Reading academic material
With more difficult texts, comprehension can be hindered by any one of these features.
Many textbooks and journal articles are written in more formal academic language and subject-specific jargon will be used too. Here is an example - two sentences from a sociological book review that you can only understand if you already know or can deduce what the terms encompass:
“The philosophy of praxis,” Gramsci once proclaimed, “is precisely the concrete historicisation of philosophy and its identification with history.” Implicitly, at least, the objective of Jonathan Joseph's Hegemony: A Realist Analysis is to carry forward this assertion by pursuing the philosophical and practical coincidences between critical realism and theories of hegemony within a Marxist-inflected framework.
At the beginning of semester, each new paper introduces some jargon that you will have to learn. Help yourself by identifying words new to you in the study guides and texts and work on assimilating them fully into your vocabulary.
In particular, learn what certain terms mean. This does require time and effort, but if you do this at the beginning of a course, rather than later (like just before a test or exam), your understanding of your readings will be much greater and readings will take less time.
This includes terms that describe schools of thought, such as ‘post-modernism’, ‘Marxism’, ‘epistemological’, ‘positivism’, ‘empiricism’, ‘structuralism’, and ‘ideation’.
It may also include more specific terms such as ‘paradigm’, ‘standard deviation’, ‘discursive’, ‘eclectic’, ‘cognitive’, ‘hegemony’, ‘critique’, ‘linguistic’, and many other words that abound more in academic writing than everyday writing. If you cannot understand the definition in your text, go elsewhere - do not give up.
Learn new vocabulary by:
- constructing a glossary of new terms on the inside of your notebook or study guide folder as you read through material in the first few weeks. Having this list constantly handy means that you can quickly refer to a word, check its meaning and read on with little interruption to the flow of your reading, and therefore to your interpretation of the meaning.
- searching the Internet. There are several online thesaurus sites for word meanings and synonyms. Searching for a term such as epistemology reveals a range of sites from which depth of meaning can be gained.
- having a list of new terms on a whiteboard - it's a bit like learning vocabulary for a second language. Revising the meaning of each word each time you see the board rehearses the word and helps you remember it for the next time you read it.
- seeking and finding associations for new terms. For example, one student learnt the word ‘cognitivism’ by relating it to the word ‘recognise’.
- attaching examples to new terms so that the meaning of the word is remembered through the example
- talking about the new terms with others and explaining the meaning to someone else - this way you take ownership of the new vocabulary you are meeting
- asking for clarification (and maybe examples) through discussion lists or chat sessions for papers with active Stream support facilities - do not be afraid to do this. Take the initiative. If you do not understand, there are bound to be other people who do not understand either, so the posted reply will help others as well as you.
- Using tutorials fully - whilst tutors may have tasks they have decided to include in the tutorials, they also like students to raise questions and so this is a good time and place to ask about certain terms that you do not think you fully understand.
Some textbooks are definitely more user friendly than others. Titles, subtitles and margin notes all give helpful hints to the author's meaning, but even then some complex sentences need to be carefully and deliberately deconstructed for the full interconnectedness of the message to be clear. For example:
For nearly a decade, as the problem of youth unemployment worsened, as race and gender inequalities became more politicised, and as crime and other signs of unrest increased, the education system was subjected to more and more public criticism.
Knowing how paragraphs are constructed can help a reader sort out the information and decide which points are the most important. See the section on essay body paragraphs.
This may occur because the combination of words is unusual and unexpected. Therefore we worry that the picture we get may not be the interpretation the author intended.
Additionally, we need to realise that when an author uses words that belong to a set, they are using a metaphor for their approach to an issue. The metaphor provides us with information on the writer's values and assumptions and gives us a clue to their construct of the concept.
For example, literacy campaigns are often described in either medical terms or military terms. That is authors write that millions of people are victims of an epidemic and that the disease of illiteracy must be stamped out; people's learning problems are diagnosed; and they may go to a clinic for assessment and a curative programme. Using the military metaphor, groups will declare war on illiteracy and campaigns will be strategically placed for target populations so that this threat to the country is conquered.
Critical reading includes deciphering the inferred meaning of the author's words, as well as understanding the surface meaning.
Some disciplines (e.g. law) adhere to writing in a particular style. Because it is difficult, we tend to postpone having to do such reading. However, if you give it a go and read examples then you become familiar with the type of language (e.g. that used in laws and acts) and get used to the structure of the writing too.
Use the RAP comprehension strategy where this type of writing is a problem:
- For a start read each sentence and decode it by putting its meaning into everyday language. Then move on to the next sentence.
- Each time you do this you will find you are getting used to the language and structure and the barrier that the discipline's language posed will disappear.
References and further reading
Morton, A. D. (2002). Gramsci, realism and revolution. Retrieved from http://www.theglobalsite.ac.uk/review/210morton.htm