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Six key academic reading skills you need to succeed at university


Test Takers


How to study

Date Published

12 September 2023

Starting university is an exciting time. You get to meet new people, explore a new place, and, most importantly, study a subject you’re passionate about.

From the start you’ll be asked to read and understand subject-specific texts. But what exactly do universities expect from your academic reading skills?

Researchers from Australia, the UK, and the USA have identified six key expectations higher education institutions have of their students’ reading.1 They are easier than you may think, and they will help you in your studies.

1. Read independently

The ability to read academic texts with little supervision is key to your success. You will need to form your own ideas about the topics you study. Universities assume that at this stage in your education you are a confident reader, requiring little instruction and guidance when reading. They also assume you will be able to identify, read and discuss various types of texts.

2. Read efficiently

Universities know that the amount of information available is overwhelming, so they expect their students to be efficient in their reading. An efficient reader should be able to quickly recognise which texts may be useful for their assignments and quickly extract relevant information.

To identify useful texts, you need to use available information, like the title or the abstract of an academic paper. This will help you judge whether you should read the text in more detail or not. Once you have found texts that could be relevant, you need to find useful information within the text. You can achieve this by skimming – reading quickly to understand the main points without studying them in detail. The key parts of the text you should skim are headings and subheadings, conclusions, and the initial paragraph of each section. This will give you a general idea about the topic and help you decide whether to read the full text or parts of the text more carefully.

Read more about how to skim in this IDP IELTS blog post.

3. Read carefully

Once you have chosen the texts you think are important to your research, you will be expected to read them fully and carefully to:

  • identify the main and supporting ideas
  • work out which evidence is in favour or against an argument presented in the text
  • pick out examples that help support the argument.

All of this will help you gain enough knowledge of the topic to build logical and critical arguments for your assignments.


Reading skills create the foundation for the rest of the language development. Through reading, students not only build vocabulary and learn about the different sentence structures, but also create letter-sound connection, and all these aspects then impact the development of both speaking and writing skills. Teaching reading and comprehension sets the success of the students beyond the language learning and helps them be successful in a university setting.

Emilija Zlatkovska, Director of IEP & Interim ED Center for International Programs, University of Southern Indiana

4. Read critically

Your university will expect you to think critically about what you read and form your own ideas about the topics discussed in your classes. When reading for academic purposes, you will be required to seek out and understand other points of view. By critically analysing and comparing other points of view with your own, and by challenging your own ideas, you will develop your own understanding of the topics. To achieve this, you are likely to have to generate a hypothesis and collect evidence to support it from your reading. You should continue to analyse what you read and to separate factual information from thoughts, feelings and intuitions.

5. Read beyond the suggested texts

The suggested reading list will often not be enough to form a full view of the topics covered in your assignments. You will be expected to read from a variety of sources and viewpoints, e.g. news and academic articles, books. You will also need to go beyond the individual text you are reading by making inferences and interpretations, and combining information from the texts you are reading.

When reading an academic text for your course, you should be able to understand the author’s intentions, even when they are not directly stated in the text. You may also need to be able to understand the meaning of words you do not know from the context alone. As you read a piece of text, the meaning of new words will become clearer without always using a dictionary.


Reading texts with different views is important when developing your arguments. It is also essential that you bring together the information clearly and coherently. You will need to connect your own original ideas to other ideas you have read about, your own knowledge, and to other different but related topics. The ability to synthesise information from multiple sources is a key aspect of academic reading in higher education.

6. Use your reading for your writing

The most important skill related to your academic reading is the ability to translate it into academic writing. Your tutors will want to see what you have learned in your written assignments.

When reading for an assignment, you should keep your main ideas and questions in mind while searching for new texts. You should integrate new information, report facts, and summarise and synthesise arguments from multiple sources. You then need to develop your arguments by building a main point and its supporting arguments, which need to be backed up by the evidence collected through your reading. Your arguments should be structured, well organised and coherent. Remember to keep track of the reading you have done as you will need to properly cite other people’s works to avoid plagiarism.

How IELTS can help you

Authentic IELTS tasks = authentic university preparation

IELTS Academic helps you to develop the reading skills you will need at university. Preparing for IELTS will help you become the confident reader you need to be to succeed in your future studies.

Your IELTS score will help you to get into your preferred university, and not just because it will meet the admission requirements. While you are preparing for the Reading section of your IELTS test, you are actually preparing to read texts in an academic context. Your IELTS preparation will help you develop your academic reading skills so that you can read efficiently, carefully and critically. You will be able to use these skills while reading independently for your course.

IELTS stays up to date with what higher education institutions expect of students’ academic reading so that we can create tasks that use similar skills to those commonly used in higher education settings. This means that when you are preparing for IELTS, you will also be developing the language tools you need to succeed in the next step of your academic career.

And with that, we wish you good luck in your IELTS test and university course.

Feeling inspired and want to know more? Learn about the joy of reading, retelling the story, and time management in this British Council blog post.

Follow IELTS on social media for tips and advice on preparing for IELTS and learning English as a second language.

1 Based on Weir, C J, & Chan, S (2019) Research and Practice in Assessing Academic Reading: The Case of IELTS, Cambridge University Press. The first chapter in the volume summarises the definitions of academic reading and writing provided by the Statement of Competencies developed by the Intersegmental Committee of the Academic Senates of the California Community Colleges (CASCCC), California State University and University of California (US), as well as reading and writing advice provided by academic support units in The Open University (UK), Dundee University (UK), Monash University (Australia) and University of Kent (UK).