Academic reading for maximum effectiveness

Strategies for optimal concentration

  • Schedule many short stretches of reading, rather than one long reading session.
  • Read during your peak energy times during the day.
  • Find a productive environment where you will fell awake and focused.
  • Turn off your phone, laptop, and tablet, or close unnecessary websites.
  • Take a physically active break for 10 minutes every hour.
  • If you read the same page several times without knowing what’s there, it is time to take a break and/or switch tasks.
  • Strive for comprehension and retention rather than speed.

SQ4R:  A Method for Effective Reading

SQ4R: A Method for Effective Reading

Survey – Question – Read – Recite – Record – Review



To give you the “big picture” of the chapter so that details you read later are more  understandable and memorable.

  • Before reading the chapter, look at titles, subtitles, pictures, charts, graphs, first sentences of sections, words in bold, CAPITALS or italics, and any introduction, chapter summary or study questions.
  • Think about what you already know about the subject as you survey.


To help your mind engage and focus, and to provide you with practice test questions.

  • As you survey, formulate and record questions from what you are reading.
    • E.g.: If a heading says “The Circulatory System”, ask:
      • What are the parts of the circulatory system?
      • How does the circulatory system work?


To master the course material.

  • Read one section at a time - one of two paragraphs.
  • Read actively, trying to answer your questions and any study questions.
    • You may need to formulate new questions as you read.
  • Create mental pictures of the information to increase memory.
  • Stay alert by trying to predict what the author is going to say.
  • Come up with your own examples to illustrate the concepts.


To improve memory by hearing the material as well as seeing it. To test your recall of the material. To condense and summarize what you need to know.

  • After each section you read, look away from the book and:
    • Paraphrase the material aloud in your own words;
    • Answer your questions aloud.
  • If you are unable to recite from memory, go back and reread.
  • After reciting, check the book for corrections or forgotten points.


To improve memory by incorporating the motor activity of writing. To consolidate the material for easier and less time consuming exam study.-

  • Only after reading a section and reciting, take notes and/or highlight.
    • This helps to keep notes and highlighting to the essentials.
    • Only 10-15% of a page should be highlighted.
  • Notes/ highlighting should cover:
    • The answers to your questions;
    • Major points with supporting evidence and/or examples;
    • Relationships between main ideas; and/or
    • Lists of keywords and definitions.
  • Notes should be taken in your own words to boost memory.
  • Consider writing questions or keywords in margins of the textbook.
  • Consider taking notes from readings on one side of a page and taking your lecture notes on the other side of the page of reading notes on the same subject - this will help for review.
  • Do not duplicate material in your lecture and reading notes.
  • Use the inside front & back textbook covers for a running glossary of definitions, formulae, etc. if the textbook does not have one.


To practice and enhance retrieval from long-term memory after time has passed.

  • Review your notes early and often:
    • Within 24 hours; and
    • Weekly before reading subsequent chapters.
  • As the volume of material to review increases, the time it takes to review older material decreases to a few minutes.
  • With regular exposure to the material, you won’t need to “cram” or relearn material for your exams.
  • Use your list of questions or keywords as cues to hep you recall information and recite it out loud, from memory.
  • Think about how each section relates to other parts of the course.
  • Form study groups to explain the material to others.

Strategies for reading difficult materials

  • Read aloud to process the information through hearing as well as visually.
  • Jump ahead to any summary or conclusion at the end of the chapter to see if it clarifies things.
  • Reread if necessary.
  • Mentally cross out all adjectives and adverbs from a sentence you don’t understand and read the sentence without them.
  • Try to map out concepts.  See Concept Mapping (University of Guelph).
  • Make use of the textbook’s glossary or a specialized dictionary (e.g.: Oxford Dictionary of Biology) to look up unfamiliar words as you read.  Search your subject at Browse Research Guides:  Subject Research to find definitions or background information.
  • Read with a classmate and take turns explaining material to each other.
  • Find a video, website, or alternative textbook on the subject.
  • Find an encyclopaedia article, children’s book, or introductory textbook chapter on the subject to fill in any gaps in your background to the subject.
  • Take a long break to process the material on a subconscious level.
  • Attend lecture, then reread with lecture notes in hand.


For additional information see Student Learning Commons: Reading.

This handout was based in part on websites from Athabasca University, The Learning Commons at University of Guelph, University of Waterloo, Virginia Tech’s Cook Counselling Center, The George Washington University’s Academic Success Center, and Cuesta College.

Additional References Include:

Downing, S. (2008). On course (5th ed.). Boston:  Houghton Mifflin.

Ellis, D. (2006) Becoming a master student (4th Canadian ed.). Boston:  Houghton Mifflin.