Ways to Comprehend Academic Texts

In this post, we will look at some practical ways to better understand an academic text. The tips are broken down into three sections which are, what to do before, during, and after reading.

Before Reading

Read the Preface. The preface lays out the entire scope of the book. It provides the framework in which you can place the details of the chapters. This is critical in order to put the pieces together to make use of them. Almost all students skip this as it is normally not assigned reading. This step is only done before reading the first chapter of a text.

Read the Chapter titles. The chapter titles give you an idea of what the chapter is about. Again it helps you to zoom down one level to understand the subject of the book from one aspect of it. Again, most students fly past this when the chapter title provides clear clues as to what to expect in the text

Read the Objectives. The objectives tell you what you are going to visit in the chapter. They serve as signposts of what to expect and provide a framework for placing the details of the text.

Read the Chapter Headings. An academic text is broken down into chapters which are broken down into headings. Examining the headings provides more information about the chapter and the book. I also should mention that often the objectives and the headings of a book are the same with slight rewording. This seems lazy but is actually much clearer than when they two are not similar.

Look at the visuals (tables, graphs, pictures). Visuals summarize critical information. It is easy for anybody to become overwhelmed when reading a text. Therefore, visuals are created to summarize the most important information. Just like figure 1.2 above.

If you do these things you now know what to expect when you read. You are also beginning to develop an idea of what you did not know about the given subject. This leads to the next major point.

Ask Questions. After this inspection of the text, you should do the following.

  • Decide what you already know about this topic
  • Decide what you want to know about this topic and make questions

This two-step process prepares you for connecting your current level of understanding with the new knowledge within the text. You know what is a review for you and you focus on finding answers to the concepts and idea that are new for you.

During Reading

 After all of this preparatory work, it is now time to read. Having done all this you already know the following

  • Title of the chapter
  • Major headings/objectives of the chapter
  • What you already know about this subject
  • What you do not know about this subject

Now you read the text and answer your questions. You also can highlight key ideas as well as write in the margins of the text. Highlighting should generally be limited to main ideas in order to reduce the clutter of highlighting everything. Writing in the margins allows you to make quick notes to yourself about key points and or to summarize a dense concept. Doing either of these is a way to wrestle with a text in an active manner which is important for comprehension.

After Reading

After you have read and answered your questions in a text. There are several things left to do.

Determine what did you learn. Write briefly a few notes to yourself about what exactly you learned. This is for you and helps to make sense of all the details in your mind at the moment.

Look at the Resources at the back of the chapter. Many textbooks have several study tools at the back of the chapter. Example this includes an outline of the chapter which is a great summary, discussion questions which help in developing critical thinking skills, and often vocabulary words are here as well. When preparing for an exam this is an excellent resource.

Conclusion

This process is not as much work as it seems. With practice, it can become natural. In addition, you need to modify this so that you can be successful as a reader. The ideas here provide a framework in which you can develop your own style.

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