Reading and Understanding Texts

Ho'omana Nathan Horton and Paul Sims

2.1 Reading the text and getting started

When writing a summary, one very common tendency is to focus too much on only one or two points or details of the text and fail to provide the reader with an overall view of the entire text. It may help to think of a summary as a shrunken version of the original text. To help visualize this, imagine that the source text is a t-shirt with a pattern covering the entire shirt. If you want to make the shirt smaller but still show the pattern, you cannot simply cut off the sleeves or the bottom half of the shirt and put them together. You must shrink the entire shirt and keep everything the way that you found it. As you write your summary, keep this image in mind, and as you revise, make sure that you can see the overall image of the original text.

As mentioned above, one important purpose of a summary is to help you understand the text, and in some cases, show others that you understand the text. Therefore, it is essential that you read the text thoroughly at least twice in order to develop a basic understanding of the ideas. Below are some tips for reading a text which you will be summarizing:

  • Annotate as you read. It is extremely helpful when reading to annotate the text (highlight, underline, make notes). These notes will help you to understand the text as you read it again, and will also help you keep track of important ideas.
  • Find the thesis. Remember that in your own writing, there is an underlying thesis, the main point (or points) of the text, which holds everything together, and all of the details and support in the text should point to and support this thesis. The same is true of most writing that you will read, so finding the thesis first will be greatly helpful as you attempt to understand and summarize the text.
  • Pay close attention to headings and subheadings. Most academic articles (and even many news articles, especially online) have headings and subheadings. These will help you to understand the material, but will also help you when determining how you will organize your summary and which details you will include. As you read, pay attention to the headings and subheadings and consider how each section contributes to the overall thesis of the text.

2.2 Strategies for successful reading

Although the tips above may help you understand how to read and understand a text generally, readers often get stuck at the paragraph or sentence level. Sometimes you may have difficulty understanding new terminology. If you’re reading something from a new, unfamiliar discipline, you may have a hard time understanding a text without having background information. Sometimes, you may just get bored while reading. Below, we offer some specific strategies to help you stay on track while reading and understand texts at the sentence, paragraph, and whole-text level. If you’re having trouble reading, stop, take a deep breath, and try some of the strategies below to get a better grasp on what the author is trying to express.

  • Skimming: Quickly look through the headings and subheadings: See if you can figure out what the author is trying to say; in other words, what his or her point is. Look for words related to headings and subheadings in the text.
  • Framing: Read the first sentence of a paragraph, then go the bottom of the paragraph. Ask yourself: Are you having difficulty understanding how the author got to the final sentence? If so, go back through the paragraph and read the rest of it, looking for the same or similar words from the initial and last sentences.
  • Scanning: If you are looking for a particular word, identify that word and search the printed text using your index finger, or with digital text, by scrolling and looking for it with your eyes.
  • Referencing: Keep a dictionary on hand, especially when you are reading what you find to be a difficult text or it is in a discipline that is unfamiliar to you. Your dictionary can either be digital or print.


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Reading and Understanding Texts Copyright © 2020 by Ho'omana Nathan Horton and Paul Sims is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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