Preread to Get the Big Picture
This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Reading to learn

Reading to Learn

It looks like you’ve found your way to the second article of the Reading to Learn series. Great!

This is the second of several articles in our Reading to Learn series. By “reading to learn,” we mean a deliberate and mindful way of reading that promotes both understanding and remembering.

Quick Review of first Reading to Learn Article

Before we jump into how and why to preread, let’s do a quick review of the first article, Get in the right mindset for reading to learn:

  • Don’t waste your time reading poorly.
  • Motivate yourself by knowing your purpose for reading.
  • Maintain your concentration while reading; start with short sessions, then build up over time.
  • Always stay actively engaged with the text by putting it into your own words, taking notes, etc.

In this article, we’re going to cover how to prepare yourself for reading by prereading, sometimes called “getting the big picture.” There’s a fair amount of material here, so buckle up and let’s get started.

Be Mindful of Your Purpose

Once you’ve gotten yourself into the right mindset, get specific about your purpose for reading this text at this time. You’ll read differently, depending upon your “why.” For example:

  • If you’re reading to learn something for your own use or interest, you can slow down your reading to absorb the parts you need or want, and read more quickly through the rest. Just make sure you don’t gloss over information that may be critical for understanding what you want to get out of the text.
  • On the other hand, if you’re reading a textbook chapter or an article for a graded course, you’ll need to read with a broader focus—you don’t have the luxury of just picking out the parts you’re personally interested in.

Prereading or “Priming the Pump”

Here we’re talking about prereading a book chapter or an online article, as opposed to prereading an entire book. If you’re interested in the latter, visit’s Getting the Big Picture of a Book article.

Why Preread

With your purpose in mind, your next step is to “get the big picture” of the article or chapter by prereading it. You may be thinking, “C’mon, let’s just get to the reading, already!” That would be a mistake if you’re reading to learn. Here’s why:

  • Prereading sets you up (“primes the pump”) for taking in the new information. It gives you a scaffolding, a structure, on which to build—just like you’ve got to frame a house before you can add the walls and the roof.
  • Spending 5-15 minutes getting the big picture has a huge payoff, because you will better understand and remember the pieces of the puzzle once you have its outline. Otherwise, it’s kind of like trying to do a jigsaw puzzle without having any idea what it’s supposed to look like at the end—it’s just so much harder!

How to Preread

Your prereading goal is to answer two main questions about that textbook chapter, online article, or other text you’re about to read:

  1. What is it about?
  2. What are its parts?

Be ready to take some notes that will help you answer those questions. For either a textbook chapter or an online article, find, read, and take notes regarding:

  • Chapter or article title, headings, and subheadings—Scan through the text to see what topics it covers and how it’s organized into parts.
  • Summary at the beginning or end of the chapter or article—Summaries aren’t always labeled as such. But the text’s first (or last) two or three paragraphs often sum up the chapter or article. Sometimes online articles offer a TLDR (too long, didn’t read) section that quickly summarizes the article.

For a textbook chapter, look to see what additional features the publisher has built into the text to help students. For example, textbooks often offer one or more of the following aids you can include in your prereading. You may find these at either the beginning or the end of the chapter:

  • List of key concepts and main points
  • Definitions for new key terms
  • Questions at the end of the chapter

You don’t need to try to memorize these or take tons of notes about them. Remember, you’re just scanning these to get a good feel for what the text is about. So take a few notes that point you to that “big picture.”

After completing your prereading, your notes should give you a good overview of what you’re about to read. Use that overview to answer the two questions, i.e., “What’s it about?” and “What are its parts?” You’ll realize that you already know quite a bit about the text, including its main topic(s) and its structure. Now you’re ready to flesh out that “skeleton” by doing your careful reading. And that’s where the next article in this series will pick up.


Get the big picture of a chapter or an article by prereading it before you start your actual reading to learn:

  • First, get specific about your purpose for reading this text at this time. It will tell you how you need to read.
  • Prereading is too important to skip because it provides you with a structure on which to build as you read to learn.
  • The goal of prereading is to answer two main questions: What is it about? and What are its parts?
  • Take notes while you preread. Follow these guidelines:
    • Where to look
      • Chapter or article title
      • Headings and subheadings
      • Summary at beginning and/or end
      • Special textbook features
    • What to capture in your notes
      • Chapter or article title
      • Main topics covered, in order of appearance
      • Key concepts and main points of summary
  • Review your notes and then answer—in your notes—the two prereading questions:
    • What is this chapter or article about?
    • What are its parts?
Series Navigation

<< Get in the Right Mindset for Reading to Learn

How to Read to Learn >>