Why can't I understand what I'm reading

Reading and understanding specialist textsChristian Damm

Finding the right reading style will make it faster.

During your studies you are confronted with large amounts of specialist literature that should, want or have to be read. Reading all texts from front to back is not only hardly possible in terms of time, but sometimes not even necessary. In order to be able to process large quantities, one must acquire reading strategies with the help of which one can organize one's own reading effectively. In short: you have to learn to read all over again; Reading straight away and working through texts from cover to cover, as we normally learned in elementary school and have practiced for many years - and hopefully continue to enjoy reading novels, magazines, etc. - is not a good strategy for To be able to profitably cope with the requirements of reading in the university.

How do I read scientific texts correctly?

As with writing, there is no single best and valid way for everyone to read. Basically, however, the following two things must be observed:

  1. Scientific reading is always active: as a reader, you need to have a goal, have an idea of ​​why you are reading the text, and be active in searching. As a passive consumer who just reads through the text, you won't get much benefit from it. Instead of just reading away, you should answer the question of what benefit or gain (learning something, finding the information you need, understanding connections, getting an overview, etc.) you could get from reading this text. Without this added value, reading becomes exhausting and unprofitable, and the risk of falling into passive consumption is very high.
  2. Reading specialist texts should always be prepared. Instead of just starting to read, get in the habit of skimming the text in front of you. The primary goal is to get an impression of what the text is roughly about. Use the table of contents, the chapter headings, sub-headings, the introduction and (intermediate) summaries and, if available, the foreword and the subject and keyword index. Only when you have got a first rough impression of what the text is about or what you can expect from the text should you decide whether you will read it and with what aim. If you decide to read the text more intensively, choose a reading strategy that suits you and edit the text accordingly. If you decide against it, put it aside with a clear conscience.

In addition to these basic aspects, you as the reader have to decide for yourself which reading strategy is the right one. Often, however, this already results from your goal.

What reading strategies should I adopt?

In the numerous advisory literature you will come across many differently named strategies. The following often applies here: The more strategies that are named, the smaller the differences between individual strategies. I recommend distinguishing four strategies from one another and combining them while reading in a way that benefits your interest in knowledge and reading goal.

a) Cursive or orientational reading - also called skimming

In orienting reading - also called simply skimming over - the focus is on getting a first impression of what the text is about. Before you read a technical text, you should generally skim it first to assess what you can expect from the text and what benefits a more intensive reading could bring. Ask yourself, “What can I expect from the text? What use could a more intensive reading have for me? ”With these questions in mind, concentrate but quickly look at the title, subtitle, table of contents, chapter headings and sub-headings. If available, skim the short summary or abstract, in the case of books the blurb and the foreword.

A quick look at the summary and the index can be worthwhile. All of this gives you a first impression of what the text is about. Do you already know what you are looking for? In other words, if you have a research or reading goal, you can now decide whether and, if so, how detailed you want to deal with the text or individual sections. Alternatively, you can extend the skim over to the entire text. To do this, let your eyes slide quickly from the beginning to the end of the pages. Don't read word for word! It's about an overview, not a deep understanding of the text. Then decide to read the text more intensively or deliberately not to read the text.

b) Selective reading

If only individual chapters of a book or individual sections of a text are relevant to you, selective reading is a good strategy. This also applies if you know exactly what you are looking for (e.g. specific information, definitions, etc.). In the first case, read only the relevant sections and ignore the rest. When looking for specific information, read quickly through the individual passages to the points where you can find what you are looking for. Read a little more intensively here. Leave everything else aside.

c) Comprehensive reading

Comprehensive reading is suitable for texts of medium complexity and importance and for texts that are about getting a general overview (e.g. texts that you want or need to prepare for course sessions). The aim here is to grasp the essential theses, the main statements and contextual content. Again, you'll start by skimming over and developing a reading goal. This can be very specific or more general (e.g. learning something about the subject matter discussed in the text and being able to comment on it). Most of the time, flying over them results in more specific goals. Then read the beginning and the end of paragraphs and skim the middle section.

In well-made texts, the essential information is in the first and last sentences of the paragraphs. In between you will find examples, digressions, detailed explanations, etc. If you notice that the text is not accessible to you, you can always read the middle parts more intensively. In order to grasp the main statements of a text, nobody has to read all the examples, digressions etc. of a text. As you read, mark important passages and make notes in the margin. When underlining, the following applies: do not underline entire sentences! If you tend to do so, it may be an indication that you have not yet understood the content sufficiently. If it is a key message or an important passage, it is better to write a short summary in your own words in the margin of the text than underline the entire sentence.

d) Intensive / thorough / compressive reading

Intensive reading - often also referred to as thorough or compressed reading - is the most complex and intensive form of reading a text. It is particularly suitable as a reading strategy for texts of high complexity and importance, e.g. B. basic studies on your topic or basic works on theoretical concepts that are central to your work or your subject area. In order to gain a deeper understanding of the text, to understand the arguments of the author and to form an initial critical opinion, it is advisable to ask or answer the following questions while reading:

  • What is the theme?
  • What is the question / the author's interest in knowledge?
  • What are the author's theses?
  • What are key terms and how are they defined?
  • Does the text follow on from existing discussions? If so, what are these from the author's point of view? What does the text say about other authors and their perspectives?
  • Which sources does the author use, how is this justified?
  • How does the author proceed methodically? How are the sources edited? Does this seem logical? Are alternative approaches conceivable?
  • Is the reasoning clear, logical and convincing or are there contradictions?
  • What are the results of the work as a whole / of the individual main chapters?
  • Can the author actually show what he claims?
  • Is there a convincing argument?
  • Which of the questions does the text raise and which does it answer?

To make the intensive reading as profitable as possible, take notes and pause several times to recapitulate. At the end of larger paragraphs, at the end of a chapter and at the end of the text, ask yourself: Which of the questions mentioned can I answer now and what are the answers to the questions? Without combining reading with writing and recapitulating regularly, intensive reading will bring little success because there are simply too many questions and information that you have to process. You can use your notes later as a basis for excerpts and your term paper or thesis.

Do I have to strictly adhere to one strategy when reading or can I also combine the strategies?

In general: Reading should bring you a profit. It is often the case that you only need individual chapters for books, while others are not relevant to your topic. It makes little sense to read the whole book intensively, instead it makes sense to read the individual sections with different strategies. In short: combine the strategies in a way that is expedient for your individual concern.