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Effective reading


Reading for detail and SQ3R

This is what most of us probably think of as 'reading'.

Reading for detail means reading carefully, perhaps many times, to get a detailed understanding of the main ideas and supporting ideas in a text. Skimming and scanning can tell us a lot about a text before we read it and will help us to decide how to read it.

Reading for detail begins when we need a deeper understanding of a topic. If we want to know the details, then we have to put in some more time and effort.

Common problems when reading for detail:

  • It is normal to read for ten minutes or more without really absorbing any of the information.
  • It can be a very slow process.
  • It can be difficult to remember what you have read.
  • You might disagree with the author.

There is a useful mnemonic which reminds you how you can become a more effective and efficient reader, it is the SQ3R technique.

The acronym SQ3R stands for:

  • Survey
  • Question
  • Read
  • Recall
  • Review


When you first pick up a book, you should check whether or not you actually need to read it and if it is going to be useful to you. Look at:

  • the date of publication. It may be, depending on your subject, that some books are so out of date they can only provide historical information. Your bibliographies should always contain up-to-date material
  • any blurb on the back cover (although remember this might be more the publisher's view than a factual description of the book)
  • the contents
  • the index
  • the preface (or foreword or introduction), this will often give you an overview of the writer's intentions and assumptions
  • sub headings, tables and graphs by flicking through the book.


Before you begin to read a text in depth, try to have in mind questions which you want answered. This will give purpose to your reading. Obviously the questions will vary, but are likely to include: How does this fit in with what I already know about this subject? What do I want to know more about? Is this information useful to me?


Try to get into the habit of reading in different ways for different purposes. It may not be necessary to read a text in depth, certainly in the first instance. You should get used to skimming and scanning as well as in-depth reading. Skimming is where you let your eyes almost drift over the page, to see whether or not there is anything relevant. Scanning is where you are looking for something particular, an individual word, or a phrase. You are likely to use this after checking the index. Only when you are sure the text is relevant, should you even begin to think about reading it fully - and then, know when to stop. There is an interesting exercise to illustrate these differences in the following book:

Jones, B. & Johnson, R. (1990) Making the grade: Reading and learning. Manchester, Manchester University Press

When you are reading in depth, try to engage in active reading. Ask yourself, 'Does this make sense in relation to my experience of this issue or topic?' Try to work out the main idea of each paragraph - there should be a topic sentence in each paragraph which sums up the key idea. Don't try to make notes, highlight or underline passages as you go along. This forms part of the next stage.


It is well known that most people forget 50 per cent of a book within seconds of putting it down. You will therefore need to get into the habit of organising your recall strategies. One way of doing it is to try to remember the key words from each paragraph, and make a note of them. Make sure you understand what you have read and then highlight or underline. It is likely that you may spend a lot of time on recalling what you have read - it is unlikely that this time will be wasted. You are much more likely to waste time because you have forgotten what you have read, or you did not understand it in the first place and did not spend time then on working out its meaning.


The point of this stage is to find out how well you have managed to recall what you have read. Perhaps the best way of doing it is to go through the whole process again:

  • survey the general structure of the chapter or section
  • question your questions - did you answer them all?
  • re-read the text
  • recall by checking your notes, and any highlighting or underlining you have done - do remember though, that if you do highlight sections, those are the only parts of the text you are likely to read again!