It is likely that you will come across many challenging sources in your studies which include unfamiliar vocabulary and complex ideas. There are a number of strategies you can use to help you understand difficult sources. These include sequencing your reading, developing your own subject glossaries and deciding how to engage with challenging texts like journal articles.
Sequence your reading
As your knowledge of a topic develops, you will be more able to engage with challenging texts.
Tips for sequencing your reading:
Start with overview texts, 'Introduction To...' texts or textbooks aimed at students.
If you are struggling to understand the middle chapter or section of a text, then go back to look at the introduction again and look at the conclusions to see where the text is going.
Read and re-read difficult sections of text. You may need to read a sentence two or three times before you fully understand it.
Leave more complex texts, such as journal articles, to a later stage of your research.
Keep a glossary
As a student, you are entering a new field of knowledge with its own concepts, technical language and acronyms. Don't ignore language which is difficult to understand. Find out what it means using subject dictionaries, and keep track of vocabulary in your own glossary. Concepts can be complex and nuanced. As your understanding of the topic develops, revise your glossary entries.
If you need to learn lots of concepts quickly, consider making your own flashcards and testing yourself using a flashcard app such as quizlet.
Read around the topic
If the text is difficult to understand, look at the reference list, recommended further reading or other work written by the same author. Other texts may give a better introduction to the topic, explain concepts in more detail, or give you an understanding of the author's position on the topic.
Reading an academic article
Academic (journal) Articles are written by researchers to share their latest findings with other researchers. This means they can contain new and interesting results, however they can also be written in very specialised language.
Before you start reading an article ask yourself the following questions:
Do you understand the title? If there is lots of unknown vocabulary in the title, it is unlikely the text will be useful for you.
Do you understand the abstract? The abstract will give you an idea of how technical an article is.
Are the keywords associated with the article relevant to your focus?
Decide which sections of the article may be relevant. As a student you are not necessarily expected to read all articles from beginning to end. Select the most relevant sections for you.
Click on the + to see the typical features of an academic article. You can open a full-screen version.
Checklist as you read
Consider the following questions on reading tests:
Do you start with easier sources such as introduction books before reading complex sources?
Do you keep a glossary of concepts, acronyms and technical language?
Do you select articles which appear relevant and clear to understand?
Do you decide which sections of an article to look at or just read the whole article from beginning to end?
Do you investigate related publications on a topic to develop a better understanding of a complex source?