Reading with Purpose – A Perspective on Understanding

I like to read and I do a lot of reading for work but one experience I’ve learned from reading is that there’s a big difference in reading to know and reading to understand.

For the most part, I think we can get by with reading to know. I started to see the difference and importance between knowing and understanding when trying to absorb large amounts of information day after day

As a result, I had to change the type of reading style I use depending on what I read and my reading goals. I can be a more active reader to fully understand the information presented when necessary.

Knowing versus understanding

Foundations of knowing

I think most of the things we read comes from us wanting to know something. We read a lot of things online to answer our questions or casually read books and know the plots and characters.

I’m like most people and never really considered the difference between knowing and understanding. I would think that if I could repeat what I read then I knew that information. It seemed simple enough but I didn’t know how wrong I was.

When we think of a common source of information we can think about online articles, textbooks, and newspapers.

We can read textbooks and newspapers and give a summary of what we read but do we really understand what we are reading? Probably not. But we can recite terms and concepts without issue. It’s like collecting random tools but not knowing how to use them.

This form of knowing isn’t a bad thing depending on what we read, yet it can be superficial.

This type of reading doesn’t help us connect concepts or help us form new concepts. We are at the mercy of the author and dependent on their opinions and what data they present.

Foundations of understanding

As we can see from above, reading and retaining information alone isn’t enough for learning information. Learning takes a little longer and takes some work.

It takes reading difficult information and thinking about the relevance of that information to other aspects. This is how we really learn and increase knowledge for future application.

Types of reading

We can read for fun or learn something new, or sometimes both. The style of reading we do depends on the goal.


If we want to pass the time waiting at the airport and read fiction then we don’t need a high level of attention and can read fast without fear of missing anything important.

We use the skimming style of reading. This style of reading usually involves getting a general idea of what the author is trying to tell us.

We can do this by looking at the table of contents chapter titles and reading through possibly missing a section or paragraph here and there. I don’t make notes or select passages for future reference, this is reading to pass the time.

When I want to find something specific I can do a search or look through pages quickly. This is the scanning style of reading. This is good for finding concepts for information without extensive reading.

In-depth reading

The next type of reading is what I apply to classic literature, in-depth reading. This style of reading involves thinking about the greater meaning of the text and what the author is trying to show.

When I read Charles Dickens or Herman Melville, I think of the social and philosophical questions of their times they are trying to convey.

Critical reading

The most difficult and time extensive reading we can do is critical reading. This style of reading is when we want to understand and form opinions on a topic.

We read and evaluate the content against what we’ve read before and thought about if the information is right in the presented context. Do we agree with what the author presents? If so, why? If not, why?

This is the kind of reading where I mark up the book and use post-it notes to mark pages and make notes. It’s difficult reading and takes a long time (for me) yet this is a great way to learn and apply knowledge.

Comparative reading

Finally, we have a comparative reading style. This type of reading is mostly found in educational settings.

This is where you have to get multiple books on a topic to compare and contrast the ideas and arguments around the topic. This is probably the hardest type of reading but the most educational.

Final thoughts

Time is one of our most valuable assets. Reading takes time, so I think we should strive to be an active reader when dealing information we think are important.

Understanding what we read is about asking the right questions about the context of the information presented, what are the points the author is trying to make, and what information do we have to see if the author is correct in their points.

Try this next time you read and see how, over time, your perspective changes.