Top 3 reading for comprehension strategies:

Introduction on comprehensive reading

Reading comprehension is more important than you think. We’ve all had our fair share of it at school. So we all think we’ve mastered it. I believe that is wrong.

Why? Most people overestimate their comprehension. Myself included. I think I’m reading attentively and processing the information well. But when trying to remember the main characters of a novel I read some time ago, I can’t. I remember the plot, but don’t remember a single character’s name. Is that full comprehension?

‘Deep comprehension requires inferences, linking ideas coherently, scrutinising the validity of claims with a critical stance, and sometimes understanding motives of authors.’ — McNamara 2007

Comprehensive reading is more than vaguely remembering what you’ve read. It’s knowing the specifics of the book. It’s remembering the characters and their stories. It’s understanding the author’s message and learning how it applies to your life. Because whatever you read, it’s always related. ‘Books are mirrors. You only get from them what you already have inside you.’ —  Carlos Ruiz Zafón.

As Mark Twain* said: ‘The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.‘ Not reading well or reading without comprehension is the same as not reading. So if you really want an advantage at work and in life, start reading with comprehension. Read on to find tips on how to improve reading comprehension for adults. 

* This quote is attributed to Mark Twain, yet there isn’t any evidence that proofs he said or wrote this. As it’s unclear who could be the real writer, we’ll keep it at Mark Twain. Well done, Mark!

What impairs comprehensive reading?

I can think of at least two things that are contrary to reading for comprehension: speed reading and summary apps.

Speed reading means reading as many words as possible in as little time as possible. Comprehension is often secondary. The cheaper equivalent of this is called skimming. And we’ve all learned it at school.

Summary apps aren’t good friends with comprehension either. It looks so time-efficient: “Read a book in 15 minutes”. What you actually read are often randomly selected snippets from a book. I’ve fallen for it once. I ‘read’ about 50 books in a few months. I remember one: The Monk Who Wold His Ferrari. What I don’t remember, is what I’ve learned from it. And I even took notes. Twice. 

Let’s compare: If I had spent the same £70,- on real books, I would have read between 7 and 10 books. That’s about 20% of the amount of summaries I read. My understanding, however, was at least 10 times better. Is there a word for this? Apparently it’s ‘decupled’. If you think this sounds vulgar, you’re not alone.

Tip 1: Avoid distractions for more effective comprehensive reading

Distractions are harmful. They reduce reading comprehension, speed and prevent you from getting into a flow. Put your phone away. Turn the television or radio off — some instrumental background music doesn’t do any harm. You might even let people know you’re reading so they don’t disturb you.

When reading for comprehension, limit breaks. After each break, you need some time to remember what you last read. The shorter your reading sessions, the longer you spend backtracking. Schedule longer reading sessions to avoid losing time and comprehension. You might use the Pomodoro Technique, for example. 

Finally, you need to be a demanding reader. Read with purpose. Read to find your answers. When you’re intentional about your reading, your concentration will receive a boost. Better concentration equals better comprehension. 

Schedule longer reading sessions without distractions to avoid losing time and comprehension.

Tip 2: How to improve reading comprehension with a personal reading strategy

Reading for comprehension requires a strategy. SQ3R, sometimes SQ4R, is a well-known reading comprehension strategy.  It stands for “survey, question, read, recite, review (and relate/reflect/record)”. We’ll explain this reading strategy along with two others: Avil Beckford’s strategy to read non-fiction in under an hour and our very own Top Three Guide reading strategy for full comprehension.

A. SQ3R

  1. Survey: scan the text to learn what will be discussed.

  2. Question: What are you looking for in the text? What answers do you want to find? This improves focus and concentration.

  3. Read: In the actual reading part, you’ll try to find your answers.

  4. Recite: After each chapter or when finished, use your own words to repeat what you’ve learned. This improves long-term information retention.

  5. Review: Think about what you’ve just read. Did you find your answers? Do you understand everything? Or do you need to go back to certain parts? 

  6. Relate/Reflect/Record: The last R has different meanings. 
    1. Relate: Can you link the information to something you already know? Can you link it to your life? Again, this improves information retention.
    2. Record: Write down the key points, underline what’s important, add marginal notes, summarise. Wait with your notes until you finish a paragraph or section. This is important to get the big picture.
    3. Reflect: Take time to reflect upon your new knowledge. If you don’t take enough time, you won’t be able to fully grasp the idea. It takes some time but it will dramatically boost your reading comprehension.

B. Top Three Guide Reading Strategy

It’s important to read with a purpose. That’s why you need a reading plan. SQ3R is a perfect starting point. But for your strategy to work, you need to make it your own. That’s what I did. Follow along:

  1. Before: Explore the text and ask yourself some questions. What questions will this text answer? What’s the topic and what are the subtopics? Do I have any prior knowledge? Start activating this knowledge to improve comprehension and reading speed! Consider the reasons to read: information, entertainment or improving knowledge. Decide why you’re reading to get the most out of it.

  2. During: Read with a pencil in hand. You shouldn’t read without writing! Note-taking is the best boost for comprehension. There are different ways of doing it. You can take marginal notes or write all your notes on the first few blank pages. If you dislike writing in a book, take notes on a notepad or in a notebook. I use a notepad for non-fiction and write in the book for fiction. Check out Tim Ferriss’ note taking video for more inspiration.
  1. After: When finished, make a summary. I cannot stress this enough. Last May, I started doing this and I promise it works miracles to retain information. 

    I also revise my notes and copy the most important ones in my notebook. At the same time, I reflect on the book. What’s the key message? What can I apply in my life?  I started doing this years ago and it has been very useful. Especially, while writing lately.  Finally, ask yourself: ‘Did I like this? Do I want to read more from this author? Why?’

C. Avil Beckford: non-fiction in 60 minutes

First of all, this isn’t a speed-reading strategy. She merely suggests that you can read a book in under sixty minutes by reading selectively. 

Only 4% to 11% of a non-fiction book is important. The rest are fill-up words. Publishers want certain word counts…  

When selecting, you need some margin for safety. So how do you find the 20% that is most important? Or at least that what’s most important for you?

Set your goal for the book. What are you looking for? What do you want to learn from the book?

Read the preface, the foreword, the intro, the table of contents and the index to find out what it is about. Look at the index to find out which terms have most references. Those will be part of the main idea. They are often the most important for the author. Reading the table of contents will help to find out what you’ll learn and where you’ll find it. Flag the sections or chapters that seem important.

While reading, paraphrase what’s important to learn more and remember more. Afterwards, go through notes and select the big ideas.

Sceptical of the time frame? Let’s do some maths. The average book length is about 80,000 words. If you read at a rate of 300 words per minute, you’ll need 267 minutes or roughly 4,5 hours. Because you’ll only read 20%, you can finish in about 53 minutes. That is without taking into account time for preparation, paraphrasing and note-taking. So you were right to be sceptical. However, if you apply our real speed-reading tips, you could reduce your reading time to 40 minutes and absorb a book in less than an hour. 

If you want to test your comprehension, use the Feynman technique. Or as good old Einstein said: ‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.’

Reading for comprehension requires a strategy but for your strategy to work, you need to make it your own.

Tip 3: Practice is the most important reading for comprehension strategy 

As with everything, practice is important. Improving reading comprehension also requires a fair share of practice. It helps in many ways. Read to expand vocabulary, to increase your knowledge and to practise making mental maps.

Practised readers have a better knowledge of vocabulary, jargon and technical terms. If you know more words, you’ll lose less time trying to make sense of the text. You’ll also process the text faster. Therefore, your reading speed will increase as well. Do you remember what ‘decuple’ means? 

Much of our comprehension is based on prior knowledge. It’s no secret that you have learned from reading and thus have a bigger knowledge base. 

Reading often makes you better at making mental maps or models. Try to visualise what you’re reading to increase your comprehension. 

You will need some patience, however. Unfortunately, you can’t improve reading comprehension just like that. Making big improvements may take some time, but the sooner you start practising, the sooner you’ll see improvement.

Remember, it’s not about reading as much as possible as fast as possible. It’s about reading with full comprehension and long-term information retention.

Not a big fan of reading? Start with something you enjoy. Don’t see it as a hassle but as something fun. As you read more, you’ll start to like it more. After some practice, you’ll be ready to dive into some deeper and more technical topics and texts. 

Expand vocabulary, increase your knowledge and practise making mental maps for faster and better reading. 

Conclusion:

Reading comprehension is an important skill. If you can fully absorb a book and apply it to your life, you’ll have a huge professional advantage. Avoid distractions, design your own reading comprehension strategies and start practising! 

I hope these reading comprehension strategies will prove helpful. Leave a comment if there’s something you’d like to add or share.

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