How many times have you read through a paragraph of text, only to realize at the end that you can’t recall a single bit of information? Then you re-read it, only for the same exact thing to happen again. It’s almost as if we go on autopilot, letting our eyes do the work, but with no conscious effort to take the information in.
In this guide, we offer everything from simple hacks to advanced strategies for improving your reading comprehension skills, as well as tools and resources to help you stay focused and cut through your reading assignments in a fraction of the time.
Common Challenges Affecting Reading Comprehension
Without understanding the root cause of our issues when it comes to reading comprehension, we can’t really apply fixes. So let’s start by covering the most common issues that affect students’ ability to read and understand text-based passages.
Cramming. One of the biggest issues students face when trying to fully read and understand a text is facing a situation where they have to cram. Generally a result of procrastination, cramming often leads students to speed read. And while speed reading can be performed effectively, it is a skill that must be developed and practiced. For the average student, trying to read your assigned pages at 2x speed is not going to be effective, as the words pass right through your brain without sticking.
Time Management. Cramming’s ugly cousin, failure to manage your time properly can be a major pain point for effectively reading and comprehending assigned homework. Oftentimes, when students are assigned blocks of reading (say 20+ pages), they try to read it all in one sitting. However, halfway through this massive block of text, their minds start to drift and lack of focus leads to a falloff in material retention. Instead, by breaking the large block of reading into smaller, more digestible chunks and managing time more effectively, students better process their text-based assignments.
Limited Vocabulary. How often do you come across a word while reading that you don’t know the meaning of, or maybe even have never seen before, and simply continue reading? When you don’t understand certain words in a passage, you can’t truly grasp the full context or meaning of the writing. It’s like trying to look at Google Maps for directions, but with certain roads missing. How are you supposed to know here you are going? The better approach is to stop and look the word up when you come across a term you don’t know. By improving your vocabulary, your reading comprehension (and writing) will improve.
Scholarly Style. In today’s day and age, almost every bit of writing we see is casual and conversational. From text messages to Instagram posts to BuzzFeed articles, nothing in our normal, daily lives is written in a formal or scholarly tone. However, most every reading you’re assigned in school is more formal in nature. This scholarly style often give students fits, negatively impacting their reading flow, focus and ultimately, comprehension. You need to be able to adjust your intake filter to properly understand such writings.
Distractions. Without a doubt, the #1 factor effecting reading comprehension is distractions. Imagine trying to read on a cramped plane, with a baby crying on one side of you and a guy listening to a crummy movie at volume level 100 on the other side, all with the undertones of engines humming and people coughing. Compare that scene to being locked away in your own room with noise cancelling headphones on and your favorite chill beats playing. In which environment would you be able to better process your reading? Exactly. Distractions kill the effectiveness of your reading comprehension.
Failure to Recap or Summarize. Reading comprehension is not a simple, straight line task. It is an iterative process. It is layered. By simply reading the text in front of you once and moving on quickly to the next assignment, you cannot effectively process the subject matter you just learned about. Only by stopping to recap and summarize, whether through notes, highlighting or dropping in post-its, can the material sink in. Summarization and taking the time to recap your learnings is crucial to reading comprehension.
Strategies For More Effective Reading Comprehension
Although the path to effectively reading and comprehending a text is lined with potential pitfalls, there are strategies you can employ to improve your skills. Some of the following strategies should be employed on a daily basis, as they form the basis of a good reading comprehension skillset, while others are more advanced techniques that should be used based on the individual and situation.
#1 | Find Your Focus
Much easier said than done, staying focused is key to actively reading as a student. Without focus, we drift though the passages without comprehending anything. Whatever it takes to find your focus, you need to do it. This could be drinking coffee while you read, listening to soothing music, or hiding your smartphone away in a desk drawer. Whatever it takes, you need to maintain focus to improve your comprehension during reading.
#2 | Distraction-Free Reading
One of the key elements of reading comprehension, and something that goes along with finding your focus, is reading in a distraction-free zone. This is especially true if you’re easily distracted. Don’t try to read at the kitchen table in the middle of your busy house, or with the TV on in the background. Remove all external distractions, and find a spot in your home where you can read distraction-free.
Studies have shown that reading in a distraction-free environment can improve comprehension of a text by up to 48%. Some people claim they do better with “white noise,” but studies show otherwise. Most people have simply become so accustomed to our loud, fast-paced environment that they think the noise helps. But in reality, it harms our focus.
#3 | Look Up Definitions
Don’t breeze over words you don’t know when reading. Yes, it takes time to stop and look a word up. And yes, it messes up your groove, but it’s essential to learning. Improving your vocabulary will give you a fuller picture of the context in which the text is written, as well as help you makes inferences and connections. And as a bonus, it will help your writing skills.
#4 | Time Management
Don’t wait until 10 minutes before class and try to speed read your 15 page assignment. You won’t comprehend any of it. Instead, manage your time more efficiently and effectively. Plan blocks of time in the evening or early morning to get your reading done. Set aside dedicated blocks of time where you can get into your distraction-free environment and find your focus. In addition, allocate more time than you think. If you think your reading for the night will take an hour, give yourself 90 minutes. Not only will this help you psychologically, but it will also slow you down, which is a key component of reading comprehension.
#5 | Summarize The Text
When you finished your assigned reading, don’t just close your book and move on. Take 5-10 minutes to recap the text. Take some quick notes on key points and takeaways. Drop in notes in the margins, highlight essential points, and insert post-its on important pages. This quick summarization will help the material you just read really sink in. Thinking about the content from a different perspective and trying to summarize in your own words helps immensely.
#6 | Skim Headlines Before Reading
Before you dive in and start reading, take a couple minutes to skim your assigned pages. Read the section headings and sub-titles. This creates an outline in your mind before beginning. You will then know what is coming, and in what order. This helps your brain to synthesize and organize information as you read, placing it into preconceived buckets. This simple hack can have a significant impact on how you process information.
#7 | Leverage Visuals
Whenever there is a graph, diagram, image or other visual in your reading, take note. Look at the visual and take it in, reading the caption if there is one. Authors and book publishers insert visuals for good reason: they amplify your understanding of a topic. They are not just there to look pretty and break up the page. Pay attention to the visuals and don’t gloss over them.
#8 | Memory Aids
For visual learners, associating your reading with memory aids can greatly improve your recall. As you read, associate passages with different visuals in your mind. For example, as you read about the city where Napoleon was born, create a mental image of this town. Imagine the small city on the island of Corsica, with its crystal clear blue water, red tile roofed buildings, and surrounding hills. Tying the name of where he was born to the mental image of the town, as opposed to rote memorization of the city name, can help tremendously.
#9 | Discuss With a Friend
One highly effective means of processing what you read is to discuss with a friend. If you have a friend from class, discuss the key points or takeaways from the reading with them. Summarize your thoughts about the passage and pose questions around things you didn’t understand. Then actively listen to what your friend says. Discussing a topic out loud and hearing different perspectives, even if just for a few minutes, can greatly improve your comprehension of an assigned reading.
#10 | Read the Text Back-To-Front
Reserved only for the most serious cases of “reader’s block,” one advanced technique of improving your comprehension is to read sections of your assigned text backwards. Start with the last section, then work back-to-front. Obviously, this won’t work for chronological based readings or novels, but is often effective for academic textbooks, as the sections cover discrete topics. For those that just can’t seem to find a groove or their focus to read in the normal beginning-to-end fashion, this offers an opportunity to take the reading in bite-sized chunks.
To provide some experts tips, as well as perspective on the importance of reading comprehension, we’ve brought in Rick Lopez, M.Ed., a high school teacher of 47 years and our in-house SAT prep and ACT prep expert. Mr. Lopez shares his years of wisdom in this Q&A.
Q: What is the #1 cause of reading comprehension issues among high school and college students today?
A: In my opinion, without a doubt, it’s all of the distractions that kids face. Students are plain busier than ever and have access to more forms of entertainment than ever before. We didn’t have such distractions in my day. And I don’t say that to sound like an old curmudgeon, but because I actually think kids have it harder today. You’ve got around the clock news alerts, video games, social media, YouTube, movie and show streaming, texts, etc. The list goes on and on. Not to mention, students are under more pressure than ever to stretch themselves thin with extracurriculars, AP classes, and more. With all of these electronic temptations and external pressures, it’s harder than ever to focus.
Q: What is your best solution or tip to combat this issue?
A: Students need to dedicate blocks of time to study in a zone with no distractions. To improve your reading comprehension, you need distraction-free time where you don’t feel pressured or distracted. Simply being in an environment where things move slow and you can hear yourself think will help more than you ever know. This might mean going to your campus library for 2 hours after class, or getting up extra early in the morning, but students need to find uninterrupted blocks of time where they can put away their phones and simply read undistracted.
Q: If you could suggest one simple hack to improve reading comprehension, what would it be?
A: Well, generally there are no “simple hacks” in life. Most things are achieved through hard work and persistence. However, one technique that I’ve seen really help in the context of reading comprehension is highlighting. As you read, stopping to highlight key points can really help with comprehension. Don’t highlight every sentence – reserve the highlighting for truly important key sentences or phrases. Maybe just one or two per paragraph. But going slowly and breaking to highlight when there’s something that really makes you think, can pay big dividends.
Q: How important is reading comprehension to academic success?
A: Are you kidding me? It’s huge. No matter what subject you’re talking about – biology, history, statistics, modern art – effectively understanding what you’re reading is key. It’s one of those fundamental tools that you need to master to excel in every subject. That’s why it’s important to hone this skill and always be looking to improve. Expand your vocabulary, go slow and most importantly, pay attention.
Reading Comprehension Improvement Tools
Rewordify. Sometimes no matter how many times you read a passage you just can’t understand it. Think complex legal arguments and technical white papers or treatises. Some things are just too dense for us. In these cases, Rewordify can help translate complex passages into easy-to-understand chunks. It rearranges sentence structures, shortens long sentences, and swaps out fancy words for more commonly used terms. Basically, it puts things in layman’s terms. This tool isn’t perfect, and shouldn’t be used all the time, but when something is particularly dense, it can really help make things understandable.
Snap&Read. This useful digital tool can be used in conjunction with your digital textbooks. Snap&Read acts as a browser extension of sorts, allowing you to highlight key points in your digital text, translate or define terms, and take notes. At $60/year, it isn’t cheap, but if you struggle with reading comprehension and expect to have numerous digital textbooks in school, it may be well worth the money.
Grammarly. Although primarily used as an email writing tool, Grammarly can also be highly effective for improving reading comprehension. If you have access to your text-based assignment in digital format, consider copying and pasting it into a platform that integrates with Grammarly (email, Word, etc.). Then run the program and allow its AI to clean up the text. Grammarly will make the text more concise, active and clear. Bottom line, it can make your reading assignment more engaging.
Beeline Reader. This app helps to increase your reading speed by guiding your eyes through altered color gradients. This helps move you through individual sentences faster by training your eye with color changes. Your eye is naturally pulled to the end of each sentence.
Spritz. This app helps to increase the speed at which you read by realigning word positions and altering text color. It essentially plays visual tricks to train your eye to move faster through the text.
Spreeder. This interesting tool improves reading comprehension by allowing students to cut and paste passages into a textbox. The program interface then presents one word at a time to cut down visual distraction.
Each of the following resources provides insightful and detailed guides for improving your reading comprehension skills. These guides are packed with strategies, case study findings and more. In addition to the robust body of each article, many contain embedded YouTube videos on how to carry out their suggested practices, which is helpful for visual learners.
Resources for High School and College Students:
Resources for Elementary and Middle Schoolers: