Academic Reading and Writing

Images of books

Reading academic material is very different from reading for pleasure. Academic reading is an active process that goes beyond merely reading and highlighting your text. You need to interact with the text by taking notes, making connections between the text and what you already know or have experienced, and asking critical questions about the material you are reading.

Academic writing takes time – including setting aside time to write first drafts that you revisit to read with fresh eyes. This will improve clarity, organization of ideas, word choice, grammar and other elements. 

Tips for Academic Reading and Writing

  • Do not merely highlight your texts. Learn actively by making notes and mind-mapping important concepts using key terminology. 
  • Participate in CTL's English Language Development Support (ELDS) workshops aimed at improving your note-taking, mind-mapping and vocabulary expansion to learn how to make sense of complex academic texts.
  • Review our handout Critical Questions for Proactive Reading and use the questions to start actively engaging with your readings.
    • Download the SQ3R handout, which is a useful tool to help you with active reading.
  • Consider writing a one or two paragraph summary of any article/chapter you read after you have finished it. 
  • Work on expanding your academic vocabulary. Take the Academic English Health Check for a confidential report on your level of Academic English and recommendations to continue improving in this area. 

Reading Strategies for Difficult Texts

When reading, you are likely to encounter unfamiliar concepts or material that is hard to understand. The following is a series of strategies to help you navigate difficult texts.

  • Before reading, examine the overall structure of the book or article to see how it is put together. Then read the introduction and conclusion carefully so that you know the thesis and main conclusions before immersing yourself in the details. This preparation will help you situate difficult passages into the context of the whole.
  • To understand a particularly complex sentence, begin by searching for the main subject and main verb. These two components will give you a basic idea of what the sentence is about.
  • When you encounter an unfamiliar concept or word, analyze the context to determine its meaning.
  • Break apart sentences or paragraphs into their components to see what ideas are linked and how.
  • Remember that it is not necessary to understand every nuance of every sentence before proceeding to the next. If the sentence or its concepts remain obscure, make an educated guess and continue reading. Test your understanding to see if it fits with the rest of the discussion. If not, revise.
  • If you are still having trouble with words or concepts and they are central to your reading, look them up in a specialized dictionary.

Without sufficient vocabulary for academic purposes, it can be difficult to:

  • understand lectures,
  • read textbooks and other materials needed for your assignments,
  • participate in tutorial or class discussions, 
  • deliver effective presentations, 
  • contribute as a productive team member,
  • and communicate with professors and teaching assistants.

Expanding your vocabulary should be a top priority. The best way of expanding your vocabulary is through constant exposure to well-written texts. You can also complete the confidential Academic English Health Check to better understand your current level of vocabulary and to receive recommendations for support to help you succeed in academic communication.


Most students find it difficult to explain abstract and complex information in writing. Communicating difficult concepts and presenting well-reasoned arguments demands far more than just being able to express oneself in grammatically “perfect” sentences. Critical thinking, organization, clarity and precision in word use require more than just grammatical skill. 

Many students realize that developing their writing skills enables them to express more complex thoughts. Developing a higher level of competency in academic writing takes time, patience, determination and effort, so it is important to begin that journey as early as possible.

Students who are English language learners, and students learning Academic English need to improve their ability to express ideas clearly and logically, especially since many may come from cultures where conventions of good academic writing are very different from North American conventions. Different academic contexts have different expectations, and learning these expectations is central to academic success. 

Useful Tips for Academic Writing

  • If you’re concerned about your grammar or editing and revising skills, attend CTL's English Language Development Support (ELDS) workshops that target these specific skills. 
  • Summarize important concepts from your lectures and textbooks so that you are familiar with key terminology and can use these terms in your writing.
  • Participate in the Reading and Writing Excellence (RWE) program, which allows you to read and write about texts from your courses.
  • Plan carefully when you may need a CTL Writing Support appointment. Appointments open for booking one week in advance.