Picture this: You’re in your coziest pajamas, curled up on the couch with a good book. It’s a book you’ve been waiting to read for a while, and now you’ve finally found time to get started. You open the book up and take a deep breath. You jump in, and the subject matter is interesting. You’re enjoying yourself, and before you know it, you reach the end of the first chapter. You stand up to get a glass of water, and before you sit down again, you find yourself thinking, “Okay, now what did I just read?”
It’s amazing how easily our reading comprehension skills come and go, even when we’re reading books we enjoy. I can remember many, many instances like the one I just described when reading fiction, nonfiction, or articles for a college class. Reading comprehension can be a challenge no matter what your age, level of interest, or understanding of the text. So what is reading comprehension, and how can we improve it?
If you Google the phrase reading comprehension, you’ll get about 27,800,000 results, most of them dealing with elementary education. But if you click on the Wikipedia page for reading comprehension, you’ll find this definition:
Reading comprehension is the ability to read text, process it, and understand its meaning. Although this definition may seem simple, it is not necessarily simple to teach, learn or practice.
I love this definition because I’ve seen how true it is in my own personal life and in my professional life as an educator. In my own life, if I take any sort of “break” from reading, my comprehension skills drop. When I watch my students read, sometimes they go through the motions of reading without ever stopping to consider what the words on the page mean.
That’s why for this second edition of Back to Basics, I’m focusing on eight tips to help you make better sense of what you read. These are all practical skills that I use in my own life and that I encourage my students to do as they read. If you, like me, struggle with reading difficult (or sometimes not-so-difficult) texts, I hope these tips will be of use to you! They’re arranged in somewhat chronological order, from choosing a book to what you can do after you finish a book to better remember and understand it. Here we go!
1. Read what you love.
If at all possible, choose books you enjoy. I’m convinced that half the battle of comprehension is desire. If there’s no internal desire to read and finish a book, you’re going to have a much more difficult time getting the information to stick. Always choosing a book you want to read will help. Now, I know that isn’t always possible, so if you have to read something for work or school and you just aren’t loving it, the rest of these tips might help you out.
2. Know what you need.
By this, I mean know what you need to succeed in reading books of different genres. I can read pretty much anywhere, but only if I’m reading engaging fiction. I need more focused quiet time if I’m going to read nonfiction, Shakespeare, or anything Russian. I also know that I can’t listen to an audiobook on the treadmill, but I can listen to an audiobook in the car or on the elliptical. I can read with music playing, but only if it’s instrumental. Figure out your reading quirks and comprehension will follow, simply because you’re setting yourself up for success.
3. Put distractions away.
If you’ve decided that you can’t read with noise in the background, take steps to make your reading environment as quiet as possible! Toss your phone across the room or to the other end of the sofa, mute the TV or turn it off altogether. Or, maybe the quiet is too much for you–and you need background noise to be a good reader. Whatever distracts you, be it the phone, the TV, or the ticking of a clock, get rid of it!
4. Read with a pencil.
This is the easiest and one of the best methods of upping your comprehension skills. Simply marking sentences that stand out to you or passages you find interesting or beautiful helps them stick in your mind. Even if you never revisit them, you’ve connected the physical action of writing to the mental action of reading, and the information will make its way to your brain because you’re interacting with it on more than one level.
5. Start with the words.
I tell this to every student who spends any time in my classroom–if you don’t understand the words, you won’t understand the book. If you can’t figure out an unknown word through context clues, look it up. Ask Siri, ask Alexa, type it in your phone and jot the definition down. Use that pencil we just talked about! Words are the building blocks of sentences, paragraphs, pages, and chapters, so start with a strong foundation.
6. Think about the last thing you read.
Before you put a book away, think about the last bit you read. I encourage my students to actually write a short summary at the end of each chapter–it creates a built-in study guide or memory aid. The more you think about what’s going on in the book when you’re not reading, the more likely you are to remember what’s happening when you do sit down to read.
7. Write it down.
Starting a reading journal or even a simple reading list can be a huge step towards better comprehension. That’s actually why I started this blog–I realized in college that the books I read for pleasure didn’t stick in my brain. I couldn’t remember what I’d read and when or whether or not I even liked them. You can start small and use the 2018 Reading Log I created to jot down your book titles, or you can pick up a notebook and record more detailed thoughts.
8. Find a friend.
Finally, one of the best ways to increase your comprehension is to talk about what you’re reading. This doesn’t have to mean that you join a book club, although that is a great option! All you need is one person in your life who can ask you, “What have you been reading lately?” That opens the door for both of you to share about the books you’re reading. Telling others and sharing your thoughts helps you remember details more clearly, and you might just introduce your friends to a great book!
So there you have it, eight easy ways to improve your reading comprehension in 2018. I hope these help! Let me know in the comments if you have any questions or thoughts, and check back next week for part three of this series: Making Connections.