Text: Online Reading Strategies

Photo of a person in a lion mascot uniform sitting in a computer labIt’s more and more likely that you’ll have to do at least some of your reading for college online. Class readings, library resources, and even textbooks are going digital. Reading online is convenient, and often cheaper than accessing print versions. It can be quite a different experience to closely read and retain information from a screen, rather than a printed page, however.

You should practice some strategies that will improve your online reading comprehension and speed. And some of the tactics you learn about here will help you with any kind of reading you might do, not just the stuff that’s online.

Print vs. Online

So what do we mean when we say that reading print is different from reading online?

  • First, when you read something—let’s say, a book—that’s been printed by a reputable publishing house, you can assume that the work is authoritative. The author had to be vetted by a publishing house and multiple editors, right? But when you read something online, it might have been written or posted by anybody. This means that you have to seriously evaluate the authority of the information you’re reading. Pay attention to who was writing what you’re reading—can you identify the author? What are his or her credentials?
  • Second, in the print world, texts may include pictures, graphics, or other visual elements to supplement the author’s writing. But in the digital realm, this supplementary material might also include hyperlinks, audio, and video, as well. This will fundamentally change the reading experience for you because online reading can be interactive in a way that a print book can’t. An online environment allows you to work and play with content rather than passively absorbing it.
  • Finally, when you read in print, you generally read sequentially, from the first word to the last. Maybe you’ll flip to an index or refer to a footnote, but otherwise the way you read is fairly consistent and straightforward. Online, however, you can be led quickly into an entirely new area of reading by clicking on links or related content. Have you ever been studying for class and fall down a Wikipedia rabbit hole while looking for unfamiliar terms? You might have started by investigating the French Revolution, but half an hour later you find yourself reading about the experimental jazz scene in 1970s New York. You can’t really do that with a book.

Why, What, How?

Now that you’ve heard about how reading online differs from reading print, you should know that this has some really practical consequences for reading comprehension—how to understand and apply what you’re reading. Improving your online reading comprehension will save you time and frustration when you work on your assignments. You’ll be able to understand your course subject matter better, and your performance on your quizzes and exams will improve.

Why? “Why am I being asked to read this passage?” In other words, what are the instructions my professor has given me?
What? “What am I supposed to get out of this passage?” That is, what are the main concerns, questions, and points of the text? What do you need to remember for class?
How? “How will I remember what I just read?” In most cases, this means taking notes and defining key terms.

When you keep the “why, what and how” of reading comprehension in the forefront of your mind while reading, your understanding of the material will improve drastically. It will only take a few minutes, but it will not only help you remember what you’ve read, but also structure any notes that you might want to take.

Student Q & A

Let’s wrap up with some questions about online reading, courtesy of students just like you.

Question: I’m so used to reading printed texts, and I actually prefer it because I don’t get distracted as easily as I do when I’m online. So how can I keep myself from getting distracted when reading online?

Answer: When you read online, the hyperlinks, images, audio, and video interactivity embedded in the text can be a really tempting distraction. Try reading a passage straight through at least once without clicking on any of the hyperlinks or participating in any of the interactive opportunities. First, get a basic “feel” for the passage, then read it with the interactive components to augment your reading.

Question: I once had a teacher who didn’t want us use our phones to read our assigned texts. Why did she care?

Answer: She’s probably right—it’s best not to read your assignments from the small screen of a smart phone. It’s too easy to miss words and meanings when the reading process itself is challenging.

Question: You’ve talked a lot about comprehension, but I’d really like to know how I can improve my online reading speed. Got any tips?

Answer: So glad you asked! Reading quickly and efficiently will leave you more time to study, and improve your performance in your course.

To read more quickly and efficiently online, try most of all to avoid distractions like ads, pop-ups, or hyperlinks that will lead you away from your assignment. Another tactic you can try is to scan the page before actually reading, focusing on key words and phrases rather than every single word. It will not only help you to read faster, it’ll also give you a sense of the text’s main ideas.