How to read with purpose: Why are you reading?

Last week, I explained how critical it is to learn how to read for academic purposes, and how it differs significantly from reading for pleasure. I promised we’d get into more detail in this post.

You’re probably thinking:

“But of course, I can read.”

“I read all the time.”

“You must think I’m stupid.”

Well, my reply is yes, yes and no. If you approach your University reading like you approach reading for pleasure, then you will come unstuck. Reading to gain understanding before a lecture or to gather material for an essay is completely unlike enjoying a novel or checking out your favourite blog. As Mr. Spock in Star Trek might say, “It’s reading Jim, but not as we know it”.


This is a major shift in mindset you must make when you begin to read for your degree at University. When you grasp this, you’ll be ahead of 90% of students.

The first step is establishing a system for gathering and accessing material that is directly relevant to your assignments, essays, and presentations.

My system begins by asking a series of questions. The initial question to ask yourself is WHY are you reading.


WHY are you reading?

You must identify why you are reading because the answer to this question will determine what you read, when, where and how you read it. Who you read with is entirely up to you!

Let's think again about that why. Why are you reading?

Well, there is a range of reasons why you might read at University. You may read to:

•        gain background information before a lecture,

•        consolidate your knowledge after a lecture,

•        broaden your knowledge of a particular topic,

•        gain detailed understanding of a specific topic or theory,

•        identify relevant research studies to strengthen an argument,

•        obtain general information for an essay,

•        find empirical evidence to support your claims in an essay,

•        acquire data for an assessed presentation,

•        comprehensively review the literature on a specific topic.

Can you see already how it’s much easier focus on the reading you need to complete when you have a very small, specific purpose?  Step one is to identify the outcome you require from your reading and really zoom in on it. Be really clear on why you are reading before you begin to read a single word.

Pro Tip #1: I find it helps to add my WHY to the top of the note paper or online document where I’m making my reading notes. It helps me keep my focus on the purpose of my reading at all times.

Let's take three different reasons why you might read at University and work through exactly how you would approach that particular type of reading.


1. Why are you reading? - to get background information for a lecture

We'll begin with reading for background information for a lecture. With this purpose in mind, you would read broadly on the subject of the lecture.

First, you would need to find the lecture slides or outline for that week's lecture. This information is usually published at least a few days in advance on your University's portal or intranet. Reviewing the lecture slides or lecture outline enables you to pick out the key topics that will be covered and read up on them. A good place to start your reading is the relevant chapters in the main textbook included on your reading list for that module.

The result from your reading? You can ask informed questions, clarify points that confuse you, and participate fully in discussions in the lecture.


2. Why are you reading? - to write an essay

A second example would be reading to prepare to write an essay. Here the purpose of your reading is to have a good understanding of the theory that you want to include in the essay and identify academic evidence (such as experiments or research) to support the points you plan to make.

The first step would be to create a draft outline of your essay argument and then select the theory or theories that you feel are the most appropriate fit. Your reading, in this case, would be far more targeted and focused on searching and selecting information to support your argument.

The result from your reading? You target relevant reading specifically focused on the narrow topic of your essay question. This allows you to develop a persuasive argument, without reading lots of interesting, but ultimately irrelevant material, which you later discard.


3. Why are you reading? - to identify data for a report or presentation

Finally, if you were producing a report, your reading would be focussed on finding reliable and factual data on the topic you are studying. Reading in this instance would be focussed on data from sources such as Annual Reports, company documents, and the internet to find facts and figures they could be included in the report or presentation. If you were required to include tables, graphs or statistics in your report or presentation, you might also need to read about analysis methods and ways of presenting data accurately and effectively.

The result from your reading? You focus on credible information in the public domain, as well as traditional academic sources such as books and journal articles. Your reading is tightly focussed on collating information and data that tells a compelling story to your audience.



You can see from these three examples that reading is not a 'one size fits all' pursuit.  Once you understand this, it's obvious that the three different purposes illustrated here require three different reading strategies:

1. For a lecture: broad and general on the lecture topic.

2. For an essay: narrow and targeted on the essay topic.

3. For a report or presentation: balanced with academic and other data

Clearly, understanding WHY you are reading significantly influences the way that you approach the task.

It should be apparent now why reading each book cover to cover or each article from abstract to bibliography would require you to read a lot of material that is not relevant. It would also use up a lot of time that could be better used on more targeted reading that will help you achieve the outcome you desire.

Try this approach with the next piece of reading that you need to do and let me know how you get on. Write at the top of the page WHY you are reading and take 10 minutes to think about how that influences what you need to read.

In the next blog post, I'll begin to explain WHAT you need to read. Answering the WHAT question is the second step of my system and it's a complete game-changer! I'm going to do a deep dive into the subject; I'll not just tell you what to do, but also exactly how to do it.

I want to share so much value with you that I'm breaking this step into two parts. In the first one, I'll show you how to choose the most credible and reliable sources that will gain you higher marks with your University tutor. Then in the second post, I'll show you step-by-step how to use materials that you already have to plan out WHAT you are going to read.

Sounds good? Make sure you join up so that you don't miss out when it's published. Until then, join my Facebook group 'Study Write Now' where you can ask me anything and gain support and motivation from other students.