The Process of Prereading

When you preread, says Alan Pritchard, "you begin to activate your prior knowledge ... for the acceptance of new information. In a sense you are preparing the ground for the sowing of new seeds" (Studying and Learning at University, 2008). (Tetra Images/Getty Images)

Prereading is the process of skimming a text to locate key ideas before carefully reading a text (or a chapter of a text) from start to finish. Also called previewing or surveying.

Prereading provides an overview that can increase reading speed and efficiency. Prereading typically involves looking at (and thinking about) titles, chapter introductions, summaries, headings, subheadings, study questions, and conclusions.


  • "To be successful today, it not only becomes necessary to skim, but it becomes essential to skim well."
    (Shreeharsh Kelkar, quoted by Alan Jacobs in "We Can't Teach Students to Love Reading." The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 31, 2011)
  • "Prereading strategies allow students to think about what they already know about a given topic and predict what they will read or hear. Before students read any text, teachers can direct their attention to how a text is organized, teach unfamiliar vocabulary or other concepts, search for the main idea, and provide students with a purpose for reading or listening. Most importantly, teachers can use prereading strategies to increase students' interest in a text."
    (Danny Brassell and Timothy Rasinski, Comprehension That Works. Shell Education, 2008)
  • The Purpose of Prereading
    "Prereading encompasses all of the things that you do, before you start reading, to increase your capacity to understand the material. In many cases, taking just a few minutes to learn more about what you are about to read can dramatically increase your reading comprehension and retention. . . .

    "If you build the big picture before you start, you begin reading the text with a conceptual framework already in place. Then, when you encounter a new detail or a new bit of evidence in your reading, your mind will know what to do with it."
    (Michael Austin, Reading the World: Ideas That Matter. W.W. Norton, 2007)
  • The Four Ps
    "Prereading includes four steps: Preview, Predict, Prior Knowledge, and Purpose. You can remember these steps by thinking of them as the '4 Ps.'

    "Previewing is taking a quick look at a reading before trying to understand the whole thing. . . .

    "[In predicting, you] look at clues from what you read, see, or already know to figure out what information you are likely to get from the reading. . . .

    "Prior knowledge is what you know about a subject before you begin a new reading about it. . . 

    "The fourth 'P' in prereading is purpose. . . . Figuring out an author's purpose will help you understand what you read."
    (Content-Area Reading Strategies for Language Arts. Walch Publishing, 2003)
  • Questioning
    "Begin by having students identify their purpose for reading. Then, lead students in generating a list of prereading questions that will help them to achieve their purpose."
    (Successful Strategies for Reading in the Content Areas, 2nd ed. Shell Education, 2008)
  • How to Skim a Book Systematically
    "Skimming or pre-reading is the first sublevel of inspectional reading. Your main aim is to discover whether the book requires a more careful reading. . . . The habit of skimming should not take much time to acquire. Here are some suggestions about how to do it.
    1. Look at the title page and, if the book has one, at its preface. Read each quickly. . . .
    2. Study the table of contents to obtain a general sense of the book's structure; use it as you would a road map before taking a trip. . . .
    3. Check the index if the book has one--most expository works do. Make a quick estimate of the range of topics covered and of the kinds of books and authors referred to. . . .
    4. If the book is a new one with a dust jacket, read the publisher's blurb. . . .
    5. From your general and still rather vague knowledge of the book's contents, look now at the chapters that seem to be pivotal to its argument. If these chapters have summary statements in their opening or closing pages, as they often do, read these statements carefully.
    6. Finally, turn the pages, dipping in here and there, reading a paragraph or two, sometimes several pages in sequences, never more than that. . . .
    You have now skimmed the book systematically; you have given it the first type of inspectional reading."
    (Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, 1972. Touchstone, 2014)

    Alternate Spellings: pre-reading