Section II: How to Improve Historical Reading Skills

Academic Goals:                  1. To increase comprehension

2. To improve reading efficiency

3. To improve the ability to retain information

The ability to understand and remember what you read is essential for effective learning in any history course. Key to accomplishing the academic goals listed above is learning how to adjust your reading methods for the task at hand. For example, reading a section in your textbook should be approached quite differently from reading a chapter of a novel or a primary source, and reading a journal article should be approached in yet another way. A good reader learns to adapt his reading method to suit the type of text he is reading.

Textbook Assignments

Textbook assignments are generally organized not only in chapters, but also in sections with headings; each section, in turn, is often divided into subsections. In texts organized in this manner, the History Department offers students the following method of reading commonly known as the “SQ 3R Method.”


Begin any assignment by getting a general idea of what the material is about, forming in your own mind a kind of road map for the material to be covered. You can usually do this by simply reading the titles of chapters and sections. Many textbooks also include focus questions for you at the beginning of chapters. Take note of any maps, illustrations, timelines, and chronologies. By doing this BEFORE you begin to read, you will 1) know what the main focus of the reading will be, 2) have a better sense of which details are important to remember, and 3) take notes that are relevant to the larger historical questions in play. You will, in other words, increase the efficiency of your reading.


After you have completed your survey, use the focus questions (from the book or provided by your instructor) as your guide to identify the material important to remember. This is where knowing the ‘study questions’ posed by your instructor becomes crucial for proper completion of reading assignments. Many students find their reading more focused if they turn chapter and section headings into questions, using key question words such as “how” and “why.”  For example, the section ‘The Emergence of Civilization’ from the ‘Reading History’ section might become ‘What are the Characteristics of a Civilization?’ By focusing your reading efforts in this way, by remaining mindful of the larger historical questions, you will not only increase your reading efficiency, but also improve your comprehension of the material.


Active reading is crucial to success and demands a certain amount of hard work. Active reading means staying awake, alert, and engaged while moving through a text and asking questions. When you read actively work is involved and you should feel fatigue. There are two types of reading that you are generally asked to do in history courses: reading for information, where the aim is to acquire some knowledge of facts, and reading for enlightenment, where the aim is to understand ideas. When you read for information, you should identify key words (people, places, things, etc) that relate to your questions. Active reading entails underlining or circling key terms and phrases and writing notes (your own reactions, ideas, questions, and connections to other material) in the margin. Good readers carry on a dialogue with their books and will have a collection of written notes after the exercise – a valuable study guide for tests and exams. If you are serious about your own education, you will read actively. Asking someone else to explain the reading assignment or seeking simplistic answers in Spark Notes will not teach you how to read effectively. And neither can your expect to be enlightened by a book by simply gazing at it. Effective reading requires work and skill.


When you complete a section of reading, check your comprehension by trying to recite, in your own words, the answer to the question you’ve posed for that section. Answering the question aloud can be surprisingly helpful in fixing the material in your memory. If you cannot answer the question, reread the section more carefully. You may catch important details you missed the first time through. By reciting, you will improve your memory of the material covered; you will also realize if you are asking the right questions in relation to the text.


After completing a night’s reading assignment, resist the temptation to close your book. Take another five minutes or so to review the chapter and section headings and answers to the study questions. You might even wish to jot down some answers to these questions in your notebook. This is a critical step in improving your ability to remember your readings, both in the short term (next day’s in-class quiz, for example) and in the long term (tests and exams).

Other Techniques for Improved Reading


The purpose of skimming is to get a general idea of the content. Skimming is generally used when you have a great deal of material to cover in a short time or you only need a general sense of the work (for example in a news article). You should be able to skim in about half the time it takes you normally to read the same material. Follow these steps when skimming: 1) read the title of the selection, 2) read the first two or three paragraphs normally (introductory paragraphs usually preview the main argument of the selection), 3) read the headings, 4) read the first and last sentences of all other paragraphs, forcing your eyes to move rapidly across the sentences in between, picking up key words in each line.


The purpose of scanning is not the same as skimming: you scan to find specific information. Scanning is what we do when looking through a text, a Wikipedia entry for example, to answer a specific question. Follow these steps when scanning: 1) look for key words or phrases as you glance at the page, 2) use section titles, headings, words in bold-face, colored words, and linked words to help you find the information you seek more quickly.


The purpose of clustering is to increase reading comprehension AND speed. Your mind is capable of taking in written information faster than your eyes can move systematically across a text. In clustering, you look at words in groups instead of one at a time, thereby increasing your speed enormously. Essentially you are allowing your mind to take a snapshot of several sentences at a time instead of vocalizing (internally) individual words. Follow these steps to cluster: 1) train your eyes to see in a glance all the words in a reading in clusters rather than taking in individual words, 2) practice this method with lighter readings first and see if you can understand the gist of it when finished, 3) reread the text at your normal pace, noting what you missed the first time through, 4) aim to practice this method three of four times a week to see a noticeable increase in your reading speed. Be patient, cluster reading takes time and effort to become skilled, but with enough practice you will be able to read faster and more effectively.

One response to “Reading

  1. Pingback: Homework week 1 Feb 2016 | Cities and Civilizations

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