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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.

More arti­cles on how to improve mem­o­ry skills:

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