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How to improve memory skills and remember what you read: Beyond phonics and “whole language”

Horizontal Stacked BooksDespite the increasing visual media we are increasingly exposed to, reading is still an important skill. Whether it is school textbooks, online newspapers 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.

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 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. 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.

 

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.

 

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).

 

4) Be Judicious in Highlighting and Note Taking

Use a highlighter to mark a FEW key points to act as the basis for mental pictures and reminder cues. Add key words in the margins if you don’t find useful clues to highlight.

Almost all students use highlighter pens to identify key parts of a text. But many students either highlight too much or highlight the wrong things. They become so preoccupied in marking up the book that they don’t pay enough attention to what they are reading. A better approach is to highlight just a few key words on a page. If many pages don’t require highlights, sticky tabs on pages with highlights can greatly speed a study process for whole books.

 

5) Think in Pictures

A picture may not be worth a thousand words, but it can certainly capture the essence of dozens of words. Moreover, pictures are much easier to memorize than words. Those memory wizards who put on stage shows owe their success (as do card counters in casinos) to use of gimmicks based on mental pictures. Ordinary readers can use to good effect the practice of making mental images of the meaning of text. The highlighted key words in text, for example, if used as a starting point for mental pictures, then become very useful for memorization. One only has to spot the key words and think of the associated mental images. Sometimes it helps to make mental images of headings and sub-heads. Pictures also become easier to remember when they are clustered into similar groups or when they are chained together to tell a story.

 

6) Rehearse As You Go Along

Read in short segments (a few paragraphs to a few pages, depending on content density), all the while thinking about and paraphrasing the meaning of what is written.

To rehearse what you are memorizing, see how many of the mental pictures you can reconstruct. Use headings and highlighted words if needed to help you reinforce the mental pictures. Rehearse the mental pictures every day or so for the first few days after reading.

Think about the content in each segment in terms of how it satisfies the purpose for reading. Ask yourself questions about the content. “How does this information fit what I already know and don’t know? Why did the author say that? Do I understand what this means? What is the evidence? Do I agree with ideas or conclusions? Why or why not? What is the practical application?” How much of this do I need to memorize?” Apply the ideas to other situations and contexts. Generate ideas about the content.

 

7) Rehearse Soon After Reading Is Finished

At the reading session end, rehearse what you learned right away. Avoid distractions and multi-tasking because they interfere with the consolidation processes that enable longer-term memory. Answer again the questions about content mentioned in the “Rehearse As You Go Along” section.

Think about and rehearse what you read at least twice later that day. Rehearse again at last once for the next 2-3 days.

 

In Summary

  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. Rehearse again soon.

 

Bill Klemm— W. R. (Bill) Klemm, D.V.M., Ph.D. Scientist, professor, author, speaker. As a professor of Neuroscience at Texas A&M University, Bill has taught about the brain and behavior at all levels, from freshmen, to seniors, to graduate students to post-docs. His books include Thank You, Brain, For All You Remember. What You Forgot Was My Fault.

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