I’m not a native English speaker but my reading ability is good. However, when it comes to academic books, I feel that my comprehension is slow. What strategies or methods can I use to help me improve that? I am in the field of computer science.

  • 1
    You might want to get some testing done with an educational psychologist to see what's slowing you down, and what coping strategies are recommended. Mar 29, 2018 at 3:32
  • I doubt there is any need for a psychologist... Reading computer science textbooks is difficult for everyone. Probably what's slowing OP down is the vast amount of unfamiliar material, which is often not explained clearly.
    – littleO
    Mar 31, 2018 at 0:09

4 Answers 4


You are not alone. Even highly educated native speakers find academic books hard. For the reasons for that see Michael Billig's book Learn to Write Badly (Cambridge University Press, 2013). It might amuse and comfort you.

Assuming you have to read a whole book, the strategy I suggest is to go through the thought process that the author should have gone through before putting pen to paper by asking yourself the following questions in the order given:

  1. What single big question is the book trying to answer? You would hope to find that stated very early on in the book, in an introduction or preface. Sometimes that may not be clear: that is not your fault.
  2. What is the answer? Sometimes considerate authors tell you the answer just after they have told you the question. Frequently authors are not considerate in that way. A good place to look is any chapter headed "Conclusions".
  3. What in outline are the author's reasons for that answer? Chapter headings might provide an answer to that, but sometimes you will have to dig a little deeper, skimming the beginnings and ends of the chapters themselves.

Don't be afraid of skimming the book to try to find the answers to these questions. Until you can answer them, simply ploughing through the book will be hard and unrewarding work. 4. How does the author support each of the reasons given? To answer that you will probably need to do a bit of ploughing, but don't expect to understand all the detail first time through. Keep constantly in your mind where the book is going, that is Questions 1-3 above.

When you have done all the above you can go into as much detail as you need to master the author's whole approach.

  • I would even break that down further into determining what each chapter is trying to answer first and then building the larger picture of the book. If it's a paper it would be analogous to ask what each section is trying to say/prove. Keep breaking down the book/paper to the smallest part you understand and build up from there. Mar 28, 2018 at 14:22
  • One piece of advice I heard was to read the first chapter and then the last chapter to get the « feel » then read all of it... The more you read - the better your vocabulary gets as well...
    – Solar Mike
    Mar 28, 2018 at 21:16
  • 1
    A similar approach is presented in Paul Edwards' resource How to Read a Book (pne.people.si.umich.edu/PDF/howtoread.pdf). He further emphasizes what to write down and how to take useful notes. Mar 30, 2018 at 23:06

Many textbook publishers, authors, and editors go to a great amount of effort to create useful review questions and exercises, as well as designing the chapter outlines and summaries for readability.

If most of the issue is language-related, you could try a few of the following strategies:

  • "Pre-learn" vocabulary: Look at chapter summaries/vocabulary lists and looking up definitions of key words (in the book's glossary, ideally, or in a dictionary/online).

  • After reading chapter summaries, go to any examples in the text first, especially if they use code or math or process diagrams. Because these are less reliant on language, you may be able to get the overall idea quicker, then read about it.

  • You can check your comprehension, if you're not sure about it, by doing exercises (especially those with answers in the back of the book) or trying to answer review questions. (Your professor may have recommendations for places to find good questions with answers to check on this material.)

  • Talk with other students and professors about the material. If you write out answers to the book's review questions, others may be willing to look over and discuss what you wrote.

Even if you what you're reading isn't specially structured for learning, you may be able to do some of the above. On top of that:

  • Become more familiar with how researchers talk about the subject by listening to online talks and going to on-campus talks.

  • You could look for materials in your native language that cover similar material, to help you understand some of the shades of meaning in the concepts. For instance, you could search for your course text on Google Scholar, look at the list of works that cite it or the list of "related works" and see if any are in your native language.


Here are some additional ideas *read the preface-the preface provides an overview of the entire text. It explains the purpose, intended audience, features of the text, and often a summary of each chapter. Students are in such a hurry to read the often don't know why they are reading and understanding the purpose helps.

*read the objectives/questions in each chapter-most academic texts have objectives/questions that are addressed in the chapter because explaining what you will teach before teaching it is a tenet of western instructional design. If you know what to expect in the chapter it is easy to follow the flow of the text. Again many students skip this to read without purpose.

This pattern of sharing objectives before details applies at the chapter level as objectives and at the chapter section level as main ideas for paragraphs. Academic writing is a most always deductive in nature.

*summarize-you can try to write a summary or try and explain the text to someone who is a non-academic. The best thing I ever did to understand my own studies was to explain to nonexperts. It really forced me to see the point in simple language. If you can teach it to a novice then you know it.


At least in mathematics, but also partially in CS, there are quite visible "levels" of the book.

  1. The general concept.
  2. The basic ideas, the "what".
  3. The details, the "how".

You might want to read a book multiple times, first gasping the "what". In mathematics there is a very clean separation in definitions and theorems (the "what") and proofs (the "how").

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