Learn New Strategies for Reading

Isabel just bought her books for the semester. She can’t believe how many books there are. You can tell by her face that Isobel is dismayed.

Once she gets her heavy stack of books back to her room, she will flip through the pages and begin to realize that, in addition to needing to read much more than she’d expected, the material looks difficult.

By this time, Isabel is frowning. “Even if I can read all these books, How could I possibly remember so much?”

Isabel realizes her high school reading skills may not be adequate.

This is what the Breakthrough Learning Website is about.

WARNING  The methods on this website are NOT designed for students with poor reading skills. There is no possible way for you to become a good reader by reading a few pages on a website.

1. You need new reading strategies so you can READ FASTER.

2. You need new reading strategies so you can UNDERSTAND MORE of what you read.

3. You need new skills in Memory methods so you can  REMEMBER IT LONGER


What kind of material are you reading?

Reading material could be divided into many more categories, but these will give you an idea.


  • Easy Fiction – reading for pleasure
  • Harder Fiction – maybe for class
  • Reading Poetry
  • Reading Plays


  • Easy introductory material – material you are familiar with
  • Typical Textbooks
  • Difficult Textbooks on Unfamiliar Subjects
  • Science Books (usually more complex information)

Articles and other books whose Purpose is:

  • To entertain: including humor, adventure, human interest, etc.
  • To Inform, educate, or explain
  • To present an opinion, attempt to persuade

What is your Purpose for Reading this material?

  • to be entertained, reading for enjoyment
  • to find a piece of information, to find an answer to a question
  • to understand an idea or concept
  • to get an overview of the topic
  • to understand how the material is organized
  • to prepare for a test
  • to learn the material in depth

Different Reading Strategies for Different Materials and Purposes

1. If you are looking for a fact or an answer to your question, the best strategy is to look in the INDEX. If it’s not there and you’re sure it’s in this book, try the table of contents and SCAN the relevant chapters.  Scanning is looking quickly through reading material for the information you want or need.

2. If you want to get a general idea of what’s in a book, perhaps to decide if you want to read it more carefully, you can SKIM some or all of the book, looking for chapter introductions and conclusions, for words in bold print, for titles and heading, and looking at diagrams and other illustrations.

3. As you SKIM the material, you might create an outline or a Concept Map to show the main ideas. By doing this, you might remember more than you used to remember after reading the entire book in a passive, mindless way.

4. When Reading for Understanding, you might start  by LISTING QUESTIONS  for which you would like to find answers. As you read,  Write Answers clearly.

5. When Reading to Prepare for a Test, LOOK AT YOUR CLASS NOTES to decide what kind of information your professor considers most important. Find this kind of information in the textbook . As you read, TAKE  DETAILED NOTES. Then study these notes thoroughly. For an essay test, write several possible essay questions based on this material and write practice essays.

6. When a book was written in or about another time, when it is set in an unfamiliar location or culture, you might start by CONSIDERING THE CONTEXT. Learn something about the author. Understand where and when this information comes from.  COMPARE what you read with your own time and situation. Compare Now and Then, Here and There, My culture and Their culture. You might find it helpful to create Compare and Contrast Charts.  Ask how this book changes the way you look at your own situation.

7. When a book is written to persuade you to adopt new values or beliefs, KEEP AN OPEN MIND. Look for reasons for and against your current values and beliefs, for and against the new ideas. An intelligent person is always willing to listen to and CONSIDER ALL POINTS OF VIEW. You might also read other books on the topic, talk to people with different opinions on the topic, and consider them seriously before changing your own values or beliefs.

8. A method often taught to college students is HIGHLIGHTING MAIN IDEAS, or a similar method of making notes in the margin, indicating main ideas, important facts, and explanations you don’t understand. I spent years using this strategy and finally decided it didn’t work for me or most other students.

The problem is that many students highlight information that MIGHT be important. They don’t really know because they weren’t reading for understanding, they were skimming for things that might be important. They finish reading with very little idea of what they had “read.” They end up having to read it again and generally don’t find their highlighted areas very helpful.

9. If used correctly, Highlighting  could be an effective strategy. The student might read a short section, such as the material under one subheading, think about it carefully, and then highlight the main idea and, perhaps in a different color, the most important facts, ideas, vocabulary, etc.  The problem is, the student will  need to go back through the chapter to review the material.

I would suggest instead, reading short section, thinking about it carefully, and then TAKING READING NOTES on the main idea, important facts, ideas, vocabulary etc. Writing the information helps move the information into your memory. The reading notes are also easy to use for regular review plus preparation for a test.

10. Another possibility is to use a CONCEPT  MAP or OUTLINE to show the structures and important information. I would suggest that Concept Maps are preferable for showing the organization (main ideas) and that Outlines are preferable for showing a lot of important detail. A combination of the two works best.

11. If reading Fiction that is assigned in class, you should take begin by writing the Title,  Author. and genre. Then, under different sections on your paper take notes on

  •  the SETTING include place, time in history, time of day, weather, time of year, and descriptions, leading to a paragraph summarizing the setting. Notice ways the setting contributes to the plot, themes or tone of the book.
  •  the CHARACTERS including the Protagonist, Antagonist (if present), and other important characters. Describe their personality, ways of speaking, their goals and motives, the part they play in the story.
  •  the PLOT tracing it from the beginning, through one or more climax events to the ending.
  •  You might also look for Themes, Points of View, the Narrator, Tone, Foreshadowing, etc.

12. Another method that you might sometimes find  helpful is the Charting Method.  I generally don’t find it helpful in textbooks where the material is already organized with subheadings for each main idea. It can be extremely helpful in reading other books or articles. I recommend that you take a look at this method and spend some time studying the example I used. The example is a book called “How to Read a Book.”

This is a book I began to read… and then stopped.  I wasn’t getting the main ideas.  I went back to the Table of Contents and used the Charting Method. I needed to flip through several parts of the book to find answers to some of my questions. But, with one to two hours of charting, I understood the book far better than I would have, reading the book cover to cover. With the chart, I was able to read and understand the material. I could see how each section fit into the overall pattern. You can also use this method to chart articles or chapters.

This method is especially helpful for supplementary books where you want to understand the main ideas but don’t need a lot of detail. Charting a whole book works best when the Table of Contents clearly defines the content of each chapter. You might decide to read a few of the most important sections.

13.  Another helpful strategy is  Integrative Reading.  Edwin Locke divides reading into four levels and suggests that effective reading involves using several “integrations.” This means organizing the material in different ways. His “integrations” are similar to methods of mental processing, especially the verbal and visual strategies on this website. You might outline the chapter first, then create a concept map for one section, a timeline for a historical overview, a flow chart to describe a process, a metaphor to help you understand another part… and so on. I include a summary of Locke’s ideas in    Integrative Reading

14. A very helpful method often taught in High School is SQ3R. It stands for Survey (skim), Question, Read, Recite and Review. When you are reading important material, material you really need to understand and learn in detail, this is the best method on this list.  I will describe it in detail on the next page.

I will then describe SQ3R PLUS, a strategy I developed by combining the  steps in  SQ3R with study methods. It incorporates  several of the strategies  on this list. This isn’t a strategy you will want to use on everything you read. But, if you have difficult material and want to learn it well, you will find this helpful.

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