How to Improve Reading Comprehension Skills


studentMany people take reading skills for granted, but in fact, reading and properly comprehending a text is a very complex process that draws on many skills. When we read something, different functions of our brain have to work together to analyze and synthesize different layers of content and meaning. Sometimes, we can basically understand the complex text we have read but may miss the bigger picture, the emotional core, or just struggle to get the idea that the text is attempting to convey.

Reading in college is different from reading in high school. You are required to read a lot of books independently and analytically. It’s more challenging because you have to make sense of difficult texts often written in less-than-clear language. You need to learn to read efficiently because it’s crucial for your academic success.

Developing strong reading comprehension is very important for everyone, and you can succeed in it only if you practice a lot. If you can’t read well enough to ace your college classes or struggle with standardized tests, in this article, you’ll find effective strategies and techniques that will help you boost your reading comprehension skills.

What Is Reading Comprehension?

In simple words, reading comprehension can be defined as extracting meaning from what you read. It has been described as the ultimate goal of reading. Modern research describes it as an intentional and active process that happens before, during, and after you read any piece of writing.

The reading comprehension process includes 2 elements:

  • Knowledge of vocabulary – the reader has to understand each word used in a text;
  • Text comprehension – the reader has to put all the words together and develop an overall concept that the text is trying to say.

Reading research has revealed that the reader doesn’t simply perceive the meaning that is in the piece of writing but actively co-construct that meaning. So the reading comprehension always depends on readers’ life experience, purpose, feelings, and current needs.

Reading comprehension is important for different aspects of daily life.

  • You need good reading comprehension to fully grasp the meaning of words and phrases, as well as ideas and concepts expressed in written texts.
  • It’s a critical component of functional literacy that includes practical skills that allow people to function well in their community.
  • It’s imperative if you want to excel in your studies, write clearly and effectively, and have a successful career.
  • Full comprehension of what we read is also necessary when we read an engaging book for pure pleasure.

Reading Comprehension Strategies

Most reading researchers agree that every time we read a text, we use the following key strategies:

  • Using prior knowledge and experience;
  • Setting purposes;
  • Predicting;
  • Summarizing and identifying the main idea;
  • Visualizing and creating mental models;
  • Asking and answering questions;
  • Reflecting on the meaning and applying it to new situations.

Children learn to read in elementary grades, but that doesn’t mean they will be able to understand any text in the future. At first, they read simple stories and fairy-tales, but in the middle grades and high school, they have to read textbooks and articles in newspapers, magazines, and journals. These are more complex texts that require different comprehension strategies. And in college and in the working world, we need to fully understand and interpret all kinds of sophisticated texts on an in-depth level to find new information and learn new skills. That’s why improving reading comprehension is a life-long process.

How to Improve Reading Comprehension

For good readers, the comprehension process is more or less automatic. If your skills are strong, you don’t think what you are doing to make sense of the text, follow the argument, understand complicated concepts, find important information, or learn to do something.

If you struggle to understand what you are reading, it can feel overwhelming. But the good news is that reading comprehension can be improved just like any other skill, and you can master it no matter how old you are. You should practice a lot and combine two approaches – reading for studying and reading for pleasure.

Here are some simple and effective techniques you can try out to improve your reading comprehension.

Improve Your Vocabulary

Remember, you need to recognize and understand all individual words of the text. So you should work on growing your vocabulary. That will help you develop reading fluency and focus on the overall meaning of the text.
If you see unfamiliar words, you shouldn’t skip them without finding out what they mean. This way, you’ll miss a lot of meaning, and later you can make a lot of mistakes in a test. You should always look up unknown words in a good online dictionary before you go any further. Write them down, try to remember them, and use them in your speech and writing. You can make flashcards to help you memorize the words you don’t understand. If you work regularly on increasing your vocabulary, you are likely to improve your reading comprehension over time.

Have Someone Smarter Read with You

Just admit that you can’t know everything and that there are people who are smarter than you. So if an article or chapter in a textbook is above your level, don’t hesitate to rely on someone, for example, a teacher, a mentor, a friend who has experience with this field. Ask them some questions about the concepts that you may not understand. You can also try to summarize the content you have read and ask their opinion of whether you’ve grasped the key ideas. Besides, describing what you have read to someone else can help you to move the material from short-term to long-term memory.

Read Aloud

If you find it difficult to concentrate on the text when you read it, we recommend reading it out loud. This is a good approach if you are an auditory learner. This way, you also have to slow down and have more time to process what you’re reading. Besides, reading aloud activates the parts of your brain that learn visually. Some researchers think it can help with remembering dense material when you get stuck with a difficult passage.

Take Notes as You Read

Try note-taking when reading sophisticated content, but you should put everything in your own words. Taking meaningful notes can help you summarize the key ideas of a chapter in a textbook or a scholarly article. You can review your notes a few days later. This way, you can save the time of rereading.

You can also create visual representations for the most difficult material. For example, a good idea is to make a mind map that illustrates the key concepts, a diagram, or a flow chart. That will help you connect main ideas in a memorable way.

Practice Active Reading

When you read something, you should think about what the author is saying. Evaluate the content and determine how it is relevant to your needs. Active reading can save you tons of time. Here are some effective strategies you can use:

  • Make annotations in margins to summarize points or ask questions;
  • Highlight key concepts, definitions, terms, facts, or ideas as you read;
  • Make comparisons and associations;
  • Make connections and relate the content to your own experiences, thoughts, and other texts;
  • Ask questions about the text.

These strategies are part of metacognition or thinking about thinking that can enhance your learning and retain the information better.

Pace Yourself

Set realistic goals. When you read difficult material with lots of new terms and concepts, you shouldn’t try to read the entire book in a couple of days because it’s hard work. You should understand the reality. It’s practically impossible to read effectively for hours at a time, so you should take breaks. If your reading assignment seems too daunting, you’d better break it into bite-sized sections, which you can manage easily. The good idea is to break large complex passages into small chunks and make sure you fully understand the previous chunk before you move to the next one. If you don’t understand what is being communicated, you should reread the chunk.

Slow down as you read. For example, pause at the end of complicated sentences and clauses. Psychologists call it wrap-up and emphasize that if you spend more time on wrap-up, it will improve the recall of text.

Read for Pleasure

Reading can be fun, and you should definitely read just for enjoyment. It can be a good strategy that will prevent you from seeing reading as a constant chore. Read some books that are below your level or fiction books just to relax and enjoy them. It will help you make reading a part of your daily life.

Today, we have to process a lot of important information. The better and faster we read to extract that information, learn new things, and apply them, the more we grow. You can’t significantly improve your reading comprehension in a few days – it requires time and hard work. So you should be patient and try out different strategies and techniques to determine which of them work best for you.

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Rebecca Jenkins
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Rebecca has been a freelance writer since 2010. She travels often and is constantly learning something new. Also, Rebecca is a true enthusiast of social sciences, especially of psychology. She gladly shares her experience of enjoying life and finding inspiration across the US and abroad.