Reading is one of the most important skills in life, at least until we can upload knowledge directly to our brains, à la The Matrix.
While reading is great, it’s merely a means to an end, because reading doesn’t really matter without reading comprehension.
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What is Reading Comprehension?
Reading comprehension is the ability to fully understand the words one sees while also grasping the deeper meaning and concepts put forth.
To be able to comprehend that which you are reading, first you have to know the meaning of the individual words you see; this is called word recognition. However, to fully comprehend it means that you must also understand the meaning of the words as they’re written (known in linguistics as semantics) as well as the context in which they’re used (known as pragmatics).
For example, you might read somewhere that “Phillipa Soo wished Lin-Manuel Miranda to ‘break a leg’ before they went on stage.”
To comprehend the idiom “break a leg” requires more than simple word recognition; otherwise, you might think to yourself, why is that mean woman wishing Hamilton a damaged appendage? Rather, you must comprehend the fact that it is an idiomatic term in the theater business commonly used to wish actors “good luck” on their upcoming performances.
Retention is also a factor in reading comprehension, but not as much as you might think. If you have an eidetic memory, you might be able to recite a whole chapter you read on artificial intelligence, for example. However, to comprehend what you read on AI, you must also be able to integrate that new information into the larger body of knowledge you’ve built up over time. And, you should be able to answer questions on the topic afterwards, as well.
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Why Improve Reading Comprehension?
Reading comprehension comes with a whole lot of benefits.
When you improve your reading comprehension skills, you will be better able to understand the subject matter discussed, which is important academically, professionally, and in everyday life.
In school, you’ll be able to make inferences based on what you studied to create a novel research paper or thesis. In your career, you’ll benefit from better comprehension in reading by better understanding sales pitches, onboarding documentation, or legal information.
And, in your personal life, you’ll have a deeper grasp of important news you might read, which will help you make better decisions for your health, finances, and the people you vote for.
And, finally, increased comprehension makes any reading you take on simply so much more enjoyable!
How to Improve Reading Comprehension?
Here are our best tips to help you improve reading comprehension skills:
1. Improve Your Memory
As we mentioned before, a good memory might provide a false sense of reading comprehension. However, the ability to retain information easily is a crucial step on the road to a full understanding of the reading material.
For example, let’s say you’re reading a psychological thriller. In this book, the main characters include John the dentist, Jenny the dog walker, Jacinda the construction supervisor, Jakub the intern, and Jillian the cybersecurity analyst.
To be able to fully appreciate the plot and to make sense of the relationships between our characters, it’s crucial to remember their names and any other information the author might include, as these may very well become critical points in the plot or conclusion. A poor memory will have you pausing each time Jillian and Jacinda meet to find where the place in the book where they were introduced, destroying any rhythm and flow you might have had.
2. Increase Your Vocabulary
Similar to our first strategy for increasing reading skills and understanding, increasing vocabulary alone shouldn’t be mistaken for comprehension. However, when you improve your vocabulary, you’ll be better prepared to appreciate what you’re reading.
For example, if you’re reading a lesson plan on digital marketing, you may come across sentences full of industry jargon. Understanding this phrasing beforehand will make actual reading comprehension much easier than if you had to stop at each word and look it up.
However, on the first time around, try using clues based on the context to get the gist of what you’re reading, even if you don’t understand all the words. Note the words you need to look up, and then do so as soon as you’re done.
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3. Slow Down
Some time ago, I made an ambitious New Year’s resolution to read over 100 books in 12 months. I started reading faster and faster because I was spending hours each day with my head buried in a book, but comprehension soon began to suffer. As a result, I wasn’t even enjoying my personal challenge, which made it kinda pointless.
I’ve now slowed down, and both reading comprehension and enjoyment increased immediately. If you’re at home, consider reading aloud. Reading out loud forces you to slow down considerably, plus you get the added benefit of hearing the words, as well.
As Lindsay Waters, Executive Editor for the Humanities at Harvard University Press, said, “The mighty imperative is to speed everything up, but there might be some advantage in slowing things down. People are trying slow eating. Why not slow reading?”
4. Read Things You Enjoy
Often, one of the main problems when it comes to reading comprehension is the lack of interest in the subject matter. While you can’t choose everything you must read, especially in a work or school setting, you can supplement your reading with books and articles you enjoy. While ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) may give you trouble focusing, one of the best concentration tips for defeating it, at least in the short term, is to tackle interesting material.
5. Visualize It
Visualization is a great way to improve the speed at which you comprehend what you’re reading. According to Engineering Principles in Physiology: Volume 1, “the visual system processes about 70% total sensory input.” You might read with your eyes, but it’s not exactly visual. One of the best ways to learn something new is to visualize it, which could involve images, videos, graphs, charts, and other such devices.
For example, if you come across a subject in college you just can’t seem to grasp, look elsewhere to supplement that knowledge. Look on YouTube for videos, which are the most helpful for me, or you could find helpful articles online which use multiple images to illustrate the topic.
6. Take a Break
Whether you’re reading great Russian literature or cramming for your next exam, take a break every now and then. Studies have shown that having a regular period of rest during any activity improves attention, increases knowledge retention, and better one’s memory.
Think of it like working out at the gym: the downtime between exercise sets is when your body has the time to build and repair muscle, rather than during the actual fitness movements themselves.
After every hour or so, take a 10- to 15-minute break for yourself. For it to be most effective, don’t use your break to read other material, as this isn’t really breaking! Allow your eyes and brain to rest by staring into the distance, closing your eyes, or simply doing a more mindless, physical task, like washing the dishes.
7. Ask Questions
From the earliest moments I can remember back in grade school, questions followed each chapter in a textbook intended to review the material and increase comprehension. And, they worked well, even though I disliked completing them at the time.
As an older student or young adult, do the same. Though your reading material may no longer come with chapter-ending summaries and questions, come up with some of your own. Identify what you learned, areas which you need to delve into further, and create your own summary to recap the main points.
Also, you don’t even have to ask yourself questions after reading a particular passage. Rather, try asking yourself questions beforehand. For example, ask yourself what you think the text will be about, what do you already know prior to reading it, and what do you hope to learn in the upcoming material. These questions, and others, will help your mind focus on picking up the crucial information buried within.
8. Practice Close Reading
Close reading is reading where you pay close attention to the text and meaning, essentially. When you practice close reading, you are not just slow reading, but you are diving into specific sentences and paragraphs to analyze the writer’s intentions, make observations, grasp any figurative language, examine the author’s choice of words and phrases, and consider any connotative meanings.
To do a close reading, you’ll take a small passage from a larger text, perhaps a famous poem’s stanza or a particularly impactful paragraph in a research paper.
Then, you might annotate the text, ask yourself questions about what’s written, and look for patterns and contradictions. For a great guide on close reading, see this article from the Harvard Writing Center.
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9. Use the Feynman Technique
The Feynman Technique, named after the renowned physicist, essentially says, you don’t fully understand a topic until you’re able to teach it to a child. Basically, unless you can relay the information you read in simple terms to someone else, you haven’t really learned the topic yet.
The Feynman Technique goes well with reading comprehension. If after reading a paper on molecular biology you aren’t able to explain the gist of it to someone not in the field, go back and reread the paper to glean more information from it, and complement that knowledge with other material on molecular biology from other sources until you can.
10. Take Notes
Actively taking notes—particularly notes by hand—while you read is a surefire way to increase your reading skills. Not only does it improve student learning, it increases your ability to remember the information you learned. Taking notes forces you to pause, reflect on what you just read about, and restate it in your own words (don’t write things down word-for-word!), kinda like a simple Feynman Technique!
11. Reread the Material
If you didn’t grasp the message or information put forth the first time around, try again! By reading the material a second time, you may pick up information you hadn’t fully understood the first time through, increasing your overall comprehension and strengthening your grasp of confusing parts. On top of that, you may be able to spot problem areas better, which will help you improve your comprehension skills in the long run.
12. Recognize Important Information
While the entire passage you’re reading might be important, there will doubtless be several key points within. Keep an eye out for anything in bold or italics, as well as titles and subtitles, as these usually designate essential points. Also, the first sentence in a paragraph and the first paragraph in a chapter often identify the ideas which will follow, so pay close attention in these parts, in particular.
13. Eliminate Any Distractions
Being distracted will definitely curb your ability to comprehend what you are reading, so read in as distraction-free a setting as possible. This includes auditory, visual, cognitive, and other distractions.
Silence your phone and mute any notifications to remove the distracting noises as well as some of the temptation you might have to check your social media. Shut your room blinds to remove any external distractions from the city around you, and make use of a popup blocker if reading articles online in order to get a disturbance-free reading session.
Try to clear your mind of any distractions, as well. If there are things which are causing you stress, do your best to deal with them before reading, if possible. You can also perform some mindfulness exercises to clear your head, including meditation, deep breathing, and cognitive restructuring.
14. Make a Mind Map
A mind map is a simple diagram you create which helps you organize your thoughts and identify relationships between different bits of information. Mind maps are a visual learning mechanism which you create yourself, which combines elements of visualization, memory, and note-taking into one powerful method for increasing comprehension skills.
However, if the reading material you’re trying to comprehend is a mystery novel, avoid the mind map, as it may just ruin the suspense!
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Reading comprehension skills aren’t built overnight. After long periods without reading, you may find your reading comprehension has declined, which means that you can improve your reading skills by practicing and reading on a regular basis.
Well, that’s all for our guide on how to improve reading comprehension, and we hope it helps you develop your reading skills! Got any questions, feedback, or other reading comprehension tips we should include on our list? Let us know below in the comments, and thanks for reading!