Reading for Comprehension: Tips on reading for speed and utility

You cannot separate reading from writing; all good writing grows out of sharp reading comprehension. Often, professors assign more reading than seems possible. But, fear not! You do not need to read every article, chapter, or report with the same degree of focus. However, you do need to be able to identify when to skim and when to dive deeply into a text. We have identified three stages of reading comprehension. Each stage has specific tips that will help you develop a stronger understanding of the text at hand. That said, sometimes approaching essay writing feels like staring down the enemy across battle lines. Reading, outlining, and eventually drafting an essay is akin to coordinating battle plans as a general. Here, new generals, is your strategy for successful combat in the field of reading and writing.


Scout the Enemy:

When you are at the outset of the writing process with many potential sources, it can be helpful to sift through these texts with a keen eye. Speed-reading can also help you prepare for class discussions involving material you do not write about. For both of these tasks, we draw upon specific strategies that will allow you to gain a useful understanding of the main ideas of a text at an ambitious pace.

  • Save yourself some time by focusing on abstracts, introductions, and conclusions. Authors, especially of published work, are fairly disciplined about providing their main points in predictable places. By attacking these main bodies first, you can gain a strong understanding of what questions the author answers in his or her writing.
  • Next, we suggest looking for useful sign-posts and quotations. You can cut through a lot of fluff by looking for headers, quotations, and transitional phrases. A signpost is direct phrasing that alerts the reader what the author will talk about in the coming text.
  • Lastly, we borrow the common expression: SQR3. This useful strategy calls for you to ‘survey’, ‘question’, ‘read’, ‘recite’, and ‘review’ the text before you. While SQR3 cuts down reading time, it requires much more engaged reading than simply going line-by-line through a text.

Arm Yourself:

This more intermediate step of reading comprehension requires a little more time and effort on your part but rewards you with a deeper understanding of the text.

  • Looking up terms. There’s no specific rules about when you should use a dictionary or not. But if a term comes up a lot and you don’t know what it means, you should probably look it up!  The Swarthmore College writing blog warns, “An initial mistake about the meaning of a term can rapidly multiply into a gigantic misreading if you’re not careful.” Do not look up every word though. You will go crazy!
  • Mark up your text. Underline or highlight topic sentences, summary sentences, and sentences containing signposts. However, don’t mark everything or your markings will lose significance. Be tactful.
  • Note where you are confused. Use a different color or line type to mark what you don’t understand. After reading the rest of the text you may be able to answer your own questions.
  • Use the “Look Away” method. Periodically look away from the text and ask yourself what you’ve read. Your summary should be different than the text. Use your own words or use a visual technique like a drawing that can serve as a quick reminder when you look back at the text.


Go to War:

Sometimes you need a very thorough understanding of the text. Perhaps you are presenting the material you read, perhaps you are writing about it, or perhaps you are even using quotes or ideas from it in your own writing. When this is the case you need to take more time with the reading.

  • Outline. Most of us are familiar with basic outline. If the author of your text has been a clear and organized, this can be a helpful technique to grasp the nuances of the author’s argument.
  • Mind Map. Another great way to really solidify the material is to create a mind map. Mind maps are like an outline but much more visual. First, write down the most important word, short phrase, or symbol for the center or your mind map. Next, post other important concepts outside the circle. Then you can rearrange, color code and draw arrows among these different concepts to deepen your understanding about the author’s argument.
  • Identify counter arguments. For distinct understanding of the reading, challenge it! Identify holes in the author’s arguments and assert your own counterarguments. Criticizing the text may be the best fodder for your own writing.


Next time you sit down to read, ask yourself: what am I reading for? How deeply do I need to understand the text? How much time do I have to read? Make your battle plan accordingly putting to use the helpful tips we have provided above.

Good luck, writing generals.


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