Insights into Reading Academic Text

In my experience as a teacher for several years at university, I have noticed how students consistently struggle with reading an academic text. It seemed as those they were able to “read” the words but always lack the ability to understand what the text was about. I’ve thought about this challenge and have been lead to the following conclusions.

  • Many Students believe reading and understanding are the same thing
  • Many Students believe they have no responsibility to think about what they have read
  • Many Students believe there is no reason to connect what they are reading to anything they currently know
  • Many Students see no point to determine how to use or apply what they have read
  • Many Students do not understand how academic writers structure their writing

None of these points apply to everybody. However, it is common for me to ask my students if they read something and they usually that they yes the did read it. However, as I begin to ask questions and to explore the text with them it quickly becomes clear they did not understand anything that they read. This is partially due to the problem that students read passively even though reading is active. The student never thinks of the relevance of the reading to their own life or future career.

In other words, reading is not the problem, rather it is what to do with what they have read. The purpose of studying is to use what you have learned. Few of us have the time, to simply learn for fun. Often, we learn to do something for monetary reasons. In other words, some sort of immediate application is critical to reading success.

Another important aspect of reading comprehension is understanding the structure of academic writing. Textbooks have different subjects but they all have a surprisingly similar structure which often starts with the big picture and zooms down to the details. If students can see the structure it can greatly improve their ability to understand what they are reading.

The Tour Guide Analogy

The analogy that I like to use is that of a tour guide. A tour guide’s job is to show you around a particular place. It could be an entire city or a single tourist attraction it all depends on the level of detail that he or she wants to provide you. Often, at the beginning of a tour, the tour guide will explain the itinerary of the tour. This provides the big picture purpose of the tour group as well as what to expect during the journey.

If the trip is especially detail you may visit several different places. At each place, there will be several places to see at each place that the tour guide will mention. For example, If I go to Thailand for vacation and visit Bangkok there will be several locations within Bangkok that I would visit such as Malls and maybe a museum. It is the tour guide’s job to guide me in the learning experience.

The author of an academic text is like a tour guide. Their job is to show you around the subject they are an expert in. The tour guide has an itinerary while the academic author has a preface/introduction. In the preface, the author explains the purpose of the book, as well as the major themes or “places” they will show you on the tour. The preface also explains who the book is for.

Each chapter in an academic text is one specific place the author wants to show you on the tour. Just as a tour guide may show you a museum in Bangkok so an author will show you one aspect of a subject in a chapter. Furthermore, every chapter has several headings within it. This is the same as me seeing the dinosaur exhibit at the museum or the ancient Thai instruments exhibit. These are the places within the place that you visited.

Tour guide Writer
Expert in their area Exepert in their area
Shows you around the tourist attraction Shows you around a subject area
Explains what you will see today Explains what they will share in a book/chapter
Provides details about the different sights Provides details for the main ideas

We can break this down further about subheadings and more but I think the point is clear. The layout for an academic text is not mysterious but rather highly consistent. Having said this here are some critical ideas to remember when you read.

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