(Editor’s note: Learning is one of the most important activities that humans take part in. The process of learning can be delightful, and it can also be a total nightmare. Part of the secret to learning more easily is to understand HOW to study. Ron Fry is an expert on this topic, and he has kindly permitted us to share these proven tips with you! Look for an interview in the near future with Ron, on BrainSpeak Radio.)
Adaptation from How to Study: The Program That Has Helped Millions of Students Study Smarter, Not Harder (Career Press, 2016) by Ron Fry.
Tips to Improve Your Reading Time and Comprehension
You may love reading novels, short stories or poetry but have trouble with textbook assignments for certain subjects. You may finish reading a long passage and forget it almost immediately. Or you just may hate the thought of sitting still to read anything. Whatever kind of student you are‑and whatever your level of reading skill‑here are some tips to: reduce the time you spend reading, identify the main ideas and important details, and remember more of what you read.
Use the clues in each chapter
Begin with a very quick overview of the assignment, looking for questions that you’d like answered. Consider the following elements of your reading assignment before you begin your reading:
Chapter titles and boldfaced heads and subheads announce the detail about the main topic. And, in some textbooks, paragraph headings or boldfaced “lead-ins” announce that the author is about to provide finer details.
So start each reading assignment by going through the chapter, beginning to end, reading only the boldfaced heads and subheads.
Look for end-of-chapter summaries. Knowing what the author deems important will help you look for the building blocks of his conclusions while you’re reading.
Most textbooks, particularly those in the sciences, will have charts, graphs, numerical tables, maps and other illustrations. Be sure to observe how they supplement the text and what points they emphasize, and make note of these.
In some textbooks, you’ll discover that key terms and information are highlighted within the body text. To find the definitions of these terms may then be your purpose for reading.
Some textbook publishers use a format in which key points are emphasized by questions, either within the body of or at the end of the chapter. If you read these questions before reading the chapter, you’ll have a better idea of what material you need to pay closer attention to.
The importance of pre-reading
The best way to begin any reading assignment is to skim the pages to get an overview of what information is included, seeking some of the “clues” we’ve previously discussed. Then read the text carefully, word-for-word, and highlight, underline or take notes in your notebook, on your computer or in the book itself.
A brief digression: Most everyone I know confuses the words “skim” and “scan.” Let me set the record straight.
Skim is to read quickly and superficially.
Scan is to read carefully but for a specific item.
So when you skim a reading selection, you are reading it in its entirety, though you’re only hitting the “highlights.” When you scan a selection, you are reading it in detail but only until you find what you’re looking for. Scanning is the fastest reading rate of all—although you are reading in detail, you are not seeking to comprehend or remember anything that you see until you find the specific information you’re looking for.
You probably are assigned a lot of reading that can be accomplished by skimming for facts. By establishing the questions you want answered before you begin to read, you can quickly go through the material, extracting only the information you need.
Let’s say you’re reading a science book with the goal of identifying the function of a cell’s nucleus. You can breeze through the section that describes the parts of the cell and skim the description of what cells do. You already know what you’re looking for—and there it is in the section that talks about what each cell part does. Now you can start to read.
By identifying the questions you wanted to answer (a.k.a. your purpose) in advance, you would be able to skim the chapter and answer your questions in a lot less time than it would have taken to painstakingly read every word.
Skimming, or pre-reading, is a valuable step even if you aren’t seeking specific facts. When skimming for a general overview, there’s a very simple procedure to follow:
- If there is a title or heading, rephrase it as a question. This will be your purpose for reading.
- Examine all the subheadings, illustrations, and graphics, as these will help you identify the significant matter within the text.
- Read thoroughly the introductory paragraphs, the summary, and any questions at the chapter’s end.
- Read the first sentence of every paragraph, which generally contains the main point of the paragraph.
- Evaluate what you have gained from this process: Can you answer the questions at the end of the chapter? Could you intelligently participate in a class discussion of the material?
- Write a brief summary that encapsulates what you have learned from your skimming.
- Based on your evaluation, decide whether a more thorough reading is required.
As a general rule, if you are reading textbook material word for word, you probably are wasting quite a bit of your study time. Good readers are able to discern what they should read in this manner and what they can afford to skim.
When trying to simply gather detail and facts, skimming a text is a simple and very important shortcut that can save you a lot of reading time. Even if a more in-depth reading is necessary, you will find that by having gone through this process, you will have developed the kind of skeletal framework that will make your further reading faster, easier, and more meaningful.
Whether you’re skimming or scanning, you will have equipped yourself with the ability to better digest whatever the author is trying to communicate.
Words may also be clues
While the heads, subheads, first sentences, and other author-provided hints will help you get a quick read on what a chapter’s about, some of the words in that chapter will help you home in on the important points and ignore the unimportant. Knowing when to speed up, slow down, stop, or really concentrate will help you read both faster and more effectively.
When you see words such as “likewise,” “in addition,” “moreover,” “furthermore,” and the like, you should know nothing new is being introduced. If you already know what’s going on, you can speed up or skip what’s coming entirely.
On the other hand, when you see words like “on the other hand,” “nevertheless,” “however,” “rather,” “but,” and their ilk, slow down—you’re getting information that adds a new perspective or contradicts what you’ve just read.
Lastly, watch out for “payoff” words such as, “in conclusion,” “therefore,” “thus,” “consequently,” and “to summarize,” especially if you only have time to “hit the high points” of a chapter or if you’re reviewing for a test. Here’s where the author has tied up everything that went before in a nice bow. This unexpected present may help you avoid having to unwrap the entire chapter.
Now go back for detail
If a more thorough reading of a text is required, go back to the beginning. Read one section (chapter, unit, whatever) at a time. As you read, make sure you know what’s going on by asking yourself if the passage is written to address one of these five questions:
- Who? The paragraph focuses on a particular person or group of people. The topic sentence tells you who this is.
- When? The paragraph is primarily concerned with The topic sentence may even begin with the word “when.”
- Where? The paragraph is oriented around a particular place or location. The topic sentence states where you are reading about.
- Why? A paragraph that states reasons for some belief or happening usually addresses this question. The topic sentence answers why something is true or why an event happened.
- How? The paragraph identifies the way something works or the means by which something is done. The topic sentence explains the how of what is described.
Do not go on to the next chapter or section until you’ve completed the following exercise:
- Write definitions of any key terms you feel are essential to understanding the topic.
- Write questions and answers you feel clarify the topic.
- Write any questions for which you don’t have answers—then make sure you find them through rereading, further research, or asking another student or your teacher.
- Even if you still have unanswered questions, move on to the next section and complete numbers one to three for that section (and so on, until your reading assignment is complete).
Put these tips into practice and you will be amazed at how much less time you need to spend reading and how much more you retain! Even if you are not attending classes, this advice can help you get the most out of on-the-job training materials or self-study pursuits.