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.

Consider Historical and Cultural Context

Whether they are writing about the past, present, or future, all writers are influenced by the culture and time in which they write. For example, an essay on voting rights that was written by a freed slave in 1870 is likely to be very different than an essay on the same topic written by a modern-day immigrant from Sudan. Though tackling a similar topic, these two authors would be writing their essays in very different contexts, or circumstances.

To truly understand a text, it is important to consider the text’s historical and cultural context. What was happening at the time this work was written, both in the writer’s hometown and in the world at large? What issues or social problems were people grappling with? By uncovering answers to questions like these, you can often gain deeper insights into the text under study. In addition, use these strategies to help you analyze the historical and cultural context of any informational text:

  • Read the text deliberately. Begin by carefully reading through the text once, paying attention to any details that seem significant. Identify the genre of the text. Capture questions that arise as you read. Make note of any cultural or historical markers you encounter, such as descriptions of customs, movements, important figures, or historic events.
  • Consider the author. Personal factors such as gender, ethnicity, family, and national identity all influence an author’s values and opinions. In what time period did he or she write? What other works have you read by the author? What culture does he or she identify with? If the author is unfamiliar to you, perhaps do some light research to learn more about him or her.
  • Focus on the background. If you are familiar with the time period in which the author wrote, make note of key events from that period, and consider how they might have affected the author. If you are unfamiliar with the time period, do some online research.
  • Reread the text. With a clearer sense of the context, reread or review the text. This time, look for details that are specific to what you learned about the context. For example, suppose you discovered that South Sudan recently seceded from Sudan, and that the author of the essay you are reading took part in the vote that won South Sudan’s independence. Given this context, you might reread the essay, looking for language or statements that reflect the author’s unique feelings about the importance of the right to vote.