The challenge of academic reading

International students typically report that among the four language skills, they feel most comfortable reading. Nonetheless their primary challenges in this area will be vocabulary and the syntax of academic sentences. Determining the meanings of words can be time consuming, and when a text contains too many unfamiliar words, understanding the content is jeopardized. If new vocabulary is not excessive, students can still be challenged by sentence structures with such high information density that they are unable to accurately process the connections between discrete units of information in and across sentences. The latter is especially important because, unlike being unsure of a word’s meaning, students may not know that they have an inaccurate understanding of the text due to its sentence level complexity.

Tips for students (reading)

    • Do not look up every new word in a dictionary or translator as you read. You will need to use your own judgment here, but if you are looking up more than one word per sentence, you might not be able to focus on the overall message. It will be better to use the context to understand unknown words and guess their meaning as you go. If it is not too distracting, make a list of new words that you can check on later. As long as looking up words is not too distracting it is a good practice.
    • Do keep a written journal of new vocabulary words. If you make a list of new words during or after reading a passage, you can see which ones are repeated and you should be able to decide which ones are most important for understanding the content you are learning. The repeated words and content words are the ones you should study by adding the appropriate meaning, example sentences, and other usage information to your vocabulary journal.
    • When you look up the meanings of words, use a monolingual “learners dictionary”—not a translator.Automatic translators are well-known for being inaccurate because they do not consider the context of the English word and many translators may not have high quality translation and definition software. A learners dictionary will provide much more useful information about a word, some of which you should include in your vocabulary journal.
    • Use This is an excellent resource for knowing how common a word is. If it is in the top 3000 words and/or common in your academic area, you should learn it. In the wordandphase, you can see many examples of how the word is actually used in real sentences. You can also see synonyms that are more general and more specific and you can look up phrases to find appropriate synonyms for accurately paraphrasing.
    • Focus on the grammatical subject and main verb of independent clauses—this is where the core meaning of English sentences is located. Subordinate information (less important details related to the subject and verb) are located in adverbial verb phrases, noun modifiers, and prepositional phrases.
    • Preview any reading by looking at the section headings to get an idea of what the  chapter or article is about and how the information is organized.
    • Write a brief outline and summary as you are reading. Academic texts usually put the main ideas at the beginning of paragraphs, so focus on first sentences.

Tips for teachers (reading)

While there may not be a lot that teachers can do to make their readings more comprehensible for language learners, there are a few practices that should be beneficial.

  • If any of your readings are in electronic form, please contact the Office of International Student Academic Support. If you send us electronic copies of materials, we can use freely available online linguistic analysis software to make lists of key words that are specific to academic writing in general and to particular subject areas. If you also provide us with a course schedule, we can email these lists to you for distribution to students in advance of the reading dates. Seriously. We can do this for you.

If we have time, we may also be able to identify sentences that are particularly syntactically challenging, and, thus, would be good candidates for class discussion.

    • As implied by the previous sentence, we recommend that faculty highlight at least one syntactically complicated sentence per reading for detailed study during class time. There are many benefits to this practice: 1) modeling the kind of close reading that we expect of all students, 2) emphasizing the importance of the readings and the language they are conveyed in, 3) clarifying for students the relationship between the linear words in a sentence and the hierarchical meaning structure of the information contained therein, and 4) improving students global language skills by focusing on the form and meaning of the message and paraphrasing / summarizing / clarifying together. You may be surprised at how unpacking a single sentence as a class or in small groups can reveal misunderstandings, multiple interpretations, and ultimately improved reading comprehension for all students.
  • Create an outline or other type of graphic organizer of the information for students to fill out as they are reading.