Male student taking notes from research sources

using texts effectively

What to look for in your reading and how to get the most out of your time studying

There are many reasons why you might be unsure what to read – especially if you're developing a written assignment.

This page offers some advice, useful techniques and a tool that should help to bring better focus about what to read.


Myths and realities about reading

Myth Reality
I need to read every word of every text. Only some texts need to be read in full, and in depth, for example, poems, or articles to be critiqued.
I’ll miss something important if I don’t read everything. It is better to read relevant sections of books, and to use skills such as skimming and scanning to find relevant parts of any resource.
A huge bibliography will impress the marker and improve my grades. Markers expect to see a list of resources relevant to the task given, and which includes a range of text types.
I don’t need to read that much as my own ideas are most important. All students within HE need to engage in academic reading in order to improve their knowledge, thinking and assignments.
It does not matter how old my references are. Unless you need to include a historical perspective, try to use up-to-date reading, for example, over the last 10 years.


Finding suitable texts for an assignment

  1. Before you do any work on an assignment you must understand what you are being asked to do, which means analysing the task set. Explore what different essay task words mean.
  2. It's also important to read and understand any instructions, and to refer to learning outcomes/criteria that link to the task. Having a sound understanding of the task, including any instructions, gives a solid foundation for selecting appropriate reading.
  3. Once you know what is being asked, draft a plan. Putting a plan on paper, or using planning software such as Inspiration, gets your initial ideas out in front of you. Always use your deconstructed title/task to develop your plan.
  4. Once you have a deconstructed title and some initial ideas, use these to help plan your reading. You can use a reading grid (below) to help you think about what to read and record the main points. 

Reading grids

To use a reading grid:

  • Think about what you need to find out in order to respond to the task. You might need to ask some questions, compare and contrast theories, or look at the pros and cons of something. You might see that the task requires a thematic approach.
  • Write down your questions/themes/items that need comparing.
  • Use what you have written down to help you search for reading material. What words or phrases could you use to help with effective online searching? (If you need help with this, go to a Library information desk or on our University website).
  • In order to avoid reading unhelpful texts it is a good idea to read the abstract of an article, or to look at the contents pages of a book, to see if any of the content is suitable.
  • Always make notes when reading for an assignment, making sure you write down the details you need for the bibliography. Use your questions/themes/other to guide your reading and note making.

Try using a reading grid to help you record the main points in a way that gives you an overview. Use one reading grid for one purpose — for example, for themes. 

Inappropriate reading for an assignment will never add to the quality of your response, and will often waste your time and effort.

Example reading grid

This example has been adapted from one developed by an undergraduate student. It was used to answer questions about zines (hand-made magazines), and helped to develop themes and structure for a dissertation.

Key points  

  • Put the title and author of each text plus text type in first column
  • Write your questions, themes or items to compare at the top of the other columns

Why are there still handmade zines? Ezines/blogs - a good substitute? Collecting ephemera: retro - cool - memory?
Value and validity of Art zines – journal Many [artists] continue to produce affordable zines despite their work being published or shown in galleries. Some zines appear in PDF format, but PDF art zines are a poor substitute. Theory of retro nostalgia: ‘a fondness or preference for obsolete technology...’. Zines are hard to get – limited edition.
Why zines matter – journal Writer finds their students start making own zines when taught about them. Zines need greater level of aesthetic decision-making than blogs. Some critics predict expansion of emedia will see death of zines, books, paper media. Zines deliberately reject many aspects of mainstream publishing. They take the form of ephemera, such as doodles.
Fanzines. Teal Tiggs, 2010 – book The zine form and how it is made shape the reader’s understanding of what is being communicated. Recent technological advances have changed how fanzines are viewed Fanzines or zines are still hidden, ‘flying beneath the radar of mainstream publishing’. They’re like collectables – hard to find, satisfying to acquire.


Download our effective reading revision sheet

Download this page as a PDF for your reading revision notes.

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