Reading material in college is likely to be much more difficult then reading assignments in high school. You will often be confronted with readings that are dense, full of jargon or specialized information and difficult to understand. These readings might be assigned by your instructor or you might come across them in your own research.
Don’t be afraid of these difficult texts!
With a little practice and the tips below, you can master any writing, no matter how difficult. Try each of these tips and varying combinations to discover which ones work best for you: remember; every student reads and learns differently so what works for your friends might not work for you. Most importantly, be patient. Give yourself a break: no one understands everything the first time around. It may take you some time to discover what works best for you.
- Pay attention to any information or guidance your instructor or textbook gives you before you read. Read any introductory blurbs, assignment sheets or outside information provided. If you have to write about the reading, sometimes the assignment sheets can give you hints about what to look for. Highlight any specific questions about the text and keep them in mind as you read.
- Pace yourself. Do not feel like you have to read a whole chapter of a difficult text at once. Break it up into shorter pieces and read one whole section at a time.
- Give yourself enough time. Don’t wait until the last minute to do your readings. Read slowly and carefully and build in time to take breaks or even sleep on what you have read.
- Figure out how the text is organized: Scan the section for titles, headings, sub-headings, and topic sentences to get its general idea; pay attention to graphs, charts, and diagrams. Create an outline with those headings and fill in the supporting details as you go.
- Read to the end: Do not get discouraged and stop reading. Ideas can become clearer the more you read. When you finish reading, review to see what you have learned, and reread those ideas that are not clear.
- Read the introduction and conclusion first (and it might be more than the first and last paragraph in a longer text.) Both the introduction and conclusion should lay out the main ideas, thesis statement and importance of the article of a whole. Identifying the thesis/main argument of a text might make the rest easier to understand.
- After each paragraph, pause and try to explain what the paragraph is about in 1 short sentence or phrase in your own words. Write that sentence or phrase in the margin. If you are unable to summarize or explain what the paragraph is about, move on. At the end of the paper, return to the paragraphs you did not understand and try again.
- Take notes on a separate sheet of paper but DO NOT copy directly from the text. Write a summary sentence for each paragraph or section. Always write your notes in your own words, because it will help you to process the meaning and remember the content. At the end of the piece, reread your notes and try to write a one or two sentence summary of the entire text. (This is a great technique if you have to take a closed-book test on the text because it will help you to remember the text and give you a handy study sheet to look over before the test.)
- Highlight/underline the one sentence in each paragraph that appears to be the topic sentence or the most important point/quote/idea of that paragraph. At the end of the paper, return to those highlighted sentences and ask yourself how they connect. (Again, when reviewing for a test, you should be able to read each highlighted sentence and get the main gist of the entire text. DO NOT fall into the “highlight the whole page” trap!)
- Look up words whose meanings are important to your understanding of the material, but you cannot discern from the context. Write the definition or meaning in the text or the margins of the text so you can remind yourself what it means if the word comes up again. Remember, professors love to test you on vocabulary words that appear in texts, so to prepare for a test you might make flash cards from these terms.
- Do not confine yourself to words. Use representations, graphics, pictures, colors, even movement to visualize and connect ideas. Use whatever techniques work to help you understand. Draw flow charts or idea maps on the back of the page to see how all the ideas connect.
- At this point, if you do not understand your reading, do not panic! Set it aside, then read it again the next day. If necessary, repeat. This allows your brain to process the material, even while you sleep. This is referred to as distributed reading and studies have proved that your unconscious mind works on problems you don’t understand even if you aren’t actively thinking about them.
- Quiz yourself: Turn the title or subject headings into questions and try to answer them. Underline any rhetorical questions in the text and after reading the entire text, try to answer the questions. Try to anticipate the questions your professor will ask on quiz, test or in discussion, then try to answer each of those questions. Write out the questions on a separate sheet of paper with the answers, or highlight the answers in the text and write the questions in the margins.
- Use the techniques of good writing that you have learned in previous English classes.
- Identify places where the author is using ethos, pathos or logos and try to figure out how/why that technique is working.
- Identify the kinds of sources the author is using, how they support their arguments, how they structure their paragraphs and what information they emphasize.
- Identify where the author is conceding a point to the opposition or defending against potential rebuttals. If you can find the arguments against your author’s main point, it might help you understand the actual argument better.
- Ask yourself the questions your instructor is likely to ask:
- What is the main idea? Where is the thesis statement?
- Who is the intended audience for this piece?
- What is the author’s purpose? What is this piece trying to accomplish?
- What is the context/setting? Who are the major characters/players?
- Explain what the article is about to a friend, preferably one who hasn’t read the article. By trying to describe the most important points of the article to someone who hasn’t read it, your brain will identify the key points and help you make connections you might not have thought of before.
- Look up context for the text: Google the author or the title of the text and read about them (an instance where Wikipedia might be useful). What is the author famous for? Is this text a part of a famous argument or historical movement? Is it taken from a larger book? When and where was it originally published and for what purpose? Did it win any awards or cause trouble for the author? What criticisms exist for this text? Putting the text in context might help to clarify the ideas in it.
- If the reading is still a challenge, consult with either your teacher, academic counselors, writing center or reading specialists. Bring the notes you have and as many specific questions as possible.
- Be active in class discussions of the text. If you struggled with a text, don’t be afraid to voice your confusion, as it is likely that others in class struggled as well. If you speak up and volunteer your misunderstandings, your professor might be able to show you where you got off track, so you don’t make the same mistake in the future.
- Don’t give up! A large part of what you learn in college is techniques for dealing with difficult material: the content isn’t always the most important part. Don’t be afraid of looking silly, of taking a long time to finish your reading or of asking “dumb” questions. Learning how to work through difficult material takes time, practice and patience. You might not understand the first few difficult texts you read, but with time, you will get better. Once you master the techniques that work for you, you will be able to work through any text.