How to approach academic reading

Unlike reading for pleasure, you need to be proactive and evaluative in your approach to academic reading. Simply understanding what you read isn’t enough. This means you need to read critically, and actively engage with the text. Asking questions is a good way to activate your critical thinking skills.

The first question is to decide if a text is worthwhile reading in detail. Start with surveying the text to get an overview of its content. The purpose of this is to decide if it’s worthwhile reading it in more detail.

a) Ask yourself what you already know about the topic – note down any key words or phrases

b) Think about your purpose for reading, which will help give a focus to how you read

c) Skim the text; this means getting information from the abstract, the headings and subheadings

  • the abstract is a summary of the whole text, and as such, a useful place to start
  • headings and subheading
  • look at any data presented: these include tables, diagrams tables and charts; they often provide a summary of key ideas
  • read the first sentence of each paragraph; generally each paragraph has one main idea, often outlined in the first sentence
  • read the introduction and conclusion
  • Do NOT read every word!

Once you have surveyed the text in the way, you are in a stronger position to decide whether it is worth reading in detail. If your decision is affirmative, then you need to put on your critical reading hat. One way of doing this is by asking questions.

Your questions might include asking:

  • What is the main message?

  • How has the writer provided evidence for any key points made?

  • Has the writer made a logical connection between evidence and argument?

  • Are there any limitations to their work?

  • How does this text relate to other work or other research in the field?

  • What is the author’s background and expertise?

Give yourself time to process the information; reading academic text is not like reading for pleasure, and if the topic is unfamiliar to you, you may need to spend a considerable amount of time getting to a stage where you fully understand the concepts being discussed.

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British Council