13 Reading Skills

Reading Skills

Rebecca Hiebert

Learning Objectives

After reading this page, you will be able to:

  • use reading strategies to engage fully with a text;
  • use skimming to capture important concepts when reading;
  • use the SQ3R reading tool to survey, question, read, recite, and review a text.

Why Is This Important?

You will be required to read articles, textbooks, and web pages for your courses. Often the information will be presented using professional and academic language along with field-specific vocabulary that may be unfamiliar. It is important to use effective reading strategies to ensure you can fully understand the meaning of this information and apply it to your course activities.

The Importance of Reading Skills

Reading is an important aspect of all college courses. For everything that you read, you will generally need to re-read the passage more than once to ensure understanding, take notes, detect the emphasis the writer places on various aspects of the topic, and identify how the writer connects ideas within a text.

For most of what you read at the college level, you are trying to make sense of the text for a specific purpose, so you will need your full attention to decipher everything that’s going on in the complex reading material. You also need to consider what the writer of the piece may not be including and why. This is why reading for comprehension is important.

Reading is a circular process. At first you may read a selection from beginning to end but then you will need to go back and re-read passages to increase your comprehension, determine meaning, and make connections between the reading and the bigger learning environment that led you to the selection.


Consider a time when you read a text for the purpose of learning or studying. What strategies (if any) did you use? Did you face any challenges or barriers while reading that impacted your ability to understand the material?

As you continue to read this page, consider what strategies you could try to improve your reading skills in college.

Strategies for Being a Strong Reader

Strong readers engage in the following steps while reading. Often we need to circle back over many of these steps in order to gain a solid understanding of a text. The steps include:

  • bringing any prior knowledge about the topic to the reading session;
  • asking yourself pertinent questions, both orally and in writing, about the content you are reading;
  • inferring and/or implying information from what you read;
  • learning unfamiliar vocabulary;
  • evaluating what you are reading; and
  • applying what you’re reading to other learning and life situations you encounter.
A pie diagram shows the six major components of strong reading.
A pie diagram shows the six major components of strong reading. Image source: https://openstax.org/books/college-success/pages/5-2-effective-reading-strategies, Attribution: Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International +License.

Accessing Prior Knowledge

When you read, you naturally think of anything else you may know about the topic, but when you read deliberately and actively, you make yourself more aware of accessing this prior knowledge. Have you ever watched a documentary about this topic? Did you study some aspect of it in another class? Do you have a hobby that is somehow connected to this material? All of this thinking will help you make sense of what you are reading.

Asking Questions

Humans are naturally curious. As you read actively, you should be asking questions about the topic you are reading. Don’t just say the questions in your mind; write them down. You may ask: Why is this topic important? What is the relevance of this topic currently? Why did my instructor assign this reading?

You need a place where you can actually write down these questions; a separate page in your notes is a good place to begin. If you are taking notes on your computer, start a new document and write down the questions. Leave some room to answer the questions when you begin and again after you read.

Inferring and Implying

When you read, you can take the information on the page and infer, or come to conclusions about related challenges from evidence or from your own reasoning. A student will likely be able to infer what material the professor will include on an exam by taking good notes throughout the classes leading up to the test.

Writers may imply information without directly stating a fact for a variety of reasons. Sometimes a writer may not want to come out explicitly and state a bias, but may imply or hint at, for example, their preference for one political party or another. You have to read carefully to find implications because they are indirect, but watching for them will help you comprehend the whole meaning of a passage.

Learning Vocabulary

Vocabulary specific to certain disciplines helps practitioners in that field engage and communicate with each other. Few people beyond undertakers and archeologists likely use the term sarcophagus in everyday communications, but for those disciplines, it is a meaningful distinction. Looking at the example, you can use context clues to figure out the meaning of the term sarcophagus because it is something undertakers and/or archeologists would recognize. At the very least, you can guess that it has something to do with death. As a potential professional in the field you’re studying, you need to know the lingo. You may already have a system in place to learn discipline-specific vocabulary, so use what you know works for you. Two strong strategies are to look up words in a dictionary to ensure you have the exact meaning for your discipline and to keep a dedicated list of words you see often in your reading. You can list the words with a short definition so you have a quick reference guide to help you learn the vocabulary.


Critical thinkers always question and evaluate. This doesn’t mean they don’t trust others; they just need verification of facts to understand a topic well. It doesn’t make sense to learn incomplete or incorrect information about a subject just because you didn’t take the time to evaluate all the sources at your disposal. For example, when early explorers were afraid to sail the world for fear of falling off the edge, they weren’t foolish; they just didn’t have all the necessary data to evaluate the situation.

When you evaluate a text, you are seeking to understand the presented topic. Depending on how long the text is, you will repeat many of these steps to evaluate all the elements the author presents. When you evaluate a text, you need to do the following:

  • scan the title and all headings;
  • read through the entire passage fully;
  • question what main point the author is making;
  • decide who the audience is;
  • identify what evidence/support the author uses;
  • consider if the author presents a balanced perspective on the main point; and
  • recognize if the author introduced any biases in the text.

When you go through a text looking for each of these elements, you need to go beyond just answering the surface questions. Think critically about each element and make notes on your evaluation.


When you learn something new, it always connects to other knowledge you already have. Think about what you know about the topic and how what you just read can be added to what you already know. When we connect new information to information we are already familiar with we build a bridge within our mind and this helps us understand and retain the new information.


Person reading with headphones on.
A person reading with headphones on. Image Source: Pexels

Tools for Reading

There are different ways to read a passage. The first time we read it, we may skim it quickly looking for the overall idea so we can connect to our previous knowledge; the second time we read it we may go slowly, making meaning of each idea; and the third time we read it, we may skim the material again, this time looking for the key ideas that we need for our assignments and tests.


Effective skimming allows you to take in the major points of a passage without the need for a time-consuming reading session. When you skim, look for guides to help you understand the text: headings, definitions, quotes, tables, and context clues. Textbooks are often helpful for skimming — they may already have made some of these skimming guides in bold or a different colour, and chapters often follow a predictable outline. Some even provide an overview and summary for sections or chapters. You can also look for introductory words such as “First . . .” or “The purpose of this article . . .” or summary words such as “In conclusion . . .” or “Finally. . . .” These will help you read only those sentences or paragraphs that will give you the overall meaning or gist of a passage or book.

Next, move to the body of the passage. You want to take in the reading as a whole. For a book, look at the titles of each chapter. Read each chapter’s introductory paragraph and determine why the writer chose this particular order. Depending on what you’re reading, the chapters may be only informational, but often you’re looking for a specific argument. What position is the writer claiming? What support, counterarguments, and conclusions is the writer presenting?

Don’t think of skimming as a way to buzz through a boring reading assignment. It is a skill you should master so you can engage, at various levels, with all the reading you need to accomplish in college. End your skimming session with a few notes — terms to look up, questions you still have, and an overall summary. Recognize that you likely will return to that book or article for a more thorough reading if the material is useful.

The SQ3R Reading Strategy

The SQ3R reading strategy is a good tool to help you engage with the text in multiple ways. The name stands for survey, question, read, recite, and review. You can use these steps on virtually any assigned passage. Designed by Francis Pleasant Robinson in his 1961 book, Effective Study, the SQ3R reading strategy gives readers a systematic way to work through any reading material.

Survey is similar to skimming. You look for clues to meaning by reading the titles, headings, introductions, summary, captions for graphics, and keywords. You can survey almost anything connected to the reading selection, including the copyright information, the date of the journal article, or the names and qualifications of the author(s). In this step, you decide what the general meaning is for the reading selection.

Question is your creation of questions to seek the main ideas, support, examples, and conclusions about the reading selection. Ask yourself these questions separately. Try to create valid questions about what you are about to read that have come into your mind as you engaged in the survey step. Try turning the headings of the sections in the chapter into questions. Next, how does what you’re reading relate to you, your school, your community, and the world?

Read is when you actually read the passage. Try to find the answers to questions you developed in the previous step. Divide how much you are reading into chunks, either by paragraph for more complex readings, or by section or even by an entire chapter. When you finish reading the selection, stop to make notes. Answer the questions by writing notes in the margins.

You may also underline or highlight the text in addition to your notes. Use caution here so that you don’t try to rush this step by haphazardly circling terms or the other extreme of underlining huge chunks of text. Don’t over-mark. You aren’t likely to remember what these marks signify. The text is the source of information — your marks and notes are just a way to organize and make sense of that information.

Recite means to speak out loud. By reciting, you are engaging other senses to remember the material — you read it (visual) and you said it (auditory). Stop reading momentarily in this step to answer your questions or clarify confusing sentences or paragraphs. You can recite a summary of what the text means to you. If you are not in a place where you can verbalize, such as a library or classroom, you can accomplish this step adequately by saying it in your head; however, it will be most effective if you can speak aloud. You may also want to try explaining the content to a friend.

Review is a recap. Go back over what you read and add more notes, ensuring you have captured the main points of the passage, identified the supporting evidence and examples, and understood the overall meaning. You may need to repeat some or all of the SQ3R steps during your review depending on the length and complexity of the material. Before you end your active reading session, write a short (no more than one page) summary of the text you read.

Key Takeaways

Use reading strategies to effectively interact with a text. Read and re-read the material using skimming and SQ3R reading techniques in order to explore, question, think critically, and thoroughly understand the material.

Attribution Statement: Adapted from College Success by Amy Baldwin, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Share This Book