ECONOMIC & SOCIAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Productive reading
Why spend time and effort reading a particular text?
Distinguishing between support and ‘front-line’ literature
How can you identify fit-for-purpose support texts to read in full or selectively?
Advance check: suitable support literature for your identified reading purpose
How can you identify fit-for-purpose front-line texts to read in summary or in depth?
Advance check: suitable front-line literature for your identified reading purpose
Scrutinising the efficiency of your academic reading habits
How efficient are you as a reader in your academic studies?
Reading strategies: scanning, skimming and intensive reading
Taking risks with your reading time and effort
Making the most of your reading time and effort: towards an effective compromise
Scanning a short text for specific information
Skimming long texts
Writing effectively
Arguing convincingly
Mapping your field
Literature reviewing
Reviewing the literature systematically
Developing proposals
Taking risks with your reading time and effort 


There can be no risk-free reading strategy for academic studies. If you read everything intensively you risk not having enough time to cover enough relevant texts. If you take a shortcut and cover more texts by skimming everything instead, you risk missing important details for your reading purpose that are embedded in the central texts. If you go for the shortest of shortcuts and merely scan for specific information about keywords and phrases that appeared in the specification of your reading task you can cover a lot of texts. But you risk missing all the important details and gaining only a piecemeal grasp of unlinked bits of information with no overview of the topic.

You will have to compromise between depth and breadth of understanding: learning more about some texts than others, depending on their relevance to your reading purpose. Efficient reading means being flexible in your use of the different reading strategies, ensuring that the ones you employ for each text are fit-for-reading purpose. You can work out the likely relevance of any text through scanning and skimming – the two strategies that rapidly give you breadth of superficial understanding – before you invest time in reading it intensively for understanding in depth. This way you can reduce the risk of missing what matters, and give yourself the best possible chance of learning what you need to learn (without also wasting time learning what you don’t need to know about).

Each main strategy for reading has both advantages and disadvantages that relate to different reading purposes in academic study. Below are listed some advantages and disadvantages of each of the three main strategies for reading a text that we have identified. Were you already aware of every advantage or disadvantage?

Reading strategy

Indicative advantages

Indicative disadvantages

 

 

 

scanning

  • enables you to identify where specific information is located in the text that you already know you might need
  • looking for keywords and phrases can alert you to relevant information that had not thought of seeking
  • a speedy way of identifying where you may need to skim parts of a new text for more detail, or eventually read the whole text intensively
  • misses any information that might be relevant but which you failed to look for because you didn’t know you might need it
  • does not give you an overview of the content of the text
  • you cannot see how the authors developed their argument so you cannot evaluate it
  • can give a false impression of what the text is about because of the search for information is so selective

skimming

  • a quick way of gaining an overview of the content of a text
  • enables you to follow the main steps in the development of the authors’ argument and so be in a position to evaluate it superficially
  • a speedy way of establishing how relevant a text is and so whether you need to read it intensively
  • misses any detailed information that might be relevant but you failed to notice it
  • does not enable you to be sure you have understood all the steps in the development of the authors’ argument needed for in-depth evaluation of the text
  • takes a significant amount of time, so cannot be used for all texts whose titles or keywords suggest they might prove to be relevant
  • can give you only a superficial understanding because you have not examined in detail the support for authors’ claims in their argument

intensive reading

  • the only way to gain in-depth understanding of a whole text
  • enables you to follow all the steps in the development of the authors’ argument and so be in a strong position to evaluate it in depth
  • the only way to ensure that you have not missed something important
  • requires concentration and takes a long time to read all the detail of even a single text
  • cannot be done with all the texts that might be relevant because it is too time consuming
  • can result in reading much more detail than is necessary
  • easy to get lost in the detail and fail to synthesise the main relevant points

It is clear that there is no best reading strategy for all academic reading purposes, and that over-reliance on any one strategy can inhibit you from fully achieving your reading purpose at any time.

Bear in mind the advantages and disadvantages of each reading strategy to help you decide when to use a particular strategy and when to switch from one to another.