useful literature review?
  • Unless you have loads of time, only read the whole article if one or more of the following is satisfied:
    • It is a seminal piece of work – essential reading.
    • It is highly relevant to your essay, etc.
    • It is likely that you can get ideas from it.
    • There is nothing else available and you are going to have to make the most of this.
    • It is so interesting that you can't put it down!

If there is no reading list...

  • Use the library website and look up Subject help.
  • Find a general textbook on the subject.
  • Use encyclopaedias and subject based dictionaries.
  • Do a web search BUT stay focused on your topic AND think about the reliability of the web sites. (For help with this, see the Library's guide to Evaluating websites.)
  • Browse the relevant shelves in the library and look for related topics.
  • Ask your tutor for a suggestion for where to start.
  • The Library also have advice on how to  and a series of brief videos showing you how to find and access Library resources.
  • To help you decide whether a source is appropriate for academic research, try this short training resource from the University of Manchester - Know your sources 

How many sources should you read?

It is impossible to give a figure for the number of sources you should read when researching an assignment. It is more important to think about the quality of the sources and how well you use and interpret them, than the number you read.

It is not a good idea to rely on 1 or 2 sources very heavily as this shows a lack of wider reading, and can mean you just get a limited view without thinking of an argument of your own.

Nor is it useful (or possible) to read everything on the reading list and try to fit it all into your assignment. This usually leads to losing your own thoughts under a mass of reading.

The best way is to be strategic about your reading and identify what you need to find out and what the best sources to use to find this information.

It can be better to read less and try to think about, and understand, the issues more clearly - take time to make sure you really get the ideas rather than reading more and more which can increase your confusion.

Going beyond the reading list

  • Use the Library catalogue to find other books on that topic. Either click on the subject headings in the full record of the books you wanted; or make a note of their Call Numbers and check on the shelves for similar titles.
  • Look for relevant journal articles using the Summon search box on the Library homepage or using key resources listed on the guide for your subject.
  • Use online resources BUT always evaluate them to see if they are appropriate for academic purposes. (For help with this, see the Library's guide to Evaluating websites.)  
  • Ask around to see if any of your fellow students has the books you need. You may be able to borrow them briefly to photocopy any material you need. But be careful to return it promptly - and if you lend a Library book taken out with your ticket to someone else, make sure they take it back on time, or your account will be blocked!
  • Don't forget to ask your friendly Academic Liaison Librarian for advice - they are happy to help you find relevant, academic sources for your assignments.

Active reading

Keep focused on your reading goals. One way to do this is to ask questions as you read and try to read actively and creatively. It is a good idea to think of your own subject related questions but the following may be generally useful

Collecting information

  • What do I want to know about?
  • What is the main idea behind the writing?
  • What conclusions can be drawn from the evidence?
  • In research, what are the major findings?

Questioning the writing

  • What are the limitations or flaws in the evidence?
  • Can the theory be disproved or is it too general?
  • What examples would prove the opposite theory?
  • What would you expect to come next?
  • What would you like to ask the author?

Forming your own opinion

  • How does this fit in with my own theory/beliefs?
  • How does it fit with the opposite theory/beliefs?
  • Is my own theory/beliefs still valid?
  • Am I surprised?
  • Do I agree?

Reading techniques

Your reading speed is generally limited by your thinking speed. If ideas or information requires lots of understanding then it is necessary to read slowly. Choosing a reading technique must depend upon why you are reading:

  • To enjoy the language or the narrative.
  • As a source of information and/or ideas.
  • To discover the scope of a subject - before a lecture, seminar or research project.
  • To compare theories or approaches by different authors or researchers.
  • For a particular piece of work e.g. essay, dissertation.

It is important to keep your aims in mind. Most reading will require a mixture of techniques e.g. scanning to find the critical passages followed by reflective reading.


Good for searching for particular information or to see if a passage is relevant:

  • Look up a word or subject in the index or look for the chapter most likely to contain the required information.
  • Use a pencil and run it down the page to keep your eyes focusing on the search for key words

Skim reading

Good to quickly gain an overview, familiarise yourself with a chapter or an article or to understand the structure for later note-taking

  • Don't read every word.
  • Do read summaries, heading and subheadings.
  • Look at tables, diagrams, illustrations, etc.
  • Read first sentences of paragraphs to see what they are about.
  • If the material is useful or interesting, decide whether just some sections are relevant or whether you need to read it all.

Reflective or critical reading

Good for building your understanding and knowledge.

  • Think about the questions you want to answer.
  • Read actively in the search for answers.
  • Look for an indication of the chapter's structure or any other "map" provided by the author.
  • Follow through an argument by looking for its structure:
    • main point
    • subpoints
    • reasons, qualifications, evidence, examples...
  • Look for "signposts" –sentences or phrases to indicate the structure e.g. "There are three main reasons, First.. Secondly.. Thirdly.." or to emphasise the main ideas e.g. "Most importantly.." "To summarise.."
  • Connecting words may indicate separate steps in the argument e.g. "but", "on the other hand", "furthermore", "however"..
  • After you have read a chunk, make brief notes remembering to record the page number as well as the complete reference (Author, title, date, journal/publisher, etc)
  • At the end of the chapter or article put the book aside and go over your notes, to ensure that they adequately reflect the main points.
  • Ask yourself - how has this added to your knowledge?
  • Will it help you to make out an argument for your essay?
  • Do you agree with the arguments, research methods, evidence..?
  • Add any of your own ideas – indicating that they are YOUR ideas use [ ] or different colours.

Rapid reading

Good for scanning and skim-reading, but remember that it is usually more important to understand what you read than to read quickly. Reading at speed is unlikely to work for reflective, critical reading.

If you are concerned that you are really slow:

  • Check that you are not mouthing the words – it will slow you down
  • Do not stare at individual words – let your eyes run along a line stopping at every third word. Practise and then lengthen the run until you are stopping only four times per line, then three times, etc.
  • The more you read, the faster you will become as you grow more familiar with specialist vocabulary, academic language and reading about theories and ideas. So keep practising…

If you still have concerns about your reading speed, book an individual advice session with a Study Adviser.

Common abbreviations in academic texts

  • ibid : In the same work as the last footnote or reference (from ibidem meaning: in the same place)
  • op.cit: In the work already mentioned (from operato citato meaning in the work cited)
  • ff: and the following pages
  • pp: pages
  • cf: compare
  • passim: to be found throughout a particular book.

You may also find journal titles abbreviated. You will often find a list in your Course Handbook of the most often used in your discipline. Or ask the Academic Liaison Librarian for your subject.