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The forums portlet provides users with a discussion area, where they can post or read messages on different topics.  Forums are threaded, meaning each reply to the original post starts a "thread" of discussion.  Users can reply to any message in the topic.
A forum is organized by Categories.  Each category can have multiple Topics.  Each topic can have multiple Threads.
Click on a topic to view a list of the threads posted under that topic.  For each thread you will see the subject (as a link to details of posts to the thread), the author, the date and time of the last message posted, the number of times the post has been viewed, and the number of replies in the thread.  You may click on each of the column heading to change the sorting order of the threads, i.e. if you wish to sort by author or subject or see which threads have been posted to most recently.
Click on the subject of a thread to see the original message posted, followed by a list of all replies to that thread.  In addition, for each author, you will see the total number of posts that person has made to the all categories, topics and threads in that forum portlet.  NOTE:  You may change the display of a thread to show just the message whose subject you clicked, followed by the details of the thread.  See Customizing Your View of a Forum.
The subject fields of any replies is a link to a display of that message.  Below the message will be a list of the details of the thread.  The subjects in this list are links to a full view of that particular message.
To follow the order of the thread:  Each reply to the original post is numbered (1, 2, 3).  If a user replies to one of these replies, a decimal point is added and those replies begin to be numbered  (1.1, 1.2, 1.3 -- three replies to the first person who responded to the original post.)  If someone wanted to respond to the second of these responses (1.2), their message would be numbered 1.2.1.  A response to that message would be, and so on.
You may Subscribe to a topic of interest by clicking on the Subscribe to Topic link at the right side of the topic title line.  This link will now change to Unsubscribe to Topic.  You may also subscribe to a particular thread, by clicking on the Subscribe link at the right side of the topic name bar when you are viewing any message in the thread.  The manager of the forum selects the notification settings for subscriptions to the topic.  You will be notified whenever there is a new post and for the first post in a new topic.