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Critical Reading at University

Reading at University

Reading effectively is an important part of studying at university. Successful academic reading involves applying your reading skills and strategies and learning to be critical of what you read. Effective reading involves an active rather than passive approach. We read passively when browsing a magazine or reading a novel, i.e. we don’t necessarily ‘think’ all that much about what we are reading; we let the words guide the way. To read actively, however, is to comprehend and critique the text as you go, and this is a crucial element of reading for your assignments.  

Active Reading can involve a number of strategies. For example: 

Before you start reading, it is important to think clearly about what exactly you are going to read and consider the purpose of the reading activity. Bear in mind, the more you read, the more likely It is that you will come across conflicting arguments, so it is important you approach any reading task properly equipped with the tools to evaluate the source. Clear thinking includes a number of elements: 

  • The importance of context: Keep ideas in context 

  • Facts and values – what are facts  

  • Observations and theories

  • Critical thinking – Question everything you read (see reading for assignments

Part of being a successful academic reader is knowing you don’t need to read the whole book, chapter or article from beginning to end. Part of critical reading is making a judgement about whether to continue reading, read only relevant parts or disregard the source.  

Secondly, by pre-reading, you begin to activate your prior knowledge and prepare yourself for the acceptance of new information which you will then make judgements about. 

Before reading a book: 

  •  Look at contents page – does the book contain information relevant to your needs? 

  • Read the introduction – what is the author’s purpose? 

  • Glance at the chapters, particularly any ‘chapter summaries’ - what do the first and last paragraphs tell you about the chapter? 

  • Look at the Index (back of the book) Are there relevant words listed? How much coverage is given to your topic(s) of interest 

Before reading a chapter 

  • Skim through to look for headings and subheading 

  • Look at any illustrations/graphs 

  • Read the summary of the chapter if there is one 

  • Read introductory and concluding paragraphs 

Before reading a paragraph 

  • Typically, each paragraph will contain one main point. You can identify the point by the topic sentence which is usually either the first or last sentence of the paragraph. By reading the first and last sentences, you can get an idea as to whether the paragraph is relevant before you start taking notes  

Top Tip: It is likely you will come across unfamiliar vocabulary as you read. Be sure to use a dictionary to look up the meanings of unknown words, especially those which you think may be important. Being unclear about the meaning of certain words could change your interpretation of the text! 


  • Survey 

  • Question 

  • Read 

  • Recite  

  • Review 

  • Relate 


This strategy is made up of three main steps: 

  1. Preview 

  1. REad to understand 

  1. Process to learn 

Reading Effectively

Reading Effectively - 2 mins

The Skills Team discuss their top tips for effective reading!