UKZN Digital Learning Portal

Online Reading Strategy

Key differences between reading print and reading online, and challenges faced:

  • When you receive prescribed course readings or buy or borrow prescribed textbooks and engage with these, you are limited to the content contained in these particular formats. The internet however offers a vast amount of information and because online readers have access to so many sources they must be able to quickly determine whether a site will be useful (Brun-Mercer, 2019). You must first skim-read information to establish whether it is relevant and must then read in depth to develop understanding. This involves great flexibility and is a skill that must be practiced. 
  • When you read a source (e.g. a textbook) that’s been printed by a reputable publishing house, you can assume that the work is authoritative (trustworthy and reliable). The author would have been vetted by multiple editors and their work reviewed by other experts. However, when you read something online, it might have been written by anybody, which means that you have to evaluate the authority of the information that you are reading and must be good at assessing the credibility of a source.
  • Print reading generally follows a sequential order from the first word to the last, and supplemental (additional) information may be presented as pictures, graphics or other visual elements to support the author’s writing. However, in the digital realm the supplemental information may include hyperlinks (links to other pages), audio and video clips. This changes your reading experience because online reading can be non-sequential and interactive in a way that print reading can’t, allowing you to work and play with content rather than passively absorbing it. Online reading therefore does not necessarily follow a sequential order, can present distractions and can put a strain on your cognitive resources, sometimes leading to fatigue.

Three strategies to overcome challenges faced in online reading (Brun-Mercer, 2019)

  • In general, the materials posted by your lecturer to your Moodle course page will be academic sources with all the necessary referencing information provided. However you will also be required to do your own online research to find additional information to expand your knowledge and to compile your assignments. You will therefore come across a large amount of information. Here are three strategies to overcome the challenges identified above related to reading online and being able to read with sufficient accuracy, fluency and ease:

Strategy One: Focus on the purpose

  • Identify the topic, write down the questions you need to answer and the facts you need to verify to ensure you keep focus.
  • Select search terms so that search results are relevant and useful (use Google Scholar and UKZN Libraries databases to find reliable, academic sources). Many sites also offer free access to e-textbooks which in some instances can be downloaded and saved – do a Google search to find these sites. In many instances you will be required to refer to information only available on websites (see Strategy Two below for how to determine the credibility of online information).
  • Scan through content found to determine the usefulness or relevance of a text to the predetermined focus questions. To read more quickly and efficiently online, scan the page before actually reading and focus on key words and phrases rather than every single word – avoid being distracted by irrelevant or unrelated information.
  • Once you have determined that the text is relevant, read passages more thoroughly to comprehend the content more deeply. When you read online, the hyperlinks, images, audio and video interactivity embedded in the text can be distracting. Try to read a passage straight through at least once to get an overall ‘feel’ for the text, then you can read it again and access the interactive parts to expand your reading and understanding.

Strategy Two: Determine credibility

  • Successful online readers evaluate the trustworthiness of websites and reference only credible sources. Try to find information from sites with web addresses ending in .gov, .edu or .org, and avoid sites ending in .com or (where possible). Assign greater credibility to information written by an expert author or organisation.
  • Evaluate the information to determine whether it is substantiated by fact or whether it is actually just the author’s opinion. Factual and objective information must be used as it is more credible than opinionated, subjective information.
  • Pay attention to the author of the information: can you identify who the author is and what his or her credentials are? Can you find other more authoritative works written by the author (books, journal articles, published reports)? Is the information titled and dated? What website is the writing appearing on?

Strategy Three: Consolidate information and keep track of sources

  • Online reading is not linear and online readers do not follow a predetermined path set by the author of a single printed text (Schwartz, 2016). You must therefore continually synthesise and organise information to create a logical and coherent picture. The number of sites that you access and jumping from site to site makes it easy to lose track of sources and which information comes from which website. You must therefore keep a careful record of sources when carrying out online research.
  • Reading online isn’t the same as reading in print so you should practice some approaches that will help you improve your online reading comprehension and speed. Improving your online reading comprehension will save you time and frustration when you work on your assignments. Ask yourself the following questions and you’ll be able to understand your course subject matter better:
    • Why? – Why am I being asked to read this passage? (What were the instructions given by your lecturer?)
    • What? – What am I supposed to get out of this passage? (What are the main questions, concerns and points of the text? What do I need to remember?)
    • How? – How will I remember what I just read? (Taking notes, defining key terms, using a graphic organiser, use Google Docs)
  • Graphic organisers can help you to consolidate information from multiple sources. The table below is an example of a graphic organiser which allows you to keep track of sources, log information and your understanding of content, and begin the pre-writing process by synthesising the information you will be drawing on:
  • Google Docs (a basic, web-based version of Microsoft Word) is a useful tool in Google Drive for creating and storing notes that you make while reading online (see Section 4 for steps for effective note-taking), which can help you to consolidate information and keep track of your sources. Your documents can be accessed from any device or web browser and can also be shared with colleagues and/or your lecturers. Another major advantage of Google Docs is that if for any reason you do not have Microsoft Office on your laptop or tablet at home, you can still type, edit and submit your assignments using Google Docs. Google Sheets (Excel) and Google Slides (PowerPoint) are also available as part of the Google Drive suite of programs, making Google Drive extremely beneficial for students who may not have a licenced Microsoft Office package on the device that they are using to studying at home. To access Google Drive, you will need a Google account, log in to Google Drive ( using your existing GMail account details, or create a new account if you do not yet have one. Once you are successfully logged in click ‘Create’ or ‘New’ on the left hand side menu (depending on which browser you are using – see image below) and select ‘Document’ or ‘Google Docs’.
  • An untitled document will open in a new tab in your web browser. Give your new document a title and you can now edit and format your document as you would in Microsoft Word.


  • Just as you usually would in Microsoft Word, in Google Docs you can:
    • Type out notes and assignments with all the text formatting functions (size, style, highlighting, etc.)
    • Insert images, tables, drawings and charts
    • Add links to websites that you want to refer to (when taking notes while reading online)
    • Do spelling and grammar checks
    • Create folders to organise and store your files
  • The ‘Share’ function on Google Docs is particularly useful for group assignments as it allows you to collaborate with your group members in real time. Group members can edit, add or make comments at the same time using a Chat function that opens in Google Docs and allows logged in group members to chat and make corrections in real time – saving the time wasted if you had to email back and forth. There are many guides and YouTube tutorials available online that provide comprehensive instructions on how to use Google Docs – use these to familiarise yourself with this incredibly useful tool which can benefit you greatly in your online studying.
  • You can also open and read PDFs with Google Docs:
    • Log in to your Google Drive and use the ‘Upload’ icon to upload the PDF file
    • After the file has been uploaded, select ‘Open with Google Docs’ – this will allow you to browse a PDF document, as well as to highlight, edit and make notes on the PDF (please note, however, that some documents and images might not open properly in Google Docs) 


  • Brun-Mercer, N. (2019). ‘Online reading strategies for the classroom’. English Teaching Forum, 2019: 2-11. Available at:
  • Schwartz, K. (2016). ‘Strategies to help students ‘go deep’ when reading digitally’. [Online] Available at: (Accessed 20 April, 2020).
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