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Some Tips for Reading Difficult or Challenging Material

Most of you have told me that you're in school so that you can "get a better job." The working world is difficult - and employers are willing to pay for people who can think their way through a problem. The skills you learn by learning to read and understand difficult material are precisely the kinds of skills that employers are willing to pay you for in that "better job."

  1. What is your purpose in reading?
  2. Many students treat all reading in the same way, and this prevents them from getting the most out of their reading time. Ask yourself what your "purpose" is when you sit down to read. Are you skim reading to get the gist of the material, or are you reading for detail? Are you trying to pull out the main ideas - or looking for how the author applies her ideas? Are there key concepts or facts that have to be committed to memory? As an active reader, you must recognize that not all reading materials are the same. Would you read the comics in the newspaper the same way you would read information about the side effects of a medication you are taking? No, of course not! Try to recognize that some texts are harder than others, and some texts require completely different reading strategies. First - determine your purpose in reading the material.

  3. Throw away your highlighter!!
  4. No, I haven't lost my mind! Every time you reach for your highlighter - INSTEAD, stop, think, and write yourself a note in the margin, or on a separate sheet of paper if you don't want to mark the book (sticky notes work well if you don't want to write in a book). The note should say exactly what you were thinking when you went to highlight the material. For example: "this 'idea' is important because...." or "this word means...." You will find that these little notes to yourself mean much more when you come back to review the text than streaks of highlighter. They will guide you weeks, months or even years later, when you come back to the material.

    If you have questions, try putting a question mark in the margin, to cue you to ask your instructor, or look the concept up in a dictionary. Better yet - try to find out the meaning as you are reading. It can be slow going, but if you are reading without understanding, you are wasting your time. Making notes instead of highlighting gets you more involved in the reading process.

  5. Understand the reading process.
  6. When experts read difficult materials, they read "actively." This includes adjusting their reading speed - they tend to read very slowly, and re-read sections often. They make notes as they read and keep a dictionary close by - one for basic words they don't understand, and another more specific, subject oriented dictionary (like the Dictionary of Sociology, or a medical dictionary, depending on your discipline). Circle or make a note of any word or concept you don't understand, and look it up, then write down the meaning in your own words, or in easy to understand words. We all need to work hard to learn and develop a specialized vocabulary. Reading with the proper tools close by will help you to succeed.

  7. Understand the conversation.
  8. All writing is part of a bigger conversation, although many introductory and technical readings are meant to equip you with the basic skills and vocabulary to enter into higher level conversations. Many students fail to "get" their reading, because they cannot see the bigger conversation of which their assigned reading is a part. For some materials, it helps to find out who the author is, when did they live, and where? Why did the author write what you are reading? For other kinds of materials, it does not really matter who wrote the material, but it does help to understand what part of your discipline the material is meant to help you to understand.

    Sometimes it helps to consider to whom the piece you are reading appears to be addressed. Is it meant for other scholars or people who have specialized knowledge? Is it meant for people who do not know anything about the area/field of study? Is it addressed to the general public, or just to specialists?

    Active reading also means considering the author's purpose. Is the author trying to convince the reader to take action? To convince the reader that someone else is wrong, and the author's view is right?

  9. "Chunk" or break up the reading.
  10. When you are just learning to read difficult texts, you are likely to treat all the words the same - but they are not the same! Experienced readers are able to break a reading down into parts - sometimes sentences, sometimes paragraphs, sometimes whole sections of books. The main point is that writers use words to do different things. An experienced reader will break down the reading into chunks and say "this part is giving evidence for a claim the writer made" and "this part summarizes her argument" and "this part is telling me what is to come in the next section?" Some entire books may be lists and lists of facts - if you can break these up into logical groups, it will help you to understand and remember the reading.

  11. Converse with the author
  12. Most pieces of writing are designed to change the reader's mind or convince the reader of something. Your job as a reader is to understand what the text is saying, but also to enter into a conversation with the author. As you begin to understand what the author is saying, ask yourself if you agree or disagree. Listen, react - write it down. If you were in a "live" conversation, you would be playing an active part - it's the same when you are reading. (Not all reading material is a conversation - for instance, a technical manual on wiring electrical circuits is probably pretty factual, but at some level in every discipline, there are conversations and arguments going on.)

  13. Try writing "what it says" and "what it does."
  14. When you're reading, take a paragraph and write a sentence, in your own words, that re-states what the paragraph says (this is hard, but worth the effort!). Then, think about what the paragraph "does" for the author: i.e., gives evidence, summarizes someone else's argument, provides background information. Or, if the paragraph is filled with a myriad of technical facts and information - try to summarize them into one or two main points in your own words. This active process will help you to remember what the paragraph is saying.

  15. Take responsibility for your own learning.
  16. You are responsible for understanding assigned readings not covered in class. Many students are poor readers because of a vicious cycle: professors explain readings because students are poor readers - then students stay poor readers because they know professors will explain the readings. By realizing YOU are responsible for learning the material, you will engage with the material at a much deeper level, and learn much more.

  17. Dealing with disciplinary jargon and cultural codes.
  18. Every discipline, from history to nursing to engineering to aquaculture has its own language. Many students are frustrated and overwhelmed when they start to read materials that have a lot of unfamiliar words and concepts. Additionally, to understand any piece of writing, the reader has to understand the "cultural codes" implicit in the content of the text. This may mean understanding the culture in which the text was written, the disciplinary context, the idiosyncrasies of the original language, or knowing something about the historical period in which the text was written.

    To illustrate the importance of cultural codes to readers, [Bean uses] a "Far Side" cartoon showing a group of partying dogs, hoisting drinks inside a doghouse. One dog is speaking to another; the caption says, "Oh hey! Fantastic party! Tricksy! Fantastic!....Say, do you mind telling me which way to the yard?" Understanding this cartoon requires a surprising amount of cultural knowledge:

    That dogs in middle-class America frequently live in dog houses.

    That at middle-class parties, people stand around holding drinks.

    That bathrooms are often hard to find in middle-class homes, so guests have to ask the host discretely where they are located.

    That middle-class homes have backyards.

    That dogs relieve themselves in backyards.(Bean, 1996, p. 141).

  19. Give yourself a break!
  20. This is hard stuff - and you're not going to learn overnight. Never, never think that you don't understand because you're not smart enough. You CAN understand it - sometimes you just need some help. I can guarantee you that if you are wondering what something means, at least two or three other people (and usually more) are also wondering. Be brave, ask for help and clarification, ask questions in class, look words up in the dictionary. And remember to pace yourself and take breaks. No one can read hard stuff for hours at a time, so be nice to yourself!

Helping students learn to read difficult and challenging material

Suggestions for Faculty

John Bean (2001) argues that when it comes to reading required material, professors and students are caught in a vicious circle: students do not do the reading, and so professors explain what the reading says. Because students know that professors will explain the reading, they do not do the reading and rely on their professor's interpretations - thus they never engage the material directly and reach their own interpretations. He suggests that to break the vicious circle students need to be taught how to read critically and with purpose. Just a few of his ideas are presented here - his book has many, many more excellent ideas.

At Malaspina and many other learning institutions, most students are working at paid jobs for many hours each week. More and more, they have little time to study. We can help them to succeed by helping them to learn to read actively, critically and with purpose. Bean suggests a three pronged approach to helping students learn to read difficult materials:

  1. Identify and explain the skills used in active reading. (See handout on "Tips for Reading Difficult Material.")

    Class activity: Go over the different steps involved in reading different kinds of materials. Adapt the suggestions to your own discipline.

  2. Model how you read difficult materials, showing the skills that you may have taken for granted. Bean believes that instructors who show students how they read (and write) are very powerful role models.

    Class activity: Copy a chunk of something you have asked your students to read. On it, circle words that you look up in the dictionary and write out their plain English meaning. Circle passages that raise a question you cannot answer. Write in the margins - in short, make visible the labour involved in understanding a difficult piece of reading.

  3. Practice reading actively in groups, at first in class in a group workshop, and hopefully then students will have the skills to read in this manner on their own. (See handout on Group reading workshop.)

    Class activity: In-class reading workshop. Bean makes a number of excellent suggestions for these workshops:

    1. Group size matters. Bean argues that five or six people is best, as groups of three split into a pair and a single, and groups of four split into two pairs. In a group of five or six, people are more likely to work together.

    2. Choose groups randomly. Bean suggests that when students are working with people they do not know, they act more professionally. All you need to do is choose the number of groups you would like, and then have students "count off" to that number. For example, for six groups, start at one corner of the room, and have someone call out "one," the next person "two," and so on. Then, gather all the "ones" in one spot, the "twos" in another, etc.

    3. Make the group responsible for producing a product. This could be answers to discussion questions about the reading, or whatever you'd like the students to get out of the reading. They all have to sign the document, and hand it in at the end of the allotted time.

    4. Ensure that each group elects a "recorder" who will take the notes for the group, and verbally report the results to the class. Also make sure that each group chooses a "checker" whose job it is to make sure that everyone, including themselves, participates. It is the checker's job to draw out shy people, or those whose first language is not English.


    Bean, John. C. (1996). Engaging Ideas. San Francisco: Jossey Bass. The ideas in this handout are largely drawn from the work of John Bean.