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Reading Purposefully

1 April 2019

A common mistake readers make when tackling a new document or passage is to go straight to the first paragraph and start reading right away. When you do that, sometimes you have already read two or three paragraphs when you realize what the passage is about. At that point, however, you have already missed a lot of information. So, you end up having to start over from the first paragraph.

Worse yet, sometimes you finish the (begin bold) whole passage (end bold) when you realize you understood little or cannot remember much.

One of many ways to avoid this problem is simple and takes only a few minutes: Read purposefully from the start.

Having to start over several times
is a sign you are reading ineffectively!

The Problem

When presented with a passage, you know little or noting about the author, the type of passage, or its content. If you start reading it right away, it will likely take a few paragraphs, sometimes even a few pages, until you know enough about the passage to start (begin bold) "getting it" (end bold)

At that point, you may realize that

  • you need to start reading from the top again because now you can understand the content better; or
  • you did not really need to read it because you were looking for some different information.

So, how do you solve this problem?

The Solution: Read Purposefully

To read effectively, you should read purposefully from the start. The key to reading purposefully is knowing something about the material (begin bold) before (end bold) you start actually reading it. Browse for information! That is, skim the passage for a couple of minutes.

Effective readers naturally skim any reading materials before they start reading, and they do not even realize they do it. The read the title, identify the author, see what type of publication it is (that is, a blog, magazine, book chapter, etc.) and when it was published. They browse the passage for graphs, tables, illustrations, and so on.

Analyzing this information before you start reading takes only a couple of minutes, but you can glean a lot of value insight into the passage. Why is that important?

Focus Your Brain

Now that you have an idea what the passage is about, your brain will be ready to receive the information you are going to read. When you know what ideas to expect, you focus on those ideas. If there was information you did not understand when you skimmed, you will likely focus on it when you read. If there were questions you thought about, you will focus on answering them. If there were graphs about a certain point, you already know that information is probably important, so you will read it attentively.

Adapt Your Strategy

You do not read different types of materials the same way (Pacton). For example, if you read a novel, you focus on characters, themes, the plot, the meaning of symbols and allegories, and so on. ("Allegory.") If you read a text book chapter explaining the steps in a process, you take notes on each step, underline important explanations, and so on (Franco).

If you know something about the passage you are about to read, you adjust your strategy to suit the type of passage. If it is a novel, you will focus on the literary elements and the story; if it is a text book chapter, you will probably get out your highlighter and a piece of paper to take notes on.

Ready to Read

Simply by analyzing the passage before you read it, you have gained some insight into the material. Now, you are ready to read with more focus and with the correct strategy. Your reading will have a specific purpose whether it is to enjoy a story, to learn content, to understand instructions, or whatever the passage calls for.


"Allegory." Encyclopædia Britannica. Ed. Mansur G. Abdullah, Michael C. Anderson, Michael J. Anderson, Adam Augustyn, Marilyn L. Barton, et al. N.p., 19 Feb. 2013. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.

Franco, Marc. "The purpose of reading and writing." YouTube. N.p. 20 June 2016. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.

Pacton, Adam. "reading purposefully microlecture." YouTube. N.p., 18 Dec. 2012. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.

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