Online Reading Strategies

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe effective strategies for reading online

In an online educational environment, you’re probably going to do more reading than listening. You may do some of your reading in printed form—say, an assigned novel or textbook—but some of it might also be online in the form of a web page. Reading online isn’t the same as reading in print, so you should practice some strategies that will improve your online reading comprehension and speed. 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.

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Print vs. Online

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

Evaluate the Source for Credibility

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?

Online Reading is Interactive

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 material will fundamentally change the reading experience for you because online reading can be interactive in a way that a print book can’t be. An online environment allows you to work and play with content rather than passively absorbing it.

Reading Online Can Lead You to Unexpected Places

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 fallen 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.

Try It

Reading Comprehension: Why, What, How?

Now that you’ve heard about how reading online differs from reading print, you should know that these differences have some really practical consequences for reading comprehension. 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.

Consider the why, what, and how of reading comprehension:

  1. Why am I being asked to read this passage? In other words, what are the instructions my professor has given me?
  2. 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?
  3. 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.

Explore a Web Page

Let’s put this information to use with a short exercise. Imagine that your instructor has asked you to create an argument either for or against the institution of the death penalty in California. She has pointed you to the website to get started. What terms or headlines stick out at you so you can begin crafting your argument? Consider the following headlines of articles from the website. Which articles seem like they might work best for helping you get started?

  1. “Federal Judge Says CA Death Penalty Unconstitutional”: Great! This article will have a legal argument from a federal judge—a fantastic place to get talking points for your own argument.
  2. “The Death Penalty Failure They’re Trying To Hide”: Good instincts—this article may give you a great point of counterattack if your argument is against the death penalty.
  3. “Infographic: The First Time We Ended the Death Penalty”: Yes! This will give you historical precedent you can point to in your argument.
  4. “Polls Show Preference for Death Penalty Alternatives”: Well done—what’s more convincing than numbers, especially when it comes to the will of the American people?
  5. “Former Florida Warden Haunted By Botched Execution”: Yes—a great rhetorical tactic is to use an anecdote from the life of a person with experience with the issues you’re talking about, and this article sounds like it might be very moving. After all, it was convincing enough to change this man’s mind about the death penalty—maybe it would sway your audience as well.
  6. “DPF Appoints New Director of Community Outreach and Education”: Hmm, this article doesn’t seem to be the best option for your argument because it’s not directly related to your argument. Let’s skip or skim this one!
  7. “How to Stop a Heart”: This is another good testimony from someone affected by the death penalty, but it’s in the form of a blog post, so there’s probably better evidence out there. Maybe come back to it if you don’t have everything you need.
  8. “Michael Millman accepts ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’”: This article doesn’t really pertain to your assignment, so it doesn’t seem like the best possible choice. Keep looking!

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Tips for Reading Online

Reading online can be challenging, but here are a few tips to help:

Getting Distracted While Reading Online

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.

Reading Assignments on Your Phone

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.

Increasing My Reading Speed

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. This is the same technique you just tried out in the death penalty exercise we went through. It will not only help you to read faster, it’ll also give you a sense of the text’s main ideas.


interactive: the unique quality of online texts that allows a reader to move in a non-linear fashion to hyperlinked material and mixed-media resources

vetted: a term describing an authoritative text that has been carefully reviewed, edited, and most likely peer reviewed by qualified scholars