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How to Improve Your Reading Comprehension

By the time you reach high school you learn to recognize different types of reading used for different purposes. You begin to tailor your approach to reading depending on the reason you've picked up the text. The three types of reading are:

  1. Reading For Pleasure

    Reading for pleasure includes all reading that is self-selected, self-paced and has no particular goal in mind other than personal interest and satisfaction. This kind of reading includes fiction, newspapers, magazines, hobby and sport-related reading and anything else that grabs your attention that you can use as you wish.

    Since reading for pleasure is self-paced, it tends to be comfortable if you have basic reading skills. If you don't have sufficient reading competency, reading is not likely to be a pleasurable experience and you're more likely to use other avenues for gaining information and for entertainment.

  2. Reading For Study

    Reading for study is one of the main tasks of your school years. It's a primary method for acquiring the information and skills you will need to be able to compete for further educational opportunities and eventually get a rewarding job. You will need sufficient reading competency to deal with day-to-day life and business interactions that require reading complex materials. Learning how to learn is a foundation for this. Reading for study is one of the main tools you have to hone and perfect.

    Reading for study involves different techniques and attitudes than reading for pleasure. You have specific goals in mind when you decide to study a subject by reading about it. You have a general plan that includes the reasons why you're attacking this subject at this time.

    Most of all, when reading for study, you have specific outcomes in mind -- perhaps getting an A on your final, writing an outstanding book report, being as well prepared as possible for class discussion, or gaining the necessary education to do well on your college entrance exams.

    Good reading skills will be essential for the huge volume of reading you will have to do in most jobs in the global information economy.

  3. Reading For Speed

    Reading for speed is a survival skill. You can't possibly read everything as thoroughly as you read material for a crucial exam. You have to be able to gather information quickly and pre-screen what you read to help you decide what is worth studying in depth.

    You don't have to read everything word for word. You can concentrate your slower, reading for study techniques on texts that you have pre-qualified by speed reading.

    Reading for speed requires special training and involves specific techniques. It is another tool to add to your competency portfolio, just like reading for comprehension.

Having an effective strategy for reading for study is essential to school success and for building the foundation for all the reading you will have to do for work and business. What Smart Students Know, by Adam Robinson, presents a 12-step method for enhancing reading comprehension and success in learning:

Step 1: What's My Purpose For Reading This?

Not everything you're assigned to read is equally important. You have to figure out your purpose in reading a piece of text in order to be able to decide what kind of technique and effort you should apply. You will read a book differently depending on whether you will have to participate in a class discussion on it, write a review of it, pass a multiple-choice quiz or answer broad essay questions in a final exam.

Defining your purpose for reading helps you tailor your efforts for the best use of your time and energy.

Step 2: What Do I Already Know About This Topic?

Reading is not done in a vacuum. You probably already know something about the topic. Thinking about what you already know helps you warm up for new learning from the material you're about to read. It's important to take a few minutes to write down what you know prior to beginning your reading assignment.

Focusing on your own capabilities and past knowledge in relation to what you hope to learn about the topic helps you take ownership of the learning process.

Step 3: What's The Big Picture Here?

It is important to develop a game plan for learning new material. Getting an overview of the text you're about to read will help direct your attention and give you a framework for how the pieces fit.

To get the big picture, look for the overall organization of the material and key terms and concepts. Most important, try to get an impression of what main ideas and themes will be explained in this text.

Use the structure of the book or chapter to take a quick "tour" for your overview. Look at the preface or introduction and the table of contents. Skim the summary of each chapter to get an overall impression of the book.

Previewing a chapter is similar. Read the chapter title, the first and last paragraphs, and section headings. Pay attention to any figures, tables or illustrations. Read the first sentence of each paragraph in the chapter, then read the chapter summary. Also be sure to read any questions at the end of the chapter.

Getting the big picture first will help you determine how much time you will want to spend on this text in light of how you answered question one on the purpose of your reading.

Step 4: What's The Author Going To Say Next?

Only after you've answered the first three questions are you ready to begin reading. Reading can be looked at as a conversation with the author. Your job as the reader is to anticipate what the author will say and to get answers to the questions the text is making you think of.

There are grammatical and structural cues in the text to give you hints as to what is coming. For instance, problems are followed by solutions, definitions by examples, theories by proofs, laws by formulas, causes by effects.

The purpose of the cues in the text is to keep you hooked and interested in the material. They help you stay involved in the learning process.

Step 5: What Are The Expert Questions?

Each subject raises a unique set of questions about itself that must be asked and answered if you are to understand it. These are the expert questions.

Expert questions lead to patterns in how the subject material is covered in a particular field. Some sample expert questions: What is this made of? How can this be identified? What process causes this? Where is this usually found?

There are five orientation questions that apply to all subjects which can help you focus on the main ideas of a particular topic. They often show up as questions on tests: What is the definition of this? What's an example of this? What are the different types of this? What is this related to? What can this be compared with?

Figuring out the expert questions for a specific subject and using the orientation questions for all subjects will help you analyze the material you're reading in an active and well-organized way.

Step 6: What Questions Does This Information Raise for Me?

The journalism questions -- who, what, where, when, why and how -- are a good way to start asking questions about any subject material in a reading assignment. To get more involved, you have to personalize the questions.

Ask the following power questions to generate ideas as you read. Try to answer the questions before you read what the author has to say. So what? Says who? What if . . . ? What does this remind me of?

After posing your personal questions on the topic, prioritize the importance of getting complete answers. Is the material essential to understanding this topic or intriguing but unimportant? Again, the purpose of the personal questions is to help keep you proactive in your learning.

Step 7: What Information Is Important Here?

You should figure out the relative importance of the material in your reading. The 80-20 rule comes in handy for this.

The 80-20 rule states that 80 percent of the total value, impact or significance of any group of items will come from only 20 percent of those items. The flip side is that 80 percent of the items contribute only 20 percent of the value.

In looking at your reading load, apply the rule and figure out what is the top 20 percent of the material on which you should spend 80 percent of your study time. You can use the visual cues incorporated by the author and information given in class by your teacher to help you prioritize topics. You should concentrate your note taking on these important topics.

It requires commitment and responsibility to be able to judge the material in your reading and decide what is worth your study time and what can be given less attention.

Step 8: How Can I Paraphrase And Summarize This Information?

Taking notes is essential to help you learn the material you read. Note taking is not copying. Note taking is a dynamic process by which you translate the material into your own words and structure it in a way that you can understand and remember it.

Your objective in taking notes on the material you read is to create a body of work that you will study to master the subject. You should not have to go back to the original text if you've taken good notes. Working with your notes helps you increase your comprehension.

Step 9: How Can I Organize This Information?

After you've completed your notes, you have to organize them. Organizing information means collecting it into groups or categories so you can see different patterns, connections and relationships. Each subject lends itself to different methods of categorization.

In creating categories and organizing the material you've read, you gain insight and understanding. No one else can do this for you. The places you're having trouble organizing what you have to learn reveal where your understanding is weakest and where you need to pay more attention.

Step 10: How Can I Picture This Information?

Drawing pictures of what you've learned helps you to remember it. You can create your own method of shorthand for learning each topic. Making visual representations of connections and relationships not only helps your understanding, but also is a great aid to recall and memory.

Step 11: What's My Hook For Remembering This Information?

The first 10 questions looked at how you can gain understanding of the material you are reading. This question helps you develop strategies for remembering what you've read and understood.

You want to come up with strategies that will help you recall or reconstruct information you've learned. The four suggested hooks to do this are pictures, patterns, rhymes and stories. Use whatever works for you. Link new information to material you know already. Get engaged with the topics you're learning.

Step 12: How Does This Information Fit In With What I Already Know?

The goal of reading and learning is to help you add to your store of knowledge. As you gain understanding, you have to develop a system to relate the new material to knowledge that you're already familiar with. Making the connections from the old to the new reinforces understanding and expands your comprehension, not only of the material you've just read, but also on knowledge you already have.