Chunking a Complex Text

Note: Megan Grumbling authored important parts of this article.


Unless they’re very short, most pieces of writing are built from separate chunks.  In short pieces of writing, paragraphs are the chunk unit.  But in longer pieces, multi-paragraph sequences form distinct segments, which combined make up a complex text.

Some emerging academic readers struggle with reading complex texts because they’re used to looking for a single main idea. But most complex texts will weave together multiple ideas. If you look for one main idea and expect every bit of the rest of a complex text to tie directly to that main idea, you’re likely to overlook other equally important ideas or misunderstand what you’re reading.

To chunk a reading,

  1. Look for the distinctive segments in a complex text
  2. Identify the key ideas and purpose of the segment,
  3. Analyze the relationship between chunks.

So, how can readers distinguish one chunk of a text from the next? The key to finding the seams of a text is to look for its moments of transition.  Sometimes, as in course textbooks, those moments of transition are marked for readers by way of subheadings. Other times, writers will simply leave a blank line between segments. Still other times, writers will explicitly signal their transition with words, such as “Now I’d like to turn to another part of the problem….”

But more often, readers have to look for and find shifts in a writer’s topic or subtopic, ideas, questions, or purpose.  

I’ve annotated a few pages of Malcolm Gladwell’s 2010 New Yorker article “Small Change” to point out the graphic and content indicators that reveal the chunks of Gladwell’s article. Have a look at what I’ve done, then be sure to read the paragraphs after the images for my explanation.

Click on the images below to enlarge them

I think it’s interesting how Gladwell varies the location of his topic sentences. In the first chunk, the topic sentence (underlined in blue) explains why Gladwell told us the story of the Greensboro Counter Sit-In. It comes at the end of the segment. In the second segment, Gladwell’s chunk-controlling sentences (underlined in purple) are dispersed throughout the paragraph: he starts with a view that he opposes (notice the voice marker “we are told” ; it reveals Gladwell’s distance from the view he’s summarizing), reveals his skepticism in the middle of the chunk (“why does it matter…”), and finishes it with an assertion that calls into question what “digital evangelists” mean by “activism“. In the third chunk, Gladwell spends two paragraphs redefining activism as high risk, then asks what motivates people to accept the risk of violence, and starts the work of answering his question (these moves are underlined in red).

You’ll notice that I circled key concepts (activism, digital evangelism, high-risk activism, strong-ties) and the names of people who contributed key concepts to Gladwell’s argument (McAdam). I could also have circled Morosov, but Gladwell cites Morosov in an example for facts that Gladwell uses to criticize the digital evangelists. Unlike his use of McAdam’s “strong ties,”‘ Gladwell is not borrowing a concept from Morosov. When I want to understand the flow of an author’s argument, I focus on the conceptual line of thought and use examples only to help me understand what the concepts mean and to assess whether I agree with the conceptual line of thought. Being able to distinguish concept-language from example-language can help you separate a writer’s main line of thought from the examples and explanatory materials they offer to help readers make sense of their argument.

Megan Grumbling has created a step-by-step set of instructions for chunking texts. Here it is:

How to Chunk a Text

1. Read through a section of text, and as you do, look for “seams” in the text: places where there is a shift in what the text is doing or saying, where one chunk of texts meets another chunk. Seams are essentially places of transition in the text.

How do you find these “seams”? Look for:

  • A new heading or sub-heading (in some textbooks)
  • A blank line between sections (in some textbooks, books, and articles)
  • Explicit transitional phrases or “pivot” words/phrases. These are cues to the reader that the author is now moving to something different. (For example: “However,” “Now I will turn to…”, “On the other hand,” “An example of this concept can be found in…”, etc.)

But often there will be no explicit cue that a seam is happening. So you’ll need to read carefully and find shifts in the writer’s topic or subtopic, ideas, questions, and/or purpose.

2. Once you’ve found a seam: Mark off each chunk right in your text. Then: Identify what’s happening in each of the two chunks. Ask:

  • What does each chunk do in the text?
  • How are the chunks different?
  • How do they relate to each other?
  • How does the second chunk move the text forward from the first one, or deepen its inquiry, or turn it in a different direction, or complicate it?

Here are some examples of different chunk patterns:

  • One chunk might define a concept, and the next might show an example of that concept.
  • One chunk might tell a story, and the next might extrapolate a larger problem, issue, or idea from that story.
  • One chunk might present an argument, and the next might acknowledge weaknesses in or counterarguments to that argument.

3. Once you’ve identified what each chunk does, write that down in a note in the margin of your text. Then repeat the process with the next sections of text until you’ve worked through it.

Why should you bother writing it down?

  • When you need to discuss the text in class or write a response to it, you’ll have a valuable outline of its main ideas and exactly what happens where in the text.
  • If you need to return to the text weeks or months after you first read it – for example, to write a term paper or to study for a final exam – you won’t have to re-read the whole text to refresh yourself. You can review your notes on the chunks and reread only the ones that are most relevant to your purpose.
  • The act itself of writing down these annotations will deepen your understanding and retention of the text.

If you’d like to get some help learning these advanced reading strategies, book a Reading Support appointment with UNE SASC’s Eric Drown or Megan Grumbling.

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