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8 Tips To Remember What You Read

Horizontal Stacked BooksDespite tele­vi­sion, cell phones, and Twit­ter, tra­di­tional read­ing is still an impor­tant skill. Whether it is school text­books, mag­a­zines, or reg­u­lar books, peo­ple still read, though not as much as they used to. One rea­son that many peo­ple don’t read much is that they don’t read well. For them, it is slow, hard work and they don’t remem­ber as much as they should. Stu­dents, for example,may have to read some­thing sev­eral times before they under­stand and remem­ber what they read.

Why? You would think that schools teach kids how to read well. Schools do try. I work with middle-school teach­ers and they tell me that many stu­dents are 2–3 years behind grade level in read­ing pro­fi­ciency. No doubt, tele­vi­sion, cell phones, and the Web are major con­trib­u­tors to this prob­lem, which will appar­ently get worse if we don’t empha­size and improve read­ing instruction.

Some of the blame can be placed on the fads in read­ing teach­ing, such as phon­ics and “whole lan­guage,” which some­times are pro­moted by zealots who don’t respect the need for both approaches. Much of the blame for poor read­ing skills can be laid at the feet of par­ents who set poor exam­ples and, of course, on the young­sters who are too lazy to learn how to read well.

For all those who missed out on good read­ing skills, it is not too late. I sum­ma­rize below what I think it takes to read with good speed and comprehension.

  1. Read with a purpose.
  2. Skim first.
  3. Get the read­ing mechan­ics right.
  4. Be judi­cious in high­light­ing and note taking.
  5. Think in pictures.
  6. Rehearse as you go along.
  7. Stay within your atten­tion span and work to increase that span.
  8. Rehearse again soon.

1) Know Your Purpose

Every­one should have a pur­pose for their read­ing and think about how that pur­pose is being ful­filled dur­ing the actual read­ing. The advan­tage for remem­ber­ing is that check­ing con­tin­u­ously for how the pur­pose is being ful­filled helps the reader to stay on task, to focus on the more rel­e­vant parts of the text, and to rehearse con­tin­u­ously as one reads. This also saves time and effort because rel­e­vant items are most attended.

Iden­ti­fy­ing the pur­pose should be easy if you freely choose what to read. Just ask your­self, “Why am I read­ing this?” If it is to be enter­tained or pass the time, then there is not much prob­lem. But myr­iad other rea­sons could apply, such as:

  • to under­stand a cer­tain group of peo­ple, such as Mus­lims, Jews, Hin­dus, etc.
  • to crys­tal­lize your polit­i­cal posi­tion, such as why a given gov­ern­ment pol­icy should be opposed.
  • to develop an informed plan or proposal.
  • to sat­isfy a require­ment of an aca­d­e­mic course or other assigned reading.

Many of us have read­ings assigned to us, as in a school envi­ron­ment. Or the boss may hand us a man­ual and say “Here. We need you to read this.” Whether the order comes from a teacher or boss, we need to ask, “What do you want me to learn from this?” In the absence of such guid­ance, you should still for­mu­late your best guess about what you should learn and remem­ber from the reading.

2) Skim First

Some read­ing tasks require no more than skim­ming. Proper skim­ming includes putting an empha­sis on the head­ings, pic­tures, graphs, tables, and key para­graphs (which are usu­ally at the begin­ning and the end). Depend­ing on the pur­pose, you should slow down and read care­fully only the parts that con­tribute to ful­fill­ing the read­ing purpose.

Even mate­r­ial that has to be stud­ied care­fully should be skimmed first. The ben­e­fits of skim­ming first are that the skim­ming: 1) primes the mem­ory, mak­ing it eas­ier to remem­ber when you read it the sec­ond time, 2) ori­ents the think­ing, help­ing you to know where the impor­tant con­tent is in the doc­u­ment, 3) cre­ates an over­all sense and gestalt for the doc­u­ment, which in turn makes it eas­ier to remem­ber cer­tain particulars.

Brows­ing on the Inter­net encour­ages peo­ple to skim read. The way con­tent is han­dled on the Web is even caus­ing writ­ers to make wider use of Web devices, such as num­bered or bul­leted lists, side­bars, graph­ics, text boxes and side­bars. But the bad news is that the Web style makes it even harder to learn how to read in-depth; that is, the Web teaches us to skim, cre­at­ing bad read­ing habits for in-depth reading.

3) Get the Mechan­ics Right

For in-depth read­ing, eyes need to move in a dis­ci­plined way. Skim­ming actu­ally trains eyes to move with­out dis­ci­pline. When you need to read care­fully and remem­ber the essence of large blocks of text, the eyes must snap from one fix­a­tion point to the next in left– to right-sequence. More­over, the fix­a­tions should not be one indi­vid­ual let­ters or even sin­gle words, but rather on sev­eral words per fix­a­tion. There are reading-improvement machines that train the eyes to fix­ate prop­erly, but few schools use them. I know from per­sonal expe­ri­ence with such machines that they can increase read­ing speed markedly with­out a cost in lower com­pre­hen­sion. Poor read­ers who stum­ble along from word to word actu­ally tend to have lower com­pre­hen­sion because their mind is pre­oc­cu­pied with rec­og­niz­ing the let­ters and their arrange­ment in each word.That is a main rea­son they can’t remem­ber what they read. Count­less times I have heard col­lege stu­dents say, “I read that chap­ter three times, and I still can’t answer your ques­tions.” When I ask thought-provoking ques­tions about the mate­r­ial, they often can’t answer the ques­tions because they can’t remem­ber the mean­ing of what they read. Even with straight­for­ward sim­ple mem­o­riza­tion ques­tions, they often can’t remem­ber, because their focus on the words them­selves kept them from asso­ci­at­ing what their eyes saw with their own pre-existing knowl­edge and thus facil­i­tat­ing remem­ber­ing. In short, to remem­ber what you read, you have to think about what the words mean.

I am not argu­ing against phon­ics, which in my view is vital for the ini­tial learn­ing of how to read. But phon­ics is just the first step in good read­ing prac­tice. At some point, the reader needs to rec­og­nize whole words as com­plete units and then expand that capa­bil­ity to clus­ters of sev­eral words.

Among the key tac­tics for good mechan­ics of read­ing, I list the following:

  • Make eye con­tact with all the text not being delib­er­ately skimmed
  • See mul­ti­ple words in each eye fixation
  • Strive to expand the width of each eye fix­a­tion (on an 8.5″ width, strive for three fix­a­tions or even­tu­ally two per line). This skill has to be devel­oped in stages. First, learn how do read at five or six fix­a­tions per line. Then work on four per line. Then three.
  • Snap eyes from one fix­a­tion point to another (hor­i­zon­tal snaps on long lines, ver­ti­cal snap if whole line in a col­umn can be seen with one fixation).

Learn­ing how to do this takes prac­tice. If you can’t do it on your own, con­sider for­mal train­ing from a read­ing center.

Keep read­ing…

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