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Reading to Understand

Welcome to the Academic Reading Skills Module. Even though you may be a proficient reader of novels, business briefs, or professional communications, you may not be as experienced with academic text. That's okay. 

Academic texts can be more challenging because of complex concepts, terminology, and structure. 

Reading Skills Begin with Basic Fluency

Fluency refers to your ability to read accurately, smoothly, swiftly, and with minimal effort.

At this stage, you can recognize words and not stumble over them while reading. In addition to being a fluent reader, you need to be able to retain what you are reading and comprehend or understand the information. This means not only recognizing words, word order, and patterns but generating meaning through analysis and evaluation.

The following sections cover Reading to Understand, which lays the foundation for those more advanced academic reading skills of analysis and evaluation.

Three Areas of Reading Comprehension

There are three main elements of reading comprehension. Scroll over or focus on each photo below to learn what these elements are. 

Vocabulary Word Proficiency
Concepts / Background Knowledge
Ability to Process Content

Vocabulary Proficiency

You can only understand a text if you understand the words being used. Therefore it is important to cultivate a working knowledge of the words and terms used in your field. 

If you run across a word you don't know examine the phrases that come before and after the word you don't know. These can give helpful clues about the word's meaning. These are the context clues that can help you determine a word's meaning.  

You can also use an online dictionary like Merriam-Webster's to get a basic definition. Then go back and re-read the sentence, replacing the word with this definition.

After you have determined the definition and use of a term, record it in an academic vocabulary journal that you can return to if you see that same word again.

Concepts / Background Knowledge

When you approach a reading, you come to it with some basic knowledge of the subject and build on it. But sometimes you can end up reading above your level of understanding on a certain subject. In these cases, you don't have that background to draw from.


For example, you could be assigned a reading on treatment approaches for schizophrenia when you are not sure you understand schizophrenia as an illness. You should do additional reading in order to increase your knowledge base. This might mean Googling the concept you are unfamiliar with. Or it might mean skimming an introductory textbook or an encyclopedia entry.

As you read more and more, you will become more versed in the history and concepts of your field, which will make the next time you read on the subject that much easier.

Ability to Process Content

If you have the necessary background and vocabulary, you can focus on the content of the reading itself. The content includes the information presented and the structure of that information.

To understand the content, be an active reader. Active reading engages your brain and forces it to answer questions and make connections - which facilitates understanding. 

Active reading means taking notes on the facts.

  1. Who: Consider who is the author, who is the publisher? Learn about the author's background to determine credibility and potential bias. 

  2. What: What was the reading about? Focus on the topics presented and the content within the reading. Summarize each section or chapter to check your understanding. 

  3. Why: Why is this reading important to you? To the field? For research articles, consider why the study was done.

  4. When: Fields develop and change over time, so consider when the work was published. Is it still relevant? Does it provide current research or historical context?

  5. Where: Considering the location of research articles can be important. A research article may not apply to all populations, so ask yourself how the research or information could be generalized across populations.

Finally, connect the information to your life. This connection ensures you are invested in the information and its meaning and are more likely to remember and apply it.