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Eight Tips To Understand and Remember What You Read — Especially As You Read Nonfiction


Despite Insta­gram, YouTube, Face­book, Twit­ter, and tele­vi­sion, (or per­haps pre­cise­ly because of all of them) tra­di­tion­al read­ing is still an impor­tant skill. Whether it is mag­a­zines, pro­fes­sion­al man­u­als or fas­ci­nat­ing books, peo­ple still need to read, now and in years ahead. And much of it is non­fic­tion mate­r­i­al, where it’s impor­tant to real­ly under­stand and then remem­ber what you are read­ing.

An unfor­tu­nate rea­son why many peo­ple don’t read much these days is that they don’t read well. Read­ing, for them, is slow, hard work and they don’t remem­ber as much as they should. They often have to read some­thing sev­er­al times before they under­stand and remem­ber what they read.

Why? You would think that every­one learns how to read well at school. Schools do try, but I work with mid­dle-school teach­ers and they tell me that many stu­dents are 2–3 years behind grade lev­el in read­ing pro­fi­cien­cy. Some of the blame can be placed on fads for teach­ing read­ing, such as phon­ics and “whole lan­guage,” which some­times are pro­mot­ed in shal­low ways that don’t respect the need for both approach­es. And much of the blame can be laid at the feet of par­ents who set poor exam­ples and, of course, on the young­sters who are too dis­tract­ed by social media and tele­vi­sion to learn how to read well.

Now the good news. For any­one who missed out on good read­ing skills, it is not too late to improve now. 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. Oper­ate with­in your atten­tion span (and expand it).
  8. Rehearse, Rehearse and Rehearse.

1) Know Your Purpose

You should start by hav­ing a pur­pose for your read­ing and by think­ing about how that pur­pose is being ful­filled dur­ing the actu­al read­ing. Check­ing con­tin­u­al­ly how the pur­pose is being ful­filled (or not) helps you stay on task and focus on the more rel­e­vant parts of the text. This also saves time and effort because most rel­e­vant items get the atten­tion they deserve.

Iden­ti­fy­ing the pur­pose should be easy. Just ask your­self, “What’s the point in read­ing this?” It could just be to be enter­tained or pass the time. It could also be:

  • to bet­ter under­stand a cer­tain group of peo­ple, gain­ing insight into their per­spec­tives and beliefs,
  • to crys­tal­lize your polit­i­cal posi­tion, such as why a giv­en gov­ern­ment pol­i­cy should be sup­port­ed or opposed,
  • to devel­op an informed plan or pro­pos­al, or
  • to bet­ter pre­pare for an impor­tant exam.

In sum, you should always for­mu­late your pur­pose — 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 the key para­graphs which are usu­al­ly at the begin­ning and the end.

Even mate­r­i­al that has to be stud­ied care­ful­ly should be skimmed first. The ben­e­fits of skim­ming first are that the skim­ming: 1) primes 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 most impor­tant details.

3) Get the Reading Mechanics Right

To bet­ter process and remem­ber what you read, eyes need to move in a dis­ci­plined man­ner. When you need to read and remem­ber large blocks of text, your eyes must snap from one fix­a­tion point to the next in left- to right-sequence, and the fix­a­tions should not be one indi­vid­ual let­ters or even sin­gle words, but rather on sev­er­al words at the same time. Poor read­ers who stum­ble along from word to word have low­er com­pre­hen­sion because their mind is pre­oc­cu­pied with rec­og­niz­ing the let­ters and their arrange­ment in each word. 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, 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. 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 tac­tics for good read­ing mechan­ics, I sug­gest the fol­low­ing:

  • Make good 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 or pro­gram.

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.

Many peo­ple use high­lighter pens to iden­ti­fy key parts of non­fic­tion texts. But too many 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.

It is cru­cial to think about the mean­ing of text. High­light­ed text needs to be rehearsed in the con­text of how it fits with the pur­pose, why it needs to be remem­bered, and how it fits with impor­tant mate­r­i­al that pre­ced­ed it. Every few para­graphs or pages, depend­ing on the infor­ma­tion den­si­ty, the read­er should stop and self-quiz to make sure the impor­tant mate­r­i­al is being mem­o­rized. Mak­ing out­line notes of such mate­r­i­al after it is first read can be an impor­tant rehearsal aid for form­ing imme­di­ate mem­o­ry and for lat­er study. The act of cre­at­ing such an out­line from work­ing mem­o­ry, and check­ing it against the con­tent just read, sup­ports mem­o­ry for­ma­tion in very pow­er­ful ways.

5) Think in Pictures

A pic­ture may or may not be worth a thou­sand words, but it cer­tain­ly cap­tures the essence of dozens or hun­dreds of words. Even bet­ter, pic­tures are much eas­i­er to mem­o­rize and remem­ber than words. Those com­pet­i­tive mem­o­ry wiz­ards owe their suc­cess (as do card coun­ters in casi­nos) to their skilled use of tech­niques based on men­tal pic­tures, and ordi­nary read­ers can also 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 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–while think­ing about and para­phras­ing the mean­ing of what you read.

To rehearse what you are pro­cess­ing, see how many of the men­tal pic­tures you can recon­struct. Use head­ings and high­light­ed words as need­ed to help you rein­force the men­tal pic­tures.

Think about the con­tent in each seg­ment in terms of how it sat­is­fies the pur­pose for read­ing. Ask your­self ques­tions such as, “How does this infor­ma­tion fit what I already know? Why did the author say that? What is the evi­dence? Is there some­thing impor­tant miss­ing? 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) Operate Within Your Attention Span (and Expand It)

Pay­ing atten­tion is cen­tral to mem­o­riza­tion, so try­ing to read when you can’t con­cen­trate is sim­ply a waste of time. Since many poor read­ers have short atten­tion spans, they should not try to read dense mate­r­i­al for more than 10 or 15 min­utes at a time. Instead, they should take breaks after 15 min­utes or so and quiz them­selves on what they just read.

Ulti­mate­ly, with prac­tice, read­ers will expand their atten­tion span and be bet­ter pre­pared to con­cen­trate and read for longer peri­ods.

8) Rehearse, Rehearse and Rehearse

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

Remem­ber the key men­tal pic­tures, and rehearse what you read lat­er that day. Then rehearse again at last once dur­ing the next 2–3 days.

In Summary, to better understand and remember what you read:

  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. Oper­ate with­in your atten­tion span (and expand it).
  8. Rehearse, Rehearse and Rehearse.


Dr. Bill Klemm is a sci­en­tist, pro­fes­sor, author, and speak­er. As a pro­fes­sor of Neu­ro­science at Texas A&M Uni­ver­si­ty, he taught about the brain and behav­ior at all lev­els, from fresh­men, to seniors, to grad­u­ate stu­dents to post-docs. His recent books include Thank You, Brain, For All You Remem­ber. What You For­got Was My Fault‚ and Men­tal Biol­o­gy: The New Sci­ence of How the Brain and Mind Relate.

More articles on how to improve reading comprehension and memory skills:

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  1. Chris says:

    I took a speed read­ing course sev­er­al years ago and unfor­tu­nate­ly nev­er real­ly con­tin­ued the prac­tice. Recent­ly I’ve decid­ed to bring the prac­tice back into my exis­tence. This arti­cle is a great syn­op­sis and refresh of that process. Thanks!

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