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Reading at university: Reading journal articles

"Reading ... journal articles is a purposeful task; and like other goal-oriented tasks, the right tools and the right techniques are essential components of the reading process"

Phillip C. Shon, How to Read Journal Articles in the Social Sciences

This guide will demonstrate an approach to reading a journal article. It will be useful for anyone who is new to reading journal articles, especially those in their first year of university at either foundation or undergraduate level.


Journal articles come in a range of complexities and lengths. The important thing is to ensure you do not get overwhelmed and take your reading in stages. Reading complicated material requires a different approach to the methods you may have used so far. It is about breaking down the argument, seeking to summarise and understand the author’s key points and coming up with own questions and ideas about it. For both, you will need an overall grasp of the content, and be able to break down key sections of the text.

Taking notes is an essential part of any reading at university as it helps you avoid just passively reading the text and forces you to actively engage with the article. It will also serve as a record of your reading, helping you with either seminars, essay writing or revision. Without notes, your initial reading will just be a waste of time as you will need to re-read everything.

The four stage approach

We suggest a four-stage approach to reading and understanding an article. This requires you to break the habit of reading an article from start to finish, at least in the first instance, and instead requires you to approach the article in a more strategic (and possibly a more analytical) way.

Click on each stage in turn for more information.

The final page of this guide contains a Summary diagram to bring together the main points from the previous pages.

Practice activities

At the end of the first three stages there are optional practice activities to help you test your own understanding of the process.