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Establishing a purpose Think before you read

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Academic reading differs from reading for pleasure. You will often not read every word, and you are reading for a specific purpose rather than enjoyment. This page explains different types of purpose and how the purpose affects how you read, as well as suggesting a general approach to reading academic texts.

Types of purpose

Everyday reading, such as reading a novel or magazine, is usually done for pleasure. Academic reading is usually quite different from this. When reading academic texts, your general purpose is likely to be one the following:

  • to get information (facts, data, etc.);
  • to understand ideas or theories;
  • to understand the author's viewpoint;
  • to support your own views (using citations).

Many of the texts you read will have been recommended by your course tutor or will be on a reading list, and you will need to read them in order to complete assignments such as essays or reports, to take part in academic discussions, or to help you give a presentation. If you enjoy your course of study you may, of course, also get pleasure from reading these texts, but that is very definitely not your main purpose.

How the purpose affects your reading

When reading a novel you will likely always do this in the same way: from beginning to end. The same is not true of academic reading, as your purpose will affect how you read it. Exactly how you approach the reading will depend on your specific purpose. For example, if you need to list the causes of global warming in an essay you are writing, you will look for texts on the topic of global warming. You are likely to find many texts, not all of which may be suitable, so in the first instance you might survey the texts to decide which ones to read more closely. Having identified suitable texts, you will then skim through each one to find which parts, if any, mention the causes. As your task is to outline the causes, you will not need any detail and so skimming the text for the main points should be enough. In this way, you could read twenty long texts in a fairly short amount of time.

A general approach

In fact, the approach outlined above will be useful for many reading assignments you have. It is summarised in the flowchart below.

Find possible texts related to your topic (unless these have already been suggested by your tutor).
Survey the texts to decide which ones to read more closely.
Select a text and skim through it to understand the structure and main points.
The final part will depend on your specific purpose, and may involve further skimming, scanning for specific information, or close reading for detailed understanding with note-taking to record the main points.


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Below is a checklist for this section. Use it to check your understanding.

Area OK? Notes/comment
I understand different types of purpose for academic reading.
I understand how the purpose affects how I read an academic text.
I am familiar with the general approach to reading academic texts.


Glasgow Caledonian University (n.d.) Reading with a Purpose. Available at (Access Date 16 February, 2016).

Wallace, M.J. (2004) Study Skills in English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Sheldon Smith

Author: Sheldon Smith    ‖    Last modified: 03 February 2022.

Sheldon Smith is the founder and editor of He has been teaching English for Academic Purposes since 2004. Find out more about him in the about section and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

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