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How to read at university

Reading tricky texts

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Chances are you'll be faced with a lot of tricky texts to read during your course. Textbooks are usually OK, but journal articles can be incredibly challenging, but it's important to devise strategies for extracting the important information from them, as you won't be able to get by on textbooks alone. We'll begin by looking at what you can do when you're faced with a text that contains lots of unfamiliar words.

Unfamiliar words

Unfamiliar words might be subject-specific technical words or terminology, or they might simply be words you've never come across: the academic vocabulary is littered with words that don't offer appear in every-day conversation (or Heat magazine).

Most academic texts are riddled with words that are unfamiliar to the uninitiated; however, if you're serious about your degree - or hope to pursue a career in the subject you're studying - you need to be able to use the language of your subject (this is important at undergraduate level, but absolutely vital at postgraduate level). If you don't learn the language of your subject, or even worse, misuse the terminology, you'll fail to thrive.

It's sometimes possible to extract the meaning of a word from the context in which it's used. For example, when I first started my microbiology degree, I would often come across the word 'putative'. Although I had no idea what putative meant (and was yet to get around to consulting a dictionary), the context in which it was used made me think that the word meant something was 'suggested' or 'believed to be the case'. Turns out I was right.

But what do you do if the text you're reading is full of unfamiliar words? You could, of course, look them up in a dictionary (a technical dictionary for the subject specific words), but this can be time consuming, and can break your reading 'flow', making the text even harder to understand. Where possible, the best idea is to make a note of any unfamiliar words and look up their meanings when you've finished reading. Of course, if you can't understand the text without knowing what certain words mean, you'll have to look them up straight away. The activity below will help you start to get to grips with unfamiliar words, and build your technical vocabulary.

Activity: glossaries and concept cards - 5 minutes

1. Invest in a notebook (with at least 26 pages - one for each letter of the alphabet), or some filing cards.

2. Each time you come across a word you don't know the meaning of (a technical word or phrase, or a non-technical word that seems to be popular with authors writing in your subject - like 'putative'), write it in your notebook, or on a card.

3. Search for a definition of each of these words or phrases. Use a specialist dictionary for your subject, a general dictionary, or an online dictionary.

4. Keep your glossary or concept cards to hand when you're reading; by writing your own definitions, you ensure you'll really understand and remember what each word means.

Hitting the wall

What should you do if you reach a section of text that you simply cannot make head nor tail of? First, don't panic or be disheartened; you're not expected to understand every word of everything you read - there are texts that are so complex that even subject experts struggle to understand them.

If you don't have to read the text (if it's not required reading for a course), then skip the bit you're struggling with and hope you can understand the rest. However, if it's important that you understand the whole text, you'll need a strategy to extract the meaning from the text despite not being able to understand it all - the activity below will help with this.

Activity: extracting the meaning - 5 minutes

1. If you're struggling to understand a text, ask yourself these questions:

  • Why are you reading this article? Is it a 'core' text and is it essential that you understand every word, or is it extra reading?
  • What are you trying to find out - a specific fact, or general information on the topic?
  • Re-read earlier sections, is there any information that helps you make sense of the difficult section?
  • Read ahead to see where the argument is leading. Does this improve your understanding?
  • Is there anything else you could read that might help you to understand the bit you're stuck on? (Tip: try looking at the bibliography or reference list for other articles, or try textbooks or the Internet)

2. If it's important that you understand the article, and you've made an effort to understand, ask a colleague or a tutor for help.

Recommended Further Reading

Keep persevering with your attempts at reading difficult texts, as the more you do it, the easier it becomes.

On the next page, we'll look at ways you can increase your reading stamina, so you can fit more reading in.

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