—Kenneth L.*, fourth-year student, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
What is it about academic writers who think they need to use, as my granny would say, “highfalutin” words? By the way, highfalutin means pompous or pretentious. I feel your desolation, misery, and general wretchedness. See? I could have just said, “I feel your pain,” and it would have been much clearer and to the point.
While I am poking fun at writers who use unfamiliar, unclear, or even showy language, I do think there is a time and place for academic vocabulary that may have us heading for the dictionary. Some terms are used to provide precision; for example, medical and science journals often use scientific terms because researchers and practitioners expect it, and it reduces confusion and uncertainty.
So what can you do to make your reading of academic journals more effective? Here are a few tips that can help you build reading and comprehension skills.
Look up unfamiliar words
I know this sounds simple, but there is no better way to improve your vocabulary. Paste the word into a website such as dictionary.com or do a quick internet search. Be sure to write down the definition—and maybe even start a doc with a running list of unfamiliar words and their meanings.
If you are determined to recall the new words you look up, consider creating flashcards of the terms, especially if you need to understand them beyond the reading assignment. For example, I used to struggle with statistical terms in journal articles and knew I needed to learn them well so my future reading would be easier.
Paraphrase key ideas
Putting new terms and concepts into your own words is a great way to remember what you’ve read. It builds comprehension skills as well. If you can’t quite grasp a concept, reach out to a professor, librarian, or other person with knowledge of the subject and ask them to explain it in plain language and/or provide real-life examples.
Your comprehension skills and vocabulary will improve as you read more and practice the strategies above. I used to look up “multiple regression analysis” every time I ran across it until I could put it into my own words and include an example or two to illustrate the concept. Now, I have a solid understanding of what it is.
Keep building your vocabulary and maintain that curiosity to look up words and concepts that are new to you. You may uncover a whole new world of ideas!
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