How to Get the Most Out of Reading

Written by Margaret Procter, Writing Support

Students often think they need to read fast so they can get through all the material they’re asked to deal with. But there’s no point reading and not understanding or remembering what you’ve seen. A more important skill is to read with comprehension and memory. Here are some tips on reading different material in appropriate ways. They will help you read more effectively.


Textbooks sometimes repay intensive reading, though usually in some parts more than others. Note the signals from your professor or TA on just what sections are relevant to the course. Be aware of the structure of the text as you read: the chapter titles, headings and subheadings will name the main concepts to be covered.

Mark only key passages in the text. Use symbols to show different kinds of points. It’s worthwhile to make brief summarizing notes in your own words. That forces you to process the material in your own mind, and it provides a guide for later review.

Primary Sources

Read through each literary work or historical document, paying attention to your own responses and questions. “Stickies” will let you express these on the spot without spoiling the pages. Many people find it useful, immediately after a first reading, to write out a brief journal account of their experience.

A quick review of the work will then let you note how themes or techniques have developed through the work as a whole or how your questions were answered: use light annotations to show these patterns.

Research Readings

In going through sources for a research essay, you are looking for facts to support or modify your original view of the topic, and for others’ opinions to bolster and to challenge your own.

For books, scan the preface, table of contents and index to see the general outlook and argument. Then read sections on your own topic; if you see useful material, expand your reading to establish the context for any ideas that you might quote or paraphrase.

Journal articles usually outline their argument within the first page. Read the abstract first to see if the article will be of use to you. If you decide to proceed, look especially for the thesis statement and conclusion. Note how the specific data and analysis relate to these points. (For further guidance, see Taking Notes from Research Reading.)

Write down complete bibliographical information for each source consulted. Keep note cards on specific points so you can arrange them as needed. Use a subject heading on each card, paraphrase or quote the relevant ideas accurately, and leave space for your own comments.

If you plan to conduct part of your research on the Web, see the excellent file on Research Using the Internet from the Mississauga campus of U of T. It lists search engines, gives advice on taking notes efficiently, and also tells you how to evaluate whether a Web page will be an acceptable source for an academic essay.