Skills and strategies for understanding your reading
Your reading comprehension is affected by your ability to read the written words accurately and fluently. Without accuracy and fluency your reading comprehension will be limited.
Reading is a complex process, and many people find it challenging. Looking at or saying words in a passage without gathering their meaning is not considered effective reading because it will not allow you to understand or apply the ideas.
Reading effectively involves understanding the meaning of what is written and interpreting it. To be able to do this, a person must be able to: decode what they read, make connections between what they read and what they already know, and think deeply about what they have read. Let’s look at the processes involved in reading comprehension in more detail.
Decoding is an essential stage of the reading process. It means connecting individual symbols, words and their pronunciations to their meaning.
Accurate word decoding and recognition is required for comprehension of the text. This is particularly important when you begin studying a new discipline – with its specific terminology that you are not yet familiar with. Sometimes this will mean going back to your textbook, or looking up a word in a dictionary or an encyclopedia.
Fluency is based on word recognition, and it speeds up the rate at which you can read and understand a text. Word recognition is the ability to recognise whole words instantly by sight, without sounding them out.
Fluent readers read smoothly at a good pace. They group words together to help with meaning, and recognise the writer’s voice - what the reader might perceive as the writer’s attitude, bias, or personality. Reading fluency is essential for effective reading comprehension.
The best way to achieve fluency is through constant and purposeful reading practice, especially since average readers need to see a word four to 14 times before it becomes a ‘sight word’ they automatically recognise.
To understand what you are reading, you need to recognise most of the words in the text. Having a strong vocabulary is a key component of reading comprehension. In specialised areas you learn discipline-specific terminology through instruction, and of course, by reading.
The more specialised the terminology you are exposed to, the richer your vocabulary becomes and the more fluent your reading becomes.
The best way to increase your vocabulary is to note down words whose meaning you are not sure about or new words you don’t understand, look up their meaning in a dictionary, and review them until they become ‘sight words’ in your memory. Start small (e.g. 2-5 new words each week), and continue practicing to develop your vocabulary building into a habit. Even if you learn only 2 new words every week, and practice recalling them until you can recall them automatically, you will know 104 new words in a year!
Understanding how sentences are built (sentence structure), and how ideas are connected within and between sentences (cohesion) might appear to be writing skills. However, sentence structure and cohesion are essential components of reading as well. Knowing how ideas are linked to each other at the sentence level helps us decode meaning from passages and entire texts. It also leads to what is called coherence, or the ability to connect ideas to other ideas in an overall piece of writing.
If sentence structure is something you struggle with in your writing, it is likely that this reflects on your reading comprehension. Thus, it is important that you understand the principles of sentence structure and are able to apply them in your reading as this will help your writing practices too.
Most readers relate what they read to what they know. Therefore, take advantage of any background or prior knowledge about a field when reading. It is also useful to learn how to ‘read between the lines’ and gather meaning that goes beyond the explicit message of the text. This is important because critical reading and writing involves presenting a reasoned argument that evaluates and analyses new knowledge alongside what is already known (background knowledge) to advance your understanding. Therefore, in addition to helping you read effectively, your background knowledge will also assist with comprehension. This is explored further in Key strategies to understand reading.
For example, you read an article analysing the use of social media inthe #MeToo movement – the social movement against sexual abuse and sexual harassment where people publicise allegations of sex crimes committed by powerful and/or prominent men. Having everyday background knowledge of #MeToo from reading the news at the time would shed some light on the topic and the type of social media you may have engaged with at the time. Then, you can use that background knowledge to understand the article, apply its ideas and draw conclusions, and develop an evidence-informed position.
To become a fluent and effective reader, you need to expose yourself as much as possible to information within your field, and reflect on what you have learned from real life experiences. This way, you will be able to make connections between new and existing knowledge.
It does not matter how fluently you can read if you are unable to keep focused on reading and retain information. When you read, your attention allows you to absorb information from the text. Your working memory enables you to retain this information and use it to gain meaning and build knowledge from what you are reading.
The ability to self-monitor while reading is also tied to attention and working memory. To develop this skill you need to be able to recognise when you do not understand something, whether this is a whole passage or some terminology. If this happens, you should:
- Go back
- Re-read the text to clear up any confusion you may have.
To maintain attention you may also consider how what you have already read relates to your existing knowledge, the unit you are studying or any related assessment tasks. If you still don’t understand what you have read you can revisit related introductory reading, such as set textbook reading or reading list articles, or consult a subject-matter expert such as your tutor or lecturer.
To help increase your attention, consider looking for related reading material that is interesting or motivating, and try to stop and re-read when something is not clear. Subject Librarians can assist you with finding related material from academic sources.