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How to remember what you read: Eight tips to improve reading speed and cognitive ability

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You read a lot. Now, do you remem­ber much of what of you read?

Whether it is books, blog, mag­a­zines, or pro­fes­sion­al man­u­als, we still need to read. Now and in years ahead. And, much of it is non­fic­tion mate­r­i­al, where it’s cru­cial to first under­stand and then remem­ber what you are read­ing.

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 years behind grade lev­el in read­ing pro­fi­cien­cy and essen­tial cog­ni­tive skills.

Now the good news. For any­one who missed out on good read­ing skills, it is not too late to improve now –to learn how to read so you remem­ber what you read. Here’s what 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. Avoid dis­trac­tions and mul­ti-task­ing
  8. Oper­ate with­in your atten­tion span — and expand it!

1) Read with a Purpose

Start by hav­ing a defined pur­pose for your read­ing and by think­ing about how that pur­pose is being ful­filled dur­ing the actu­al read­ing. Check­ing often 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.

Just ask your­self, “Why am I read­ing this?” It could just be to be enter­tained or to pass the time. Are you try­ing to digest a 500-page book before book­club tonight or solv­ing some math puz­zles and brain teasers before a job inter­view? It could also be:

  • to bet­ter under­stand dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives and beliefs,
  • to crys­tal­lize your own per­spec­tives and beliefs,
  • to devel­op a 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 key para­graphs — those usu­al­ly at the begin­ning and the end.

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 be 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.

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. 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 many words. Even bet­ter, pic­tures are much eas­i­er to mem­o­rize and remem­ber. 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 while think­ing about and para­phras­ing the mean­ing of what you read.

To rehearse what you are read­ing, 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? How much of this do I need to mem­o­rize?” Apply the ideas to oth­er sit­u­a­tions and con­texts. Gen­er­ate ideas about the con­tent.

7) Avoid distractions and multi-tasking

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 right 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.

8) Operate within your attention pan — and expand it!

Pay­ing atten­tion is cen­tral to mem­o­riza­tion, so try­ing to read when you can­not con­cen­trate is a mas­sive 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.

Bet­ter read­ers can read com­plex texts for hours at a time.

Either way, with prac­tice, read­ers can expand their atten­tion span and cog­ni­tive abil­i­ty and be bet­ter pre­pared to con­cen­trate and read for longer peri­ods. Remem­ber the con­cept of brain plas­tic­i­ty and how learn­ing changes your brain.

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. Avoid dis­trac­tions and mul­ti-task­ing
  8. Oper­ate with­in your atten­tion span — and expand it!

 

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.

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