Reading Efficiently by Reading Intelligently
We all need to be able to read well, whatever job we do. Whether we're looking at a project plan, web page, trade journal, press release, email, or any other type of text – being able to read it efficiently and effectively is a key professional skill.
Maybe you read something that should be useful, but fail to find anything relevant in it? Do you have to re-read documents several times to understand them? Or do you sometimes struggle to remember what you've read?
In this article and video, we look at a range of strategies for becoming a better reader. By carefully matching your approach to your material, and taking control of the reading process, you'll learn how to get the best results from the time and effort you put in – on both page and screen.
Click here to view a transcript of this video.
Reading in Print vs. Reading Online
A 2018 Pew Research Center survey shows that we increasingly read books in a range of formats and on a variety of devices – not just on paper. And chances are you subscribe to digital newspapers and magazines, or read web pages, email and social media every day.
However, the printed medium remains important, so our reading skills need to be flexible enough to cope with digital and physical formats.
Each has its pros and cons, and it's important to consider them when you're choosing something to read and when you're reading it.
Here are four key differences between reading printed and digital texts:
It can be harder to judge the quality of online information, especially if the publisher's or author's identity is unclear. Remember, digital texts may have been subject to less editing, checking and reviewing than those in print. Many of them, though, can actually be more accurate, since they're much easier to correct and keep up to date.
Printed texts may be accompanied by illustrations, photographs and diagrams, while digital texts can use many more "added extras," including audio and video elements, quizzes, and links to other texts. These additions can enrich the reading process, but can also become distracting, or increase cognitive load.
Most printed texts are designed to be read sequentially. With digital texts, you can navigate as you like, making it easier to find what you need. However, there's also more risk of missing something important, or of getting sidetracked by irrelevant material.
While printed texts can be underlined or highlighted, many digital ones are even easier to engage with. By copying and pasting, adding virtual bookmarks, notes, and even sharing comments online, you can handle the information better. But be selective with your annotations to prevent the author's original ideas getting lost.
When you're reading on a phone or another digital device, use technology to help enhance the experience.
On an iPhone, for example, the Safari web browser has a "Reader mode." This strips out menus, ads, and other "clutter," making it easier for you to focus on the text.
5 Ways to Read Faster and Read Smarter
Online or in print, the following five strategies can help you to read more effectively.
1. Know What You're Reading – and Why
Before you begin, ask yourself three questions:
- What is the purpose of the text? For example, is it to entertain, inform, explain, or persuade?
- How useful is it? Is it relevant, accurate, impartial, current – or not worth reading?
- What are you reading it for?
Your answers will help you to select what to read, and to choose the most effective reading strategies. In the long run, you'll make better use of your time, and understand, remember and apply more of what you read.
So, don't just dive straight in. Invest a few minutes in preparing to get the most from reading:
- Use the cover, title page, introduction, and any other general information, to get an overall sense of the content and approach.
- Dip into the text here and there, to tune in to the author's tone of voice.
- Notice any additional features that might help you to engage with the information.
- Read the Contents, look at how the information is organized, and start spotting the sections that will likely be most important for you.
These steps should ensure that you're reading something worthwhile, and are ready to tackle it in the most productive way. And you'll have a good idea about how "closely" you'll have to read the text.
2. Identify Key Information
If you've decided that you don't need to read something in detail, find the quickest ways to extract the basics. Use chapter headings, abstracts and summaries. Look for illustrations and graphics. And focus on "user-friendly" features like fact boxes, bullet points, and FAQs.
It helps to know where to look for the key information. So spotting particular structures in writing can help your reading be even more efficient.
For example, a news article usually summarizes a story in the first few lines, then adds layers of detail, which you may decide you can "skim read."
In an opinion article, the important information is likely contained in the introduction and the summary, with supporting arguments in between. When you've read the start and end, you can decide how much of the middle you need to explore.
A feature article tends to have its most important information in the main body of the text, so you may decide it's best to start there.
Our article on Speed Reading has further help and advice for when a fairly low level of detail is needed, and time is tight!
When you're reading digital texts, you can use the search tools in your browser or text editor to find key words or phrases.
There are also many apps to speed up your reading. Spreeder lets you set your preferred screen size, paste in text, and control the speed at which it's displayed. Spritzlet shows web pages one word at a time, claiming reading speeds of up to 1,000 words per minute are possible. BeeLine Reader uses graded colors to draw your eyes from line to line, to make reading feel easier and faster.
3. Increase Your Understanding
When you need more than just a basic understanding, keep using introductions and summaries, but explore them in more detail.
You can still "speed read" chapters, but spend enough time on the key words and concepts and make sure that you haven't overlooked any important points.
Pay attention to diagrams, charts and graphs, as they are often used to explain complex ideas within the text.
And make simple annotations, or highlight important words and phrases, to ensure that you're reading to the level of detail required.
Many online articles and electronic documents were not originally designed to be read on a screen. If you find something hard to use that way, consider printing it. A study into on-screen reading showed longer texts are easier to grasp in print than online.
4. Recall and Review the Text
When "deep reading" is required, maybe to teach, or to remember for an exam, SQ3R is a powerful technique.
Its step-by-step approach involves surveying the material, using key questions to guide you, then thoroughly reading, recalling and reviewing the text. It checks that you really understand what you're reading, and increases your chances of remembering it.
You'll also benefit from making more detailed notes as you read. Practice "active reading," by highlighting and underlining as you go, and by recording key information. Also, you can use Mind Maps to boost your understanding and powers of recall.
Try putting the ideas you read into your own words, too, by writing them up. Our article, Paraphrasing and Summarizing, explores several techniques to help you to make sense of and remember the texts you read.
And talking to others can also make reading even more productive. So share your questions, comments and follow-on ideas.
If you're reading large amounts of difficult, technical material, try using a glossary. Or, even better, compile one of your own! Keep this beside you as you read, and add to it as your knowledge of the terminology grows.
5. Control Your Reading Environment
To give yourself the best chance of reading effectively, always think about where and when to do it.
For example, in bed, shortly before going to sleep, reading for pleasure might be a good way to relax your mind. But it's likely not the best time or place for in-depth study!
So, schedule difficult reading tasks when your brain is at its best. Is This a Morning Task? will help you to work out when this is.
And ensure that your reading environment is comfortable but not too comfortable! Find somewhere quiet, free from distractions, and where the seating, temperature and lighting all help you to focus.
For more detailed information on how to select the most appropriate reading strategies in any given situation, take our Bite-Sized Training session Read Smarter.
Flexible reading skills are vital to cope with a wide range of material, in a variety of formats.
We need to adapt our reading behavior for printed and digital texts accordingly – including using technology to help.
Reading strategies should be based on the type of text you're using, and what you want from it.
- Know what you're reading - and why.
- Identify key information.
- Increase your understanding.
- Recall and review the text.
- Control your reading environment.
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