Pre-reading: A Time-Saving Strategy That Improves Results

Pre-reading, sometimes called previewing, surveying, or selective reading, provides an overview or big picture before you read. It will improve your concentration, comprehension, retention, and efficiency. It should be used before almost all reading and note taking. While pre-reading, you will also want to actively think about your background knowledge of the subject.


A detailed table of contents can be extremely helpful, especially in textbooks and nonfiction books. First, look it over to see the “road map.”

  • Use it to create preview or review questions by turning subtitles into short-essay type questions (“why,” “how,” “purpose,” “reasons,” “benefits,” “causes/effects,” etc.).
  • Before exams, use these questions to determine what you do not know and study that. The answers to your questions can also be the basis for your notes since your answers explain the ideas in the subtitles.
  • Next, look at the introduction, preface, foreword, prologue, and/or note to the reader, teacher, and/or student to learn the purpose of, and audience for, the book. In the case of textbooks, these parts also serve as “owner’s manuals,” telling you how to use, study, and learn from the book and any supplementary resources. Finally, look at the index, glossary, and appendix, if any.

    Use the index to:

  • Prepare for essay exams by looking for the major topics with the most subtopics or page references but ignoring those that are too broad/general.
  • Test yourself on those major topics to determine what you do not know and need to learn.
  • The glossary terms that are most important—those mentioned most often in chapters, lectures, and on quizzes—are the most likely to appear on tests.

    Appendixes contain reference information like maps, statistics, and case studies.

    For narrative books (fiction, biography, personal essays), read the following parts, which provide essential background information:

  • the notes on the back cover
  • the table of contents, if any
  • the introduction, preface, foreword, prologue, or notes
  • Non-Fiction and Textbook Chapters

    Always pre-read these chapters. While pre-reading, anticipate—try to guess what something is leading to or what is coming next, thinking like a detective or scientist. By practicing anticipating and getting better at it, you will become a better thinker and learner.

  • Begin by looking at the detailed outline of the chapter in the table of contents, if there is one.
  • If the book lacks detailed chapter outlines in the table of contents, look over the major subtitles in the chapter itself.
  • Always read the chapter introduction or the first few paragraphs and the chapter summary/review or the last few paragraphs.
  • Look at the first page of textbook chapters, which often provide preview questions and/or chapter goals/objectives.
  • I don’t recommend looking at chapter review questions because it is inconvenient—it is better to make up your own short-essay type questions from subtitles as you read and take notes (“why,” “how,” “purpose,” “reasons,” “benefits,” “causes/effects,” etc.).
  • Read the paragraphs following the subtitle to answer your questions; your notes may consist mainly of your answers to your questions, which explain the subtitles.
  • Articles

    For magazine, newspaper, and blog articles, pre-read:

  • the headlines and sub-headlines
  • the first and last paragraphs
  • the first sentences of some longer body paragraphs, especially those immediately following sub-headlines (for longer articles)
  • For journal articles, pre-read:

  • the introduction
  • the abstract and summary or conclusion
  • the subtitles and the beginnings and ends of paragraphs immediately following major subtitles
  • Test Passages

    On timed tests with passages and multiple-choice questions, pre-reading long passages is often preferable. Reading takes too long, it is normal to immediately forget about half of what you have read, and it is extremely difficult to answer questions without referring back to the passage.

    Pre-reading is much more effective than reading for recognizing main ideas; understanding the main idea is the most important task of readers of informational material. Your purpose is to answer questions correctly, not necessarily to understand, enjoy, learn, or remember the passage.

    For standardized test passages with multiple-choice questions, pre-read:

  • any introduction or blurb
  • at least the first and last sentences of the first and last paragraphs
  • If the first sentence of the first or last paragraph is not helpful enough (too brief, narrow, specific, broad, or vague), read the second sentence of the paragraph. If the last sentence of the first or last paragraph is not helpful enough, read the second sentence from last. In narrative passages, also read first sentences of longer body paragraphs and some dialogue.

    Lectures, Speeches, and Seminars

    To anticipate the main ideas of presentations, pre-read relevant chapters and/or articles.

    In academic settings, look at course outlines, syllabi and/or reading lists as they relate to the specific chapters, topics, or ideas to be covered in the upcoming presentation.

    Review notes from the previous lecture or presentation and pre-read any relevant documents.

    Meetings and Discussions

    Pre-read or review relevant agendas, memos, reports, or documents. Review the minutes from the previous meeting.