Improving Your Reading

With effort, you can improve your reading dramatically, but remember to be flexible. How you read should depend on the material. Assess the relative importance and difficulty of the assigned readings and adjust your reading style and the time you allot accordingly. Connect one important idea to another by asking yourself: Why am I reading this material? Where does it fit in? When the textbook material is virtually identical to the lecture material, you can save time by concentrating mainly on one or the other. It takes a planned approach to read textbook materials and other assigned readings with good understanding and recall.

Monitoring Your Reading

Similar to asking yourself questions to make connections across different ideas, you can monitor your comprehension while reading textbooks by asking yourself: Do I understand this material? If not, stop and reread it. Look up words that are not clear. Try to clarify the main points and how they relate to one another.

Another way to check comprehension is to try to recite the material aloud, either to yourself or to your study partner. Using a study group to monitor your comprehension gives you immediate feedback and is highly motivating. After you have read and marked or taken notes on key ideas from the first section of the chapter, proceed to each subsequent section until you have finished the chapter.

After you have completed each section and before you move on to the next section, ask again: What are the key ideas? What will I see on the test?

At the end of each section, try to guess what information the author will present in the next section.

Developing Your Vocabulary

Textbooks are full of new terminology. In fact, one could argue that learning chemistry is largely a matter of learning the language of chemists and that mastering philosophy, history, or sociology requires a mastery of the terminology of each particular discipline.

If words are such a basic and essential component of our knowledge, what is the best way to learn them?

discipline An area of academic study, such as sociology, anthropology, or engineering.

Vocabulary-Building Strategies

During your overview of the chapter, notice and jot down unfamiliar terms. Consider making a flash card for each term or making a list of terms.

When you encounter challenging words, consider the context. See whether you can predict the meaning of an unfamiliar term by using the surrounding words.

If context by itself is not enough, try analyzing the term to discover the root, or base part, or other meaningful parts of the word. For example, emissary has the root “to emit,” or “to send forth,” so we can guess that an emissary is someone who is sent forth with a message. Similarly, note prefixes and suffixes. For example, anti means “against,” and pro means “for.” Use the glossary of the text, a dictionary, or the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary ( to locate the definition. Note any multiple definitions and search for the meaning that fits this usage.

Take every opportunity to use these new terms in your writing and speaking. If you use a new term a few times, you’ll soon know it. In addition, studying new terms on flash cards or study sheets can be handy at exam time.

If English Is Not Your First Language

The English language is one of the most difficult languages to learn. Words are often spelled differently from the way they sound, and the language is full of idioms, phrases that are peculiar and cannot be understood from the individual meanings of the words. If you are learning English and are having trouble reading your texts, don’t give up. Reading slowly and reading more than once can help you improve your comprehension. Make sure that you have two good dictionaries—one in English and one that links English with your primary language—and look up every word that you don’t know. Be sure to practice thinking, writing, and speaking in English; also take advantage of your college’s helping services. Your campus might have ESL (English as a Second Language) tutoring and workshops. Ask your adviser or your first-year seminar instructor to help you locate those services.

Listening, note taking, and reading are the essentials for success in each of your classes. Rather than perform these skills without a plan, practice some of the ideas presented in this section. If your skills in these areas are already strong, perhaps you picked up some ideas to strengthen them further.