Reading for Detailed Understanding

Read actively to gain a clear understanding of the material. Think critically about material by asking questions of the text and trying to incorporate the responses into your existing knowledge.

Consider the way an author has constructed the text to present his or her arguments:  thesis, underlying structure, arrangement of ideas, paragraph development. Thinking about the structure of the text will help you to understand how the pieces fit together or it, indeed, they do.

Follow the three steps below.

1. Survey the work to identify the argument. (You may already have done this when assessing it for selection in your working bibliography.) Surveying the text is essential preparation for the more detailed reading that follows. Write a short (two or three sentences) summary of the main argument or findings of the text, and refer back to this summary as you read. Understanding the general argument of a text ensures you have a context for your reading of the supporting arguments and details of evidence it presents. 

  • The title. A title such as “Spruce Bud Worm: Much Ado About Nothing” suggests not only the topic, but also the direction of the thesis.

  • Table of contents/subject headings. A good table of contents is like an outline: it will indicate the shape of the author’s argument. Consider what sections come first? Last? Which sections are the largest? What gets little attention?

  • Introduction. An author’s introduction is just like yours. The introduction will act as a guide for the entire text. It should contain a thesis, or establish the terrain to be explored and state priorities.

  • Conclusion. The conclusion should provide a good sense of the author’s argument, where it ends up, and what the author considers most important about the subject.


2. Determine your purpose.

Before you begin to read, determine what your purpose is in reading this text for detailed understanding. You must have decided that you need the information in this text for a major chunk or chunks of your essay. Knowing what you want to discover will allow you to read more actively, to pay particular attention to the passages most relevant to your purpose, and to skip what is irrelevant.


3.   Read for meaning.

Use your knowledge of essay structure and language to decipher difficult passages.


  • Check for patterns of rhetorical and organizational development. Is the author dealing with a subject chronologically? Is there a movement from general to specific ideas? Is there a cause-and-effect development? Pay particular attention to transitional words and phrases, for they can supply a context for the sentence or paragraph to come.

  • Use paragraph structure to decipher a passage. Every author knows that a paragraph should contain one main idea. A topic or summary sentence will help you to determine the main idea of the paragraph.

  • Break down the sentences if the prose is particularly difficult, or if the sentences are extremely complex. Read aloud through difficult passages, and concentrate on key phrases. If you have enough knowledge of grammar, try to parse the sentence; identify the subjects and verbs of a complex sentence to unlock its meaning.

  • Use a dictionary or a discipline-specific glossary of terms. Keep a list of important new terms and their meanings close by.


Detailed understanding should be your first aim in reading material that will be central to your essay, and gaining such understanding may occupy a good deal of your research time, no matter how effective your reading methods. It’s essential to thoroughly comprehend the material that forms the basis of your argument, so take the time to read your most important sources for detailed understanding.

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