Reading is Difficult

Learning Objectives

  • Describe effective strategies to use when reading is particularly challenging

There’s no way around it: reading is difficult. Why is that the case? In part, because our brains weren’t really built for it. We have no way of knowing how old spoken language is, but many scientists estimate that humans began using language between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago. Reading and writing, on the other hand, are much more recent. The earliest writing we know of appeared in Mesopotamia around 5500 years ago[1]. So the human brain has had at least 50,000 years to evolve structures and processes to deal with spoken language, but only a few thousand years to learn to read.

Each dot is 1000 years
Spoken language: ……….……….……….……….……….……….……….……….……….……….
Writing/Reading: ……

As the reading expert Daniel Willingham puts it: “Reading is less than 6,000 years old; that’s precious little time for any reading‐specific thinking processes to have evolved, and there’s not much evidence that any have. The mental processes that contribute to reading evolved for another purpose, and we co‐opt them for the act of reading.”[2]

What is Dyslexia?

Some brains struggle more than others with reading. In some cases, a person’s difficulty with reading may fit patterns that correspond to a defined learning disability called dyslexia. “Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction.”[3]. Importantly, dyslexia has no relation to overall intelligence; it only has to do with the way the brain processes written text.

Watch this video from a student panel from The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity as they offer tips for reading under pressure.

Even people whose reading difficulties don’t fit the pattern of dyslexia may find it difficult to read, understand, and retain information. The following tips apply to anyone who struggles to read effectively for class, or has trouble getting all of the reading done.

Tips for reading effectively when reading is a challenge:

1. Plan Accordingly

Especially if reading is a challenge for you, it’s important to schedule extra time to complete reading assignments. Try to break up long assignments into smaller pieces: rather than plowing through 50 pages in a night, you might try reading 10 pages at a time in five sessions during the day. When you know a long reading passage is due on a Tuesday, plan for several shorter reading sessions on the days leading up to it. If you have a “free” night, where you don’t have any homework due the next day, think of it as an opportunity to get ahead in the reading for your classes.

2. Get an overview

Remember, there are no spoilers in academic reading. Before you start reading an essay, take a look at the subject headings of each section, or read the first sentence of each paragraph, to get an overall sense of what the essay will cover. This will help to establish a framework within which to understand individual pieces of information as you take them in. With longer books and novels, you can usually find reviews online that will give an overview of the main thesis or plot arc. Again, the more you know about what’s coming up, the more prepared you are to digest each part that you read.

3. Use technology

For many students who find it challenging to process and retain information through reading, listening to the reading can be a game-changer.

If the text is on your computer as a file or a webpage, your computer or device can probably read it aloud.

There are also a variety of third-party tools available to read webpages and ebooks aloud:  Natural Reader is a good tool, and has a fairly functional free version.  For books, there are a number of audio readers that use real voices.

If you have a diagnosed reading disability, Bookshare and Learning Ally are excellent sources for free or low-cost audio books; If you do not have an official diagnosis, your local library will likely have a variety of audio books available (as well as instructions for the software to play them). Amazon’s Audible is also a good source for audio books, though not free.

Even if you don’t need to listen because of a reading disability or visual impairment, it can be helpful to learn how to use text-to-speech functions and locate a source for audiobooks.

  • Some students like to listen to reading assignments while exercising, riding public transportation, or doing household chores (being sure to go back and take notes later).
  • Some English language learners find that hearing the word while reading it can help with pronunciation and vocabulary acquisition.
  • Students with migraines or other medical conditions that impact vision can use text-to-speech to take the strain off their eyes.

4. Ask for Help

If you have a diagnosed learning disability, be sure to check in with your school’s disabilities services office. They can help direct you toward a wide range of supports and accommodations.

If you do not have a diagnosis, but suspect you might have dyslexia or another learning disability, it can be extremely helpful to talk to student services or disabilities services. They can help you decide whether and how to take the tests that would help you understand your particular challenges.

If you are having trouble keeping up with your academic reading for any reason, academic support services can help you work out strategies to stay on top of your assignments. It may also be helpful to talk to your instructor, so that they can help you prioritize your time.

Writing Workshop

Open The Working Document to complete the following Writing Workshop. 

This workshop has three parts:

  1. Write down the contact information for student services, academic support, or tutoring at your school
  2. Use one of the text-to-speech methods listed above, or cut-and-paste the text into Natural Readers and listen to the following paragraphs (the continuation of the essay from the previous workshop)

    The practice of making games to promote clean living and political progress (with that progress always culminating in an image of the government currently in power) persisted all through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. The Soviet Union made particularly good use of board games, though in contrast to the French revolutionaries, who were so keen to have citizens rehearse and internalize the events of the revolution, the Soviets were generally more concerned with making sure that the newly urbanized peasantry learned the basics of health and hygiene. In the 1910s and 1920s, the state approved the manufacture of games such as Tuberculosis: A Proletarian Disease, Look After Your Health! The New Hygiene Game, and The Abandoned, in which “players had to round up homeless children and bring them to an orphanage.”[4]

    Healthy Living, published in Moscow in 1926, is a game intended to promote awareness of syphilis, tuberculosis, alcoholism, and of the dangers of consulting folk healers rather than doctors. The objective is to be the healthiest worker possible, though oddly enough the hazards and penalties the player encounters most resemble those of the fun-loving Dutch Stoomboots Spel. Instead of being distracted from your destination by a warm cup of coffee or a fiery glass of jenever, however, you are penalized for consulting a folk healer (which lands you in the cemetery), drinking a beer at lunch (which lands you in a homeless shelter), or consorting with a strange woman (which gives you syphilis). Squares inform the player of various statistics (“forty-six percent of murders and sixty-three percent of robberies occur under the influence of alcohol”) and attempt to dispel popular medical misconceptions (“tuberculosis is not cured by medicine but by fresh air, sun and food”).[5] The board, through its clever design, emphasizes that the worker’s health is in his own hands, just as the worker pictured holds the list of rules in one hand and a lever controlling the flywheels (both printed with the slogans imploring workers to take responsibility for improving the quality of their own lives) in the other.

    Though Healthy Living may look bizarre to many of us today, it can look no more bizarre than the American Game of Life or Monopoly, with their emphasis on the accumulation of capital, would have looked to a Russian proletarian. Games, like religion and song, have existed since before history began, and as with religion and song they are creations in which we cannot help but reveal our desires, prejudices, and fears. They may be overtly political, like the Jeu de la Révolution française, or they may unconsciously disclose cultural beliefs, like the obsession with speed evident in the Jules Verne and Nelly Bly games produced in nineteenth-century France, England, and America. But in every case they generate an alternate space in which people can play through the anxieties of their daily lives according to clearly established rules and, so long as there is no actual money on the line, without any fear of harm. “In a game,” writes Roberto Calasso, “one is aware of tension, yet the rite is still . . .detached from the world of fact, as if keeping itself two palm breadths above the ground.”[6] It is little wonder that every variety of moral and political regime has put its stamp on a board game or two. There are few pursuits that so perfectly replicate our attempts to imagine the course of progress, which seems so sensible it ought to be inevitable but is nevertheless subject to chance.

  3. Reflect on your experience listening to this text by answering the following questions:
    1. Which program did you use to listen to the text? Was it easy to set up?
    2. What value or benefit do you see in using a text-to-speech program? When might you use this in the future?


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  2. Willingham, Daniel T., The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads
  4. Ernst Strouhal, De Wereld in Spelen, trans. Anne Marie Koper (Hilversum: Fontaine Uitgevers, 2016), 17
  5. Ernst Strouhal, De Wereld in Spelen, trans. Anne Marie Koper (Hilversum: Fontaine Uitgevers, 2016), 17
  6. Roberto Calasso, Ka, trans. Tim Parks (London: Vintage, 1999), 329.