Read difficult material
During the course of your studies, it is inevitable that you’ll encounter some dense and difficult texts that will challenge your academic reading skills. Academic reading is an essential skill for your learning so that you can demonstrate your understanding and critical thinking skills, as well as achieve different learning outcomes. Reading difficult texts can be addressed by developing your academic reading skills – in particular, becoming an active reader who applies deliberate reading strategies to unpack difficult texts.
So, what is an active academic reader? This is someone who develops and applies multiple reading strategies and skills to tackle any academic text – but especially those more dense and difficult academic texts. In this module, you’ll be learning skills and strategies to handle difficult texts by becoming an active academic reader.
Quick tips for reading difficult materials View
Make a reading plan
Having a reading plan is a good starting point - how will you organise your reading time and what will you focus on?
Decide on a reading purpose(s)
Skim read the text at the start
It is useful to skim the material to gain an overview before you dive into the text.
Note any specialised vocabulary - look it up
As you read, watch out for specialist vocabulary - make a note of such vocabulary and find out what it means.
Note the facts and ideas presented
It might help to make sense of the material if you identify and delineate between facts and ideas.
Do a targeted re-reading and additional research of an unclear section
Of course, targeted re-reading will help consolidate your understanding - review those sections of the material that you’re less clear about.
Speak with other students, lecturers, librarians, SAS learning Advisor to assist you develop your understanding of the text.
Finally, you could look up additional resources on the topic of the material to help your understanding.
Eight strategies for reading difficult material
Let’s take a look at a range of reading strategies to help you become an active academic reader so that you can break down difficult academic texts to enhance your understanding.
At the outset, it would be productive if you selected an academic article or text that you currently find challenging and work through the strategies suggested. A required difficult reading for your course would be ideal to work through this module to develop your skills.
Make a plan to do an initial reading of the text – familiarise yourself with the text just to get a general overview of the text. At this stage, just read the text through to the last paragraph. Re-read the whole article or sections as you require.
You could break down your reading into portions. For instance, you could set aside time to read a section and so on. You could do a Pomodoro-style reading plan – that is, set aside 25 minute sprints of reading with 5-10 minutes break in between.
Why are you reading this academic text? Knowing why you’re reading the text will help focus your reading experience and reduce the level of difficulty. There are many common purposes for reading academic texts – these are listed in the activity. Try out the activity now. And as you work through your text, keep your reading purpose(s) in mind.
With your chosen text in mind, select your reading purpose(s) by placing a tick next to it (them) – you may have multiple purposes.
The point of skim reading first is to get a general overview of the content of the article. It’s important to be an active skim reader and do something deliberate with the text. A good skim reading strategy is to complete the following active tasks in order. This will build up your general understanding of the challenging article – you’ll understand the “big picture”. Have a go at undertaking this deliberate skim reading strategy. You could set aside 5 to 15 minutes depending on the text.
- Read the abstract and highlight one key sentence.
- Read introduction and highlight one key sentence.
- Read the headings/subheadings and highlight a keyword/phrase in each.
- Read or highlight any bolded/italicised/underlined words.
- Read any graphics and highlight a keyword in the graphic label.
- Read the conclusion and highlight key sentence.
Often, an academic text is challenging because new and specialised vocabulary, terms and jargon are used throughout. These can be very overwhelming, confusing and impede our understanding if we’re unfamiliar with such vocabulary. So, we have to actively research such vocabulary.
Another active reading strategy is to read the text and identify any subject-based vocabulary that is new to you. Highlight this vocabulary. Find out what it means – look up glossaries for the subject, ask the Lecturer or Teaching Assistant or another student, post a query on the Moodle site, etc.
Sometimes, an article can be difficult because it is presenting new and substantiated facts – and these facts could be represented in text or visual modes. Facts are mostly presented in descriptive ways. It can be challenging to get the facts of the matter clear in one’s mind.
Be an active academic reader and highlight the facts presented in the article. You could go further and categorise these facts – what are they facts about? Create categories for the facts. This is part of unpacking a difficult article.
Reading for ideas means looking out for any hypothesis or contention, theories and claims that the authors pose. These may often be in abstract and evaluative language. Understanding the ideas presented in an article is usually the most challenging aspect of academic reading.
Be an active academic reader and highlight the ideas (hypothesis, theories and claims). You could go further and categorise these ideas – what are they ideas about? Create categories for the ideas. Spending time on this aspect of understanding a difficult article will be productive.
Once you have read and unpacked the text, you might find that there still may be parts that are unclear. Re-read these sections carefully, paying particular attention to the parts that are unclear. You might wish to follow up with your lecturer for clarity or you might need to do additional research on the material presented in the section.
Look up additional resources to help you with a difficult section. An easy way to do this is to follow up a reference from the reference list at the end of the material.
One really useful thing you could undertake to help you understand how to approach difficult academic texts is to speak with others. Talk to educators or other students. Ask them what sort of successful reading strategies they have for understanding challenging academic texts. Also, ask them for tips about what to avoid!