Skip to Main Content

Reading, understanding and using theory

Advice for how to understand theoretical texts and engage with them in your academic work.

When to read theory

The timing of when we read theory is important in making it feel useful, relevant and applicable.

If a theoretical text or extract is part of a general reading list for your module, don’t assume that you have to read it or should have read it by a certain point. It might be optional reading that is useful if you want to write about a particular aspect of your module – or it might not be that relevant to your interests at all. The point here is that reading theory in isolation without understanding its relevance to your module will make it even more difficult.

It’s more likely that you will be set theory with other reading for a specific week of teaching. If this is the case, you could do the following:

  • Try to read the theory alongside the other material, perhaps after your first lecture that week, if possible.
  • Always try to find a ‘way in’ to understanding it - look for any easy introductions to the theory or author that you can find, whether that be skimming through a ‘Very Short Introduction’, using some of the resources at the end of this guide, or watching YouTube videos on the topic. If you sit down to read without any kind of overview or wider understanding it will most likely be quite difficult.
  • Lastly, try to keep thinking of its relevance to that week’s teaching – are there any similar themes or ideas that you can identify? If you can begin to see how the theory that you are engaging with is relevant and useful, you will find it easier to understand.


Theory is more difficult to read and engage with when it feels irrelevant. Try to gain some background knowledge about the theory or author before reading, and always think about how or why it is relevant to your module. 

Before reading

Before you start reading, think about why you are reading it. How does it relate to your module, essay, or seminar? What should you be looking out for as you read? Reading with purpose should help you approach it more actively. If there is an introduction to the theorist or theory, it can be helpful to read this so you get a sense of what the text is about, and what the main themes or ideas are, so you’re not entering the text unprepared.

You can also skim through the text to get a sense of its outline. It’s unlikely that you will be sitting down to read an entire book – it’s more common to read a specific chapter or shorter piece of writing by a theorist. Flick through the text and see if there are any subheadings or sections; these may give you a sense of the stages of their argument. Also look out for any key words or phrases that appear repeatedly, as this can also guide you towards the important points that they will be making.

During reading

Try and read it in one go rather than stopping and starting; you might find a lot of the text doesn’t make much sense, but over several pages there may be a few sentences that do. (As mentioned earlier, you have to wade through five pages of Discipline and Punish before you get to Foucault’s first main point, so don’t give up too quickly).

It can also be helpful to concentrate on either the first or last sentences of a paragraph, as this is often where the author makes their points most clearly, or reiterates them. See, for example, this extract from Susan Sontag's On Photography:

"To collect photographs is to collect the world. Movies and television programs light up walls, flicker, and go out; but with still photographs the image is also an object, lightweight, cheap to produce, easy to carry about, accumulate, store. In Godard's Les Carabiniers (1963), two sluggish lumpen‑peasants are lured into joining the King's Army by the promise that they will be able to loot, rape, kill, or do whatever else they please to the enemy, and get rich. But the suitcase of booty that Michel‑Ange and Ulysse triumphantly bring home, years later, to their wives turns out to contain only picture postcards, hundreds of them, of Monuments, Department Stores, Mammals, Wonders of Nature, Methods of Transport, Works of Art, and other classified treasures from around the globe. Godard's gag vividly parodies the equivocal magic of the photographic image. Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all the objects that make up, and thicken, the environment we recognize as modern. Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood."
Sontag, S. (1971) On Photography. Reprint. UK: Penguin Books, 2019, pp. 1-2.  

Most of this paragraph is probably a bit confusing - it's quite unlikely that you've seen the film she mentions - but the first and last sentences give us a good idea of the point that she is making. 

"To collect photographs is to collect the world ... 

                                                                   ... Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood."

If you are really struggling with a text, just look for standalone sentences like this that capture a sense of the author's argument.

After reading

Unlike other types of reading, it’s probably going to take several re-reads before it fully makes sense. On your re-reads, it can help to choose passages to hone in on, especially if you think they are relevant to your essay, seminar reading or exam.

Try and paraphrase passages rather than copying out quotes as this process involves you understanding what you are reading. After you’ve finished reading the text a couple of times, you might find it helpful to write a summary paragraph of the theory to see what you have taken in or understood. This also acts as a helpful memory aid when you come back to your notes. 


We don't read theory in the same way that we read other texts. You will find it easier if you read around the subject beforehand, skim read, concentrate on paragraph beginnings and endings, and re-read in a focused way. 

Accessibility statement