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Why can’t I understand what I read?

Reading comprehension is a complex process that requires the coordination of many different skills. Some people find reading difficult and struggle to fully understand what they have read. There are several potential reasons why someone might have trouble understanding written material:

Insufficient vocabulary knowledge

One of the biggest obstacles to reading comprehension is not knowing the meanings of enough words. To gain meaning from text, you need to understand most of the words that are used. When you come across too many unfamiliar words, it disrupts the process of making sense of what you’re reading. Some studies show that readers need to know at least 95% of the words in a text for adequate comprehension. If there are too many words you don’t know, it becomes very difficult to follow along and grasp the main ideas.

Weak verbal reasoning abilities

Reading requires verbal reasoning skills in order to make inferences, draw conclusions, and recognize relationships within the text. Some people have weaker abilities when it comes to verbal logic and analysis. This makes it hard for them to “read between the lines” and gain a deeper understanding of what they are reading. They may struggle to fill in gaps in the information or make connections that aren’t explicitly spelled out.

Problems with focus and attention

It’s obviously very hard to understand something if you can’t focus your attention on it in the first place. Some people have issues with sustaining attention and concentration when reading. Their minds may wander, thinking about other things. Or they may get distracted by outside stimuli. This causes them to miss important parts of the text. Frequent lapses in attention make it nearly impossible to follow the thread of what is being read.

Difficulty processing and remembering new information

Reading is an active process that requires taking in new information, connecting it to what you already know, and retaining it in your memory. Some individuals have weaker short-term and working memory capacities. This makes it harder for them to hold on to the ideas and details they encounter in text. By the time they get to the end of a sentence or passage, they may have already forgotten the beginning. This severely hinders comprehension.

Problems following narrative structure and sequences

Understanding a story or a logical argument means being able to follow the sequence of events or ideas. Some people struggle with recognizing the underlying structure of narratives. They have trouble identifying cause-and-effect relationships, putting things in chronological order, and grasping the progression of a plot. This naturally makes stories and logical arguments much more difficult to understand.

Difficulty making inferences

Writers expect readers to make inferences in order to fully comprehend a text. Inferencing involves using clues from what you read along with your own knowledge and experiences to make logical guesses about things that aren’t directly stated. Some people have trouble “reading between the lines” in this way. This leaves them with only a surface-level understanding of the material.

Unfamiliarity with text structure

Different kinds of writing have different conventions and structures. For example, a narrative is structured and written very differently from an expository text or a scientific article. Some readers may not have much exposure to certain text types. If they lack knowledge of the typical structure and style of that format, the organization seems confusing and comprehension suffers.

Reasons related to the reading material

In addition to individual skills and abilities, there are also some characteristics of the text itself that can make it more challenging to understand. These include:


Some texts are written at a higher level of complexity than others. Material with long, intricate sentences and advanced vocabulary is inherently more difficult to grasp. Texts with a greater degree of syntactic, semantic, and rhetorical complexity place greater demands on the reader. When the reading level is far above your own, comprehension becomes very tough.

Abstract concepts

Texts that discuss very abstract ideas or concepts can be hard to follow, especially if you don’t have much background knowledge in that area. When content is vague, theoretical, or metaphysical in nature, it offers fewer concrete details to aid understanding. This makes it taxing to construct meaning.

Unfamiliar content

When you read about topics or subject matter that you don’t know much about, it is naturally more challenging to understand and interpret that information. Your lack of prior knowledge about that field makes it difficult to integrate new facts and ideas. Unfamiliar content areas may include academic disciplines, cultures, time periods, or environments.

Jumping around

Sometimes texts aren’t written in a linear, sequential way. They may jump back and forth in time or location. Information may be revealed out of order or in fragments. This disjointed organization can make it much harder to follow the thread and establish meaningful connections.

Missing information

Comprehension depends on having enough context and background details to properly interpret the information in a text. Some writers leave out key pieces of information that the reader needs. This forces the reader to make guesses and fill in the gaps in order to try to construct meaning from inadequate information.

Technical writing

Highly technical writing is geared for subject matter experts, not the general public. Therefore, it may fail to offer definitions for domain-specific jargon, adequate context, illustrative examples, and other features that aid public understanding. This leaves non-expert readers struggling to grasp the significance of the content.

Dense text

Packing too many ideas and details into continuous prose can overwhelm readers’ working memory and attention capacities. Text that is very dense or “text-heavy” without any graphics, charts, or breaking it into digestible chunks makes it harder for readers to fully process the barrage of information.

Environmental and situational factors

In addition to individual and textual factors, the context and surroundings where reading takes place can also impact understanding.


Trying to read in an environment with a lot of disruptive noise, visual stimuli, or people traffic makes concentration much more difficult. The inability to focus attentively on the text severely impedes comprehension.

Emotional state

Stress, anxiety, fatigue, sadness, and other challenging emotional states often interfere with effective focus and thinking. If you’re reading when you’re very upset, it’s harder to cognitively process the information.

Time constraints

When pressed for time, readers may rush through material too fast to properly absorb it. Time pressure encourages skimming rather than engaged reading, which hinders deep understanding.

Low motivation

Reading comprehension depends greatly on how motivated you are to understand the text. If you lack intrinsic interest in the topic or purpose for reading, you may not invest enough mental effort. Low motivation leads to more passive, superficial reading.

Physical conditions

Issues like visual impairment, lack of sleep, hunger, chronic illness, or pain make any complex cognitive task more difficult. Uncomfortable reading positions like sitting hunched over a computer also hinder comprehension.

Ways to improve reading comprehension

If you struggle to understand what you read, don’t lose hope! Here are some strategies and tips that can help strengthen your reading comprehension skills:

Increase your vocabulary

Build your knowledge of word meanings by studying new vocabulary words daily, reading widely, using a dictionary, and other methods. With a stronger lexicon, you’ll grasp more of what you read.

Improve focus

Practice mindfulness, get into a quiet space, take breaks, and use other techniques to maintain concentration when you read. Strong attention is fundamental.

Activate background knowledge

Think about what you already know about the topic before diving into a text. Connect new info to prior knowledge.

Ask questions

Wondering about the author’s purpose, main idea, argument logic, and intended audience motivates more engaged reading.

Slow down

Reading faster often means more superficial understanding. Slow down to fully digest the author’s points.

Take notes

Write down key points, main ideas, questions, definitions of unfamiliar words, and your own thoughts. This boosts retention.

Discuss it

Conversations with others about the text help strengthen your understanding through verbal processing.

Read strategically

Skim to get an overview before close reading. Chunk text into digestible units. Highlight or underline key points.


Creating mental pictures of concepts and scenes described enhances understanding. Imagery improves recall.

Make inferences

Practice “reading between the lines” to infer meaning that’s implied but not directly stated.

Use context clues

Look for definitions, examples, comparison, contrast and other clues near unfamiliar words to infer their meaning.

Read more

The more you read, the more your skills will strengthen! Exposure to different vocabulary, writing styles, topics, and text structures will help.

Get evaluated

Learning specialists can assess your skills and identify any underlying reading issues that need intervention.

The bottom line

Reading comprehension is a complex, multifaceted process. Many students struggle with understanding written material at some point. Difficulties can arise from limited skills, challenging text, unfavorable conditions, or a combination of these factors. But with targeted practice of key comprehension strategies, you can improve your ability to gain meaning from what you read. Pay attention to where your specific difficulties lie, then select and consistently apply techniques that will enhance those weak areas. With time and effort, you can learn to unlock the richness of meaning in written language.