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6 mins

How to Improve Reading Comprehension: 8 Simple Strategies

Reading comprehension skills can help you study for an exam, or get lost in a great novel. These 8 tips will help you get the most out of what you read.
by Tania Strauss | Dec 5 2022

Being an active, engaged reader is important in all aspects of life – whether you’re reading purely for pleasure, as part of your education, or to gain knowledge that will help you in your work. But it’s fairly common to find that the stuff we read doesn’t stick, and if we’re reading something dense and complex and new,  we can find that its meaning eludes us. 

Reading comprehension is basically what it sounds like: the ability to understand, and make sense of, what you read. This means understanding the words and content on the most literal level, as well as grasping the nuances, themes, and subtext that lies beneath the surface of that content. 

Reading comprehension is usually first taught at school, but it’s a skill that can be practiced and honed throughout life. So if you find that you’re struggling to stay engaged while reading, feel like you’re missing the key takeaways, or simply want to derive more meaning and fulfillment from reading, here are 8 strategies you can try. 

Improve Reading Comprehension by Improving Your Vocabulary

The most basic part of reading comprehension is understanding the words being used. So if you’re reading something that uses language in a way that is more “advanced” than you’re used to, or that discusses a topic you’re not yet super familiar with, it can be helpful to read with a reference handy.

Write down words you’re not familiar with, look them up, and quiz yourself to help them stick. If you’d like to improve your vocabulary more broadly, there are plenty of games and quizzes available online that can help you study. 

Make Sure Your in the Right Environment 

Your environment can play a big role in both your ability to focus, and your ability to absorb and synthesize what you read. Ideally you’ll want to be someplace quiet, and where there aren’t a huge number of visual distractions.

You may also want to turn off your phone, and guard yourself against digital interruptions. And though this isn’t about environment per se, research suggests that reading comprehension is better when you read from paper vs. a digital source. 

Anecdotally, many readers also find print more pleasurable and immersive than a screen. 

Slow Down Your Pace and Read Aloud

Evidence shows that reading comprehension in adults is a slightly slower process than in younger people, but adults still tend to try to read at their former pace – which means they may start skimming, and miss things. This is why it can help to literally read slower.

Make sure you’re taking in every sentence and paragraph (especially long, elaborate sentences) before you move on to the next. You can even read aloud if this will help you not to skim and skip ahead. 

Break Your Reading Into Chunks, and Work on Your Attention Span

Another way to slow yourself down, and skip less, is to break your reading into more manageable chunks – and stop for a while when you feel your brain shutting off. This gives you time to process what you’ve read before moving on to the next section.

If you’re not on a tight deadline, it can help to limit your reading to a specific amount every day. Exactly how long these chunks should be depends on your reading goals, and what you observe about your own ability to focus. 

If you notice that your comprehension goes dramatically down after a certain amount of time, you can work on increasing your attention span: start by respecting your current limit, and then try to add on some extra minutes every few reading sessions. 

Summarize The Text, and Identify the Main Idea

Identifying the main idea in a piece is one of the most fundamental parts of reading comprehension.  If you feel like meaning escapes you, stop when you begin to get confused and try to summarize what you just read.

Think back on what details stuck out to you, and any ideas that seemed important – you can even make a list if you want. Then try to write a couple of sentences that convey the main idea of what you just read.

You can read back and check your summary against the real thing, and see if there are any key points that you missed.

Take Notes as You Read

Highlighting, underlining, color-coding, scribbling in the margins – all of these activities prompt you to engage with what you’re reading. You can underline points you want to emphasize, make note of questions that you have, and color code ideas that seem related to each other. 

If you read with the aim of making notes you’ll probably go slower, and things like color can be extremely helpful for people who are visual learners. However you don’t want to overdo it, as highlighting everything is the opposite of selecting what’s important – so really stick to what resonates and stands out.

Ask Yourself Questions About the Text You Read

Formulating questions about your reading can first help with very specific, straightforward things in the text that you didn’t grasp. Why is one character suddenly angry at another character?

How did this person wind up in Los Angeles when they were just in New York? What evidence caused the author to arrive at this conclusion? 

Once you identify a point of confusion, you can go back and try to locate the answer – whether that answer is direct and you just skipped over it somehow, or whether it can be inferred from other parts of the text, without being directly stated. 

Being able to draw meaning from what isn’t said directly is perhaps the deepest level of reading comprehension. So don’t be afraid to ask more abstract questions, and try to puzzle out the answer.

What can we guess about how a character feels based on the dialogue in this scene? What effect does the author achieve by including this bit of information? What, in the text, is making me react with this particular emotion and why? 

Such broad questions can help us dig into the author’s themes, teach us about their technique, and explore their overall purpose in telling a particular story – whether that story is fiction or nonfiction. 

If you’re reading a book that’s fairly famous, especially if it’s considered a “classic,” you can often find online study guides with prompts that will help you think about the text in more complex ways. 

Talk About What You’ve Read

Similar to asking and answering your own questions, talking with a friend can help you go deeper into your reading. If you’re reading the same book, you can ask for their thoughts on any questions you might have, and just generally exchange ideas about what you liked or disliked or didn’t understand.

Their ideas might prove enlightening, or you might make new connections of your own as you try to organize your thoughts for another person. If you’re looking for a reading buddy for the purpose of learning, you can pair up with another student in your class or a colleague in your professional network.

If you’re interested in literature, you can join a book club in person or online. Even though reading is at heart a solo activity, it can be even more rewarding and fun if it connects you to others who share your passions. 

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