Tips for Reading Nonfiction

Need help reading the websites, speeches, and articles featured on this site?
Use these core strategies to tackle even the most complex informational texts.

Determine Word Meaning

When reading informational texts, you are bound to encounter unfamiliar words and specialized vocabulary. Though it can be distracting to stop and look up the meaning of every word you don’t recognize, you might have a difficult time understanding the text otherwise.

Here are some strategies that can help you determine word meaning:

  • Scan the text for domain-specific vocabulary. Some informational texts are laden with domain-specific vocabulary, or terms that are specific to a particular field of knowledge, such as cardiac surgery and software development. If you encounter domain-specific words, look for footnotes or definitions of those words within the text. If the words are not defined, consult an online dictionary before reading further.
  • Make note of unfamiliar words. While reading, jot down any words that are unfamiliar to you. If you can understand the gist of the text without knowing the meaning of a specific word, read on and determine the meaning of that unfamiliar word later. However, if you can’t understand the writer’s ideas without knowing the word’s meaning, try these strategies:

    Use context clues. The context of a word is made up of the punctuation marks, words, sentences, and paragraphs that surround the word. For example, a writer may provide a restatement of the word’s meaning, offer an example following the word, or compare the word with a more familiar word or concept. Noticing such clues as you read can help you infer the meaning of an unfamiliar word.

    Consider word parts. Look for any familiar prefixes, suffixes, or roots in the word that might help you guess the word’s meaning. For example, if you know that the root cede means “to go” or “to leave,” then you might be able to guess what precede, recede, and secede mean.

    Look up definitions. You can use an online dictionary or a print dictionary to look up words you don’t know. If the term you are looking up is domain-specific and not included in a standard dictionary, you might try using a search engine to locate the meaning.