In-depth reading (using SP3R) - Being a purposeful reader and note-taker

Success in Academic Writing - Trevor Day 2018

In-depth reading (using SP3R)
Being a purposeful reader and note-taker

To gain an in-depth understanding of material, I recommend a technique I’ve developed that I call SP3R. It is a variation on a traditional study method called SQ3R, which dates back to the 1940s (Rowntree, 1998). SP3R is shorthand for the five steps of an in-depth reading process (Survey, Purpose, Read once, Read again, Review). Using the SP3R method you hunt for information to meet your purpose. Reading material slowly, once only, from beginning to end, takes about the same time as using the SP3R method. Using SP3R, however, you are likely to have a much better grasp of the material.


Survey (scan and/or skim)

As we have seen earlier, scanning is searching for specific items. Skimming is gaining a general overview of the structure and content. Skimming involves noting the headings and subheadings within the document, any summaries or conclusions, key sentences in paragraphs and any visual elements. Surveying helps you decide whether the item is worth reading and, if so, how. Do you need to read it all, or only parts? Surveying assists you in creating a mental map of the document in preparation for further reading. It also helps you work out a purpose in reading it if you had not already done so.


As we have seen, setting a purpose involves answering key questions: Why am I reading this? What do I hope to get out of it? Purpose is about action, what you will be able to do as a result of reading the material. I find this approach is more fruitful than the traditional SQ3R method, where Q stands for ’question’ and does not mention purpose. I would encourage you to ask yourself questions about the text but not at the expense of setting a purpose as well.

Read once

This is reading for understanding, in response to the purpose you have set. At this stage - and assuming the book or document is your personal property, or a photocopy or printout - you could mark up key points by underlining them in pencil or using a highlighter. You could also annotate the margins with questions and comments.

Read again

This is to deepen your understanding, check whether you have answers to the questions you’ve asked, and to take notes to meet your purpose.


Read a third time to check you have understood, and to ensure that any notes and annotations are accurate and complete. If there is any follow-up action you need to take, such as getting answers to questions that were not resolved, or following up on any references cited in the text, then make a note of them and follow them up.

A reading purpose or strategy is not set in stone

Just because you have set a reading purpose or decided on a reading strategy, it doesn’t mean you can’t change them. If you find, as you read material more thoroughly, that you need to alter your approach, then do so. This can include narrowing, widening or changing your purpose or strategy. Be prepared to be flexible as your knowledge of the material grows.