Why is college reading so difficult?

The Lexicon—problems we all have with the words

1. Vocabulary

Academic communication aims at precision. There's very little space for "ya know what I mean?" to clean up misunderstandings or sloppy thinking.

College professors talk and write like college professors. They aim at precision and sometimes "extant" is just a better choice that "still in existence" or "surviving."

There really are no synonyms—at least not in the sense of "precisely identical"—so educated writers/speakers often choose a word that's nearly the same meaning as something you know, but has a slightly different "edge" to it. This is part of the passion for accuracy.

Many words have more than one meaning, and academic writers often use those secondary meanings. I once asked my students to respond to this quotation from Roger Scruton:

“We should not value education as a means to prosperity, but prosperity as a means to education. Only then will our priorities be right. For education, unlike prosperity, is an end in itself.”

Many of my students were unaware of the secondary definitions for means and end, so they "translated" this to say, "you will eventually get out of school, but you will always have money"—which is light-years away from the point Scruton was making. My students concluded that Scruton was an idiot and that I had wasted their time with gibberish. By the way, in case you needed it, here's a real translation of the Scruton quote:

“We should not value learning because it will get us money. We should value money because it can get us education. Education is valuable in itself, but money is only valuable because you can use it to buy other things. If your only aim is to get money, you are messed up.”

Your defense:

2. Jargon

Each little world of speakers/writers ("discourse community") develops its own way of saying things, and sometimes simple vocabulary words don't help you much. Here are three examples:

Angel:
General public: a spiritual being who is a servant of God.
Business world: a successful entrepreneur who is willing to invest gains in new ventures.
Bear:
General public: a large heavy animal that walks on the soles of its feet.
Business world: a person who forecasts that the prices of stocks will fall.
Bull:
General public: an uncastrated male bovine animal.
Business world: a person who buys shares hoping to sell them at a higher price later.

Your defense:

3. Idioms

The real definition of "idiom" is "the way we do it." All languages have them, and they are normally invisible to the people who use them. Here's an example from a highway sign advertising an insurance company:

I am here so I can be there for you.

Literally, that is total nonsense, but it makes sense if you know that "be there for you" is an informal American idiom that means "support you in your time of need." It has nothing to do with location, and people who use the idiom don't see the insanity of that sign.

Your defense:

4. Phrasal verbs

English often uses two-word combinations as a single verb. Some of these two-word combinations are functional (and looking up the words individually will not help you). Other two-word combinations make a new meaning that you cannot get by simply adding the two words together.

Here are some examples of functional combinations:

Meaningful combinations: Notice that

  1. You cannot always get to the meaning by simply adding the definitions of the two words.
  2. These are also idioms—we just do it this way, and there's no easy way to work it out logically. Many good (larger) dictionaries will list phrasal verbs under the main entry. (Go to "work" and read down through the entries to find "work out.")
  3. Though they are phrasal verbs, they remain two distinct words. They are not joined or hyphenated:
  4. Often we split a phrasal verb with another word: "George asked Martha out." (Invited her to a social evening) Splitting that phrasal verb can change the meaning:

More help:

Your ultimate best strategy

The only way to get good at college reading is to do it. Immerse yourself in it. Ask questions. Take a vivid interest in what you read. Get outside your field and read widely.


The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by Ashland University.

Revised 1/1/18 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: callen@ashland.edu.