How to Understand a Difficult Reading Passage

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We've all encountered chapters or books that we just can't get into or we don't understand. There are lots of reasons for this: sometimes we're required to read about a topic that is just plain boring, sometimes we try to read material that is written way above our current reading level, and sometimes we find that the writer is just plain bad at explaining things. It happens.

If you find yourself reading an entire chapter or book several times without understanding it, try taking the following steps. Be sure to do steps 1 to 3 before you jump in to read the text.

Difficulty: Hard

Time Required: Differs by length of written material

What You Need:

  • A difficult book or passage
  • Note paper
  • Pencil
  • Sticky note flags
  • Quiet room

How to Do It

1. Read the introduction and reflect. Any nonfiction article or book will have an introductory section that gives an overview of the main points. Read this first, then stop, think, and soak it in.
Reason: All textbooks on a certain topic are not created equal! Every writer has a certain theme or point of view, and that will be introduced in your introduction. It's important to understand this theme or focus because it will help you to recognize why certain examples or comments appear in your reading.

2. Look at the sub-headings. Most books or chapters will progress in some manner, whether they show a progression of time or an evolution of ideas. Look over the topics and try to find the pattern.
Reason: Writers begin the writing process with an outline. The subheadings or subtitles you see in your text show you how the author started when organizing his/her thoughts. Subtitles show the overall subject broken down into smaller segments which are arranged in the most logical progression. 

3. Read the summary and reflect. Right after you read the introduction and subheadings, flip to the back of the chapter and read the summary.
Reason: The summary should re-state the points that were mentioned in the introduction. (If they don't, then this really is a difficult book to understand!) This reiteration of the main points may offer the material in more depth or from a different viewpoint. Read this section, then stop and soak it in.

4. Read the material. Now that you've had time to understand the points the author is trying to convey, you're more apt to recognize them when they come along. When you see a major point, flag it with a sticky note. 

5. Take notes. Take notes and, if possible, make a brief outline as you read. Some people like to underline words or points in pencil. Only do this if you own the book.

6. Watch for lists. Always look for code words that tell you a list is coming. If you see a passage that says "There were three major effects of this event, and they all impacted the political climate," or something similar, you can be sure there is a list following. The effects will be listed, but they may be separated by many paragraphs, pages, or chapters. Always find them and make note of them.

7. Look up words you don't understand. Don't be in a rush! Stop whenever you see a word that you can't immediately define in your own words.
Reason: One word can indicate the entire tone or view of the piece. Don't try to guess the meaning. That can be dangerous! Make sure to look up the definition.

8. Keep on plugging through. If you're following the steps but you still don't seem to be soaking in the material, just keep reading. You'll surprise yourself.

9. Go back and hit the highlighted points. Once you get to the end of the piece, go back and review the notes you've made. Look over the important words, points, and lists.
Reason: Repetition is the key to retaining information.

10. Review the introduction and summary. When you do, you may find that you've absorbed more than you realized.


  1. Don't be hard on yourself. If this is hard for you, it's probably just as hard for other students in your class.
  2. Don't try to read in a noisy environment. That might be ok under other circumstances, but it's not a good idea when attempting difficult reading.
  3. Talk to others who are reading the same material.
  4. You can always join the homework forum and ask advice from others.
  5. Don't give up!
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Your Citation
Fleming, Grace. "How to Understand a Difficult Reading Passage." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Fleming, Grace. (2023, April 5). How to Understand a Difficult Reading Passage. Retrieved from Fleming, Grace. "How to Understand a Difficult Reading Passage." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).