Reading Skills for Academic Study

Understanding texts

Identifying reference in the text

Every text has a structure. It is not just a random collection of sentences. The parts that make up the text are related in a meaningful way to each other. Recognising the way in which a text has been organised will help you to understand it better. In order to understand the text, it is necessary to understand how the sentences are related. Words like "it", "this", "that", "here", "there" etc. refer to other parts of the text. You need to understand these connections or links.

There are four main types of links used in academic texts: reference, ellipsis and substitution, conjunction and lexical cohesion (Halliday and Hasan, 1976).

Reference

Certain items of language in English have the property of reference. That is, they do not have meaning themselves, but they refer to something else for their meaning.

The scientific study of memory began in the early 1870s when a German philosopher, Hermann Ebbinghaus, came up with the revolutionary idea that memory could be studied experimentally. In doing so he broke away from a 2000-year-old tradition that firmly assigned the study of memory to the philosopher rather than to the scientist. He argued that the philosophers had come up with a wide range of possible interpretations of memory but had produced no way of deciding which amongst these theories offered the best explanation of memory. He aimed to collect objective experimental evidence of the way in which memory worked in the hope that this would allow him to choose between the various theories.

In this text "he" and "him" refers to "Hermann Ebbinghaus". In order to understand the text, you need to know what these words refer to in the text.

Similarly,

These theories all stem from some underlying assumptions about people. To a large extent unproven, they tend to represent the dominant mood or climate of opinion at that time. Schein has classified them as follows, and it is interesting to note that the categories follow each other in a sort of historical procession, starting from the time of the industrial revolution.

Other words used in this way are "he", " him", "it", "this", "that", "these", "those", "here", "there" etc.

Substitution and ellipsis

Substitution is the replacement of one item by another and ellipsis is the omission of the item. If writers wish to avoid repeating a word, they can use substitution or ellipsis.

The scientific study of memory began in the early 1870s when a German philosopher, Hermann Ebbinghaus, came up with the revolutionary idea that memory could be studied experimentally. In doing so he broke away from a 2000-year-old tradition that firmly assigned the study of memory to the philosopher rather than to the scientist. He argued that the philosophers had come up with a wide range of possible interpretations of memory but had produced no way of deciding which amongst these theories offered the best explanation of memory. He aimed to collect objective experimental evidence of the way in which memory worked in the hope that this would allow him to choose between the various theories.

Here, "so" means "studying memory experimentally". The writer has substituted "studying memory experimentally" with "so". Other words that can be used are "one", "ones", "do", "so", "not".

Ellipsis is substitution by zero.

Some of the water which falls as rain flows on the surface as streams. Another part is evaporated. The remainder sinks into the ground and is known as ground water.

"Another part" means "Another part of the water" and "The remainder" means "The remainder of the water".

Similarly,

The 74 species of African antelope share certain basic features: all are exclusively vegetarian and bear one large and precocious calf each year.

Conjunction

Conjunction shows meaningful relationships between clauses. It shows how what follows is connected to what has gone before.

The whole Cabinet agreed that there should be a cut in the amount that the unemployed were receiving; where they disagreed was in whether this should include a cut in the standard rate of benefit. The opposition parties, however, were unwilling to accept any programme of economies which did not involve a cut in the standard rate of benefit.

The word "however" shows that this statement is opposite to the ideas that have come before. Other words used are "for example", "as a consequence of this", "firstly", " furthermore", "in spite of this", etc.

Lexical cohesion

This is a way of achieving a cohesive effect by the use of particular vocabulary items. You can refer to the same idea by using the same or different words.

Patients who repeatedly take overdoses pose considerable management difficulties. The problem-orientated approach is not usually effective with such patients. When a patient seems to be developing a pattern of chronic repeats, it is recommended that all staff engaged in his or her care meet to reconstruct each attempt in order to determine whether there appears to be a motive common to each act.
This first example illustrates an impulsive overdose taken by a woman who had experienced a recent loss and had been unable to discuss her problems with her family. During the relatively short treatment, the therapist helped the patient to begin discussing her feelings with her family.
Francis Bacon was born in London in 1561 and died there in 1626. His father was Sir Nicholas, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal of Elizabeth I; his mother Anne Cooke, a well-educated and pious Calvinist, daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke. His contemporary biographer, William Rawley, remarked that, with such parents, Bacon had a flying start: he had "whatsoever nature or breeding could put into him".

For cohesion to occur, it is not necessary for each word to refer to exactly the same item or even be grammatically equivalent. All the words related to "debt" contribute to the cohesion.

In each of these cases the basic problem is the same: a will has been made, and in it a debtor is left a legacy of liberatio from what he owes the testator. The question is, if he has subsequently borrowed more from the testator, up to what point he has been released from his debts. It is best to begin with the second case. Here there is a straightforward legacy to the debtor of a sum of money and also of the amount of his debt to the testator. This is followed by a clause in which there is a general damnatio and also a general trust that the legacies in the will be paid. The debtor goes on to borrow more money, and the question is whether that is taken to be included in the legacy too. The response is that since the words relate to the past, later debts are not included.

Other commonly used are "repetition", "synonyms" and "near synonyms", "collocations", "super/sub-ordinate relationships" (e.g. fruit/apple, animal/cat) etc.

Exercises

Try these exercises: Exercise 1-10, Exercise 11,