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Effective reading

Please see the book and article review template for a suggested pro-forma to use when noting down information and ideas - you can also adapt and develop this to suit your own needs.

Using a good note-taking and reading strategy will help you get the maximum benefit from your reading. There are six different strategies for reading 'intelligently'. See the Mind Tools website for further information:

The six strategies

1.   Consider what you want to know 

Why are you reading the text in the first place? What is the purpose? To do this you will need to look at the chapter headings, introduction and/or abstract/summary.

2.   Knowing how deeply to study the material 

Where you only need the shallowest of information about the book / article then you can skim the material - here it is best only to read chapter headings and / or summaries. If you need a moderate level of information on the text then speed read the text, picking out the key words and concepts, the strand of the argument and paying attention to any diagrams and graphs. If you need detailed knowledge of a piece of literature on your topic then speed read the relevant sections first to gain an understanding of the structure before going back over the material in full detail.

3.   Active reading

When you are reading a document it is helpful to annotate, highlight or underline those sections which you feel are important or relevant - this will prevent you from having to re-read the whole document again in order to remember what you need.  This also helps you to review important points later on and keeps your mind focussed on the material.

4.   Know how to study different types of material 

Different types of material are structured in various ways - knowing how material is typically structured can be an advantage:

  • Newspapers: Very hierarchical - most important news is on the front few pages and back couple. Each article is written so that the importance of the information decreases with each paragraph/sentence so that if the editor wants to chop a couple of inches of column space the least important material is lost.
  • Dictionary/Thesaurus/Encyclopedia: Alphabetical, though electronic versions make this less important.
  • Fiction: Can be any way an author chooses - usually a particular book will tend to stick with the same format. Most are broken up into chapters but very few have chapter headings. eg chronological, reverse chronological, perspectives for different characters, different places, different emotions, etc. Usually we read fiction for pleasure so we read it in the order in which it is written.
  • Minutes: Ordered chronologically according to the agenda and the meeting, which may also be in decreasing order of importance.
  • Reports: Reports usually have executive summaries and indexes, contents and appendices.
  • Non-fiction: Most non-fiction books are highly ordered with contents pages, indexes and references. Many have different layouts for different types of information eg boxes for anecdotes or exercises. Most chapters are organised so that they have a preview in the first few pages and a summary at the end. A picture can speak a thousand words - pay attention to diagrams.

5.   Having a reading strategy

Knowing the information to get from the material before reading it helps to direct the reading focus appropriately. Write objectives for reading the material. Some examples are of reading objectives can be found in the speed reading section.

6.   Keeping an index

Creating an index of key words and concepts allows for organising notes into a system for easy retrieval. Filing notes away under key words and concepts helps to build understanding of the material and can aid in memorising information. An index can then help to retrieve notes for books/articles where those key concepts are discussed.