Understanding What You Read
Many college students become very frustrated by the materials they are instructed to read. Students often find the textbooks they are assigned very difficult to comprehend. The question we need to ask is who is to blame for this: the textbook authors; the instructors who assign them; the students? I think the answer lies somewhere else. Though students have the primary responsibility for their college education it is not entirely their fault that they are unable to comprehend college level reading material. I believe the primary fault lies with their earlier education. In particular, the fault lies with those who passed them on even though they were not really capable of doing grade level work. Sometimes this is the work of their teachers, but more often it is due to the upper hand of an administration that is committed to outcomes as opposed to knowledge. What do I mean by this? Please see my evidence below.
It is common knowledge that schools receive funding based partially on statistics such as retention rates. Who passes to the next grade and who fails largely determines a school’s reputation. Never mind whether the students are really prepared to move on, they are often promoted to preserve the illusion of progress and success. When it comes time to graduate high school many students do not have a 12th grade reading ability. Without this, they are certain to find college difficult and many may be doomed to fail out entirely.
Here’s one shocking statistic that tells the tale: according to the 2004 National Assessment of Educational Progress, Only three out of ten eighth graders read at or above grade level. What are the odds that this number has gone up to ten out of ten by the time the student graduates high school?
So, where does this leave the student? Unfortunately, as I said before, the student is the one who is primarily responsible for their education. Colleges cannot afford to water down their material otherwise it is no longer college level material. Students must work to correct their deficiencies but first they must recognize them. Doing so can be a struggle because it is often easier to blame instructors for assigning difficult reading or blame the text itself for being too difficult to read. Insofar as blame does any good it should at least be directed at the correct source. The blame lies on whomever convinced the student that they were ready to do college level work.
Reading is a lot like exercise in that you have to start slow and continue to work up to a higher level. If you were lifting weights you would not begin with 200 pounds! You might eventually be able to bench press 200 pounds but you would not attempt this at first. So, in reading you begin slowly but you must progress. College level reading will require that you progress, and more importantly, becoming a more advanced reader will bring greater rewards. You will gain more knowledge and more confidence in your ability to handle subtle and difficult concepts. You also will find that the more advanced your skills become the more enjoyable you find “difficult” materials because they are subtle, complex, and rewarding on many levels.
One of the difficulties in improving an individual’s reading skill is to recognize that in order to do this they must improve their overall knowledge. Reading comprehension is about more than simply understanding the words on the page, it also entails understanding the concepts and references made in the reading. This is why you are encouraged to broaden your education and learn about many different subject areas as you go through school. The more you know, the more your reading skills will improve; the more your reading skills improve, the more you can learn. It is a positive feedback loop.
The most practical tip to improve your reading skills is to keep reading! Don’t become frustrated because the more you read, the more you will improve your reading skills. Quantity is not the key to achieving this. You must actively work to improve the quality of your reading. Reading can be fun and challenging. Reading can be rewarding on many levels as it adds to your knowledge and understanding of the world. Another important key is to find out why you don’t understand what you read. Is it because the concepts are difficult? Is it because the words are unfamiliar? Always keep in mind, especially when reading textbooks, that the author’s intent is not to confuse you. No, the author is trying to explain something clearly. The reason you are having trouble is not because the book is written to confuse you. The trouble may be because you are facing the challenge of understanding difficult concepts. The trouble could be because you are faced with new words. The solution here is simple; look them up.
There also may be another problem, a problem that is more difficult to correct but worth the effort it will take to correct it. The problem may be your lack of context. This is precisely the issue that E.D. Hirsch is addressing in the Literacy essay I mentioned above. As Hirsch points out, many textbook explanations “presuppose a whole realm of background knowledge that has no existence in the words themselves.” This is what makes such reading difficult. You might be wondering why textbook authors, or authors in general, do this. Why not simply explain the background material? If you consider the difficulty in doing this, you will understand why it is not done. There is simply too much necessary background knowledge to explain all of it. As an author, you have to assume your reader knows something. If authors didn’t do this every book would be so long no one would ever read it them!
Learn as much as you can. The more you know, the easier it will be to learn new things because we all learn by connecting the new ideas and concepts to something we already know. Learning about chemistry is easier if you know a little about biology. Learning about philosophy is easier if you know something about psychology. Learning about physics is easier if you know some mathematics. And so it goes. At this point you may have to play catch up because you didn’t learn what you needed earlier. I had to do this myself. It was difficult to do at first but became easier. The more you know, the more connections you can make, and this is when the real fun of learning begins. Start looking for these connections to improve your learning and start reading books which make the connections between different disciplines. If you’re taking my Introduction to Philosophy course this is a good place to begin. Have you already taken a psychology course? If so, make the connections there. Are you planning on taking a sociology course? If so, you will have another opportunity to make connections. Do you think your interests don‘t connect with the subject you’re studying? If so, you’re not looking hard enough.