Despite 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.
- Read with a purpose.
- Skim first.
- Get the reading mechanics right.
- Be judicious in highlighting and note taking.
- Think in pictures.
- Rehearse as you go along.
- Stay within your attention span and work to increase that span.
- 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.