When it comes to reading journal articles, reading linearly (like you would a novel, starting at the beginning and reading word for word until you reach the end) is often not the most efficient approach. Depending on your goal, you may need to cut through peripheral details, ignore sophisticated statistics with which you may not be familiar, and focus on the central ideas.
How, then, should you read an article?
1. Determine your purpose
Before you even start reading, take a moment to think about what you need to get out of the article. Is this an assignment for class discussion, an article you want to use in a term paper (if so, how much of it will you need to use), or one about which you need to write a critique/review? Are you interested in the author's theoretical perspective? Her findings? Her methods? Her data? Are you interested in getting a sense of the research that has been done on a specific topic/issue? Knowing the answer to these questions will determine your reading strategy.
2. Devise a reading strategy and read accordingly
3. Understand the difference between structural reading and close reading
Structural reading is close reading of the overall structure of a lengthy text (such as a book). The overview that this approach provides gives perspective. It helps the reader to determine whether they want to spend time reading the text and how closely they want to read it. It also guides their reading, like a mental scaffolding.
When reading structurally, ask these questions:
What does the title tell me about this article?
What is the main idea in the article? (skim the abstract and introduction)
What are the parts of the whole? What are the sections of the article?
In light of my structural reading, what questions would I pursue during close reading?
Close reading is exactly as the name suggests. It requires that the reader get up-‐close and personal with the text. When reading closely, you may want to stop after every paragraph to summarize what is being said, reflect on the arguments being made, and evaluate the quality of the evidence being presented. This requires active engagement (or dialogue) with the text. Take ownership of what you read: mark the text up, jot down questions, comments or observations in the margins, highlight important passages/quotes, and take notes as you go. Interacting with the text in these ways makes it more likely that you will remember the information as well.
4. Don't waste time!
Very few articles in a field are so important that every word needs to be read carefully. It's okay to skim and move on.