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Reading Strategies: Skimming vs Close Reading

October 12, 2022
By GradProSkills

Reading a book and taking notes

As a graduate student, you’ll find that there will always be an academic text that requires your attention. Readings in graduate school inclde those you need to do to prepare for your seminar discussions as well as those you must indulge in to support your own research for your thesis, conference presentations or publications.

There are multiple skills that help you to be productive in the grad school. They vary from writing engaging academic paper to give an engaging presentation. However, having good reading strategies always outstand in a graduate student's skill tool kit. 


Contrary to scanning, which requires you to search for key terms, dates or numbers, skimming is where you read a text to identify the general idea of what is being said. Anja Novkovic, a GradProSkills facilitator and graduate student completing a MSc in Geography, Urban and Environmental Studies, suggests that skimming is useful when you need to do a significant amount of readings in a seminar course, when you’re prepping your literature review, and when you’re running short on time.

Techniques for skimming humanities paper
  1. Look at the abstract – “Always read the abstracts first,” advises Anja, “it’s a summary of the entire article.”
  2. Look at the introduction – this provides the reasons and the purpose for the research.
  3. Look at headings & images – don’t ignore the visuals, they can help you understand various sections of the text.
  4. Look at the first and last sentence of each paragraph – the opening and closing sentences tell you the direction the paper is taking.
  5. Look at the conclusion – here you’ll find the author’s closing thoughts about the argument they proposed.
  6. Write down main ideas – don’t just read, but also write. Anja recommends that for every text you read, you create an annotated bibliography that summarizes the article, evaluates how useful it was in relation to your own work, and highlights any key terms or phrases. This annotation should only be about 2-4 sentences. 
Techniques for skimming science and engineering papers

When skimming a scientific or engineering paper you will want to follow the steps mentioned above, but also keep two more things in mind.

  1. Identify relevant discussion – what sort of discussion has been generated by the paper or the topic that it’s addressing?
  2. Note the date of publication – it is important to look at when the paper was published to assess how relevant the information is, and what tradition of thought it belongs to. 

Close Reading

Close reading, or thoroughly reading through a text, is the most effective way to understand a journal article, book, etc., but it also takes commitment and focus. Whenever you must present on a reading, are given a text to review from a supervisor or find a text that closely relates to your research, you should opt for the close reading (SQ3R) method. 

  1. Survey – scan images, headings, emphasized terms that are underlined, italicized or in bold. Read the abstract, introduction and conclusion and pay attention to the date of publication.
  2. Question – before you start reading, write down 1 question for each section of the text theorizing on what the author may be trying to say.
  3. Read – read each section closely and try to answer the questions that you wrote down. You may find that you need to re-evaluate your questions because you were off-topic.
  4. Recite – back away from the text and quiz yourself on what you just read by trying to answer the questions you wrote down.
  5. Review – review the notes that you made. Make sure that the answers to your questions contain supporting evidence from the text. Jot down the main points using an annotated bibliography. 

You’ll notice that both methods require that you take notes. Note-taking is important because it encourages you to translate arguments into your own words and gives you something to go back to. Instead of jotting down references and statements as you go along, try highlighting after you have finished reading a section or marking references, but waiting until you have finished the text to go back to them.

Reading for Seminars
If you’re tackling readings for a seminar course, a useful strategy to accompany whichever reading method you choose to employ is to prepare questions and comments before you attend your class, as well as make connections between other readings you’ve done in the course. This will help you engage in discussion.

Dealing with Dense Material
When faced with a reading that is dense, break it up. Don’t try to read it in one sitting and pause after each paragraph to clarify what you’ve read. You may also want to research summaries or critical reviews that discuss the text to see what other people have outlined as the main arguments.  

You can gain more worthwhile tips to help you handle your academic readings by attending our Effective Reading Strategies workshop!

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