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Improving Your Reading Comprehension in College

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We’ve all done it – read an article or chapter and not recall much of what we read. Scholarly reading is different than reading for enjoyment. Many students don’t recognize the difference and read everything like a novel. Scholarly reading requires critical reading skills. Critical reading means reading with the goal of finding deeper understanding of the material. It is the act of analyzing and evaluating what you are reading while you are reading it or as you reflect back on what you read.

In order to improve reading skills, you have to improve your overall knowledge. Reading comprehension is more than just understanding the words written on the page. It entails understanding the references and concepts made in the reading. This is a great reason to take a variety of classes in a variety of subject areas. The more you know, the more your reading skills will improve.

Some of your classes may require more reading than others. Regardless of the amount of reading required, stay on top of it. Don’t fall behind. You may think you can pass the class without doing all of the reading. You may, but you are not getting full comprehension of the subject and your grade may suffer.

Some strategies that you can use to improve your critical reading skills are listed below. Keep in mind that a few of the strategies may be enough to improve your reading skills. The goal is to develop skills that help you throughout your life, not just for a class.

  • Read the preface and introduction. Skim the table of contents and index.

The preface will provide essential information for understanding the author’s perspective. Usually included in the preface are the author’s objective, an explanation of the organization of the book, why the book is different than others, and the author’s background and credentials. The introduction provides an overview of the book and background information. The table of contents provides information about the structure and the ideas presented. The index provides a list of specific names, places, and ideas included in the book.

  • Read it more than once

Understanding textbooks and articles often requires more than one reading. It can take two, three, or even more readings to grasp difficult concepts. You may not need to read the entire text several times, but use multiple reading for concepts you find difficult to understand.

  • Take notes

Take brief notes while reading by adding short notes in the margins of your book and by minimal underlining. Pay attention to sections where you might want to take more notes. After reading, go back and take more extensive notes where you need them. Avoid the temptation to highlight every line. Heavy highlighting usually marks what you should learn rather than focusing on learning it. Don’t be afraid to mark up your book. You paid for it – it’s yours.

  • Read before class

Read the assigned chapter before class so you are familiar with the material beforehand. Note questions and difficult material, and get answers during class.

  • Think about the material you are reading

What prior knowledge do you have about the subject? Think about the purpose of the reading and what you are supposed to get out of it. Think about any missing information.

  • Pay attention to your study environment

Read sitting up, with a good light, at a desk or table. Keep background information to a minimum. Give yourself a quiet environment to read in. Keep a pen and paper in reach to record notes and questions.

  • Break down large reading assignments

Break long assignments into segments. Read 10 pages then do something else. Later, read the next 10 pages. Continue in this manner until the reading assignment is complete.

  • Pay attention to the end of the chapter

Often, you will find a list of vocabulary words at the end of each chapter. You will find words listed that are specific to that chapter. If you are unfamiliar with any of the terms, look them up. If there are questions at the end of the chapter, read them before starting to read. This will help you to read with focus and purpose, which is a large part of reading comprehension.

One proven method for more efficient reading is the SQ3R method. It is designed to help you read faster and retain more of what you read. SQ3R stands for the steps in reading: survey, question, read, recite, review. It might seem like the SQ3R method takes more time, but most people find that it helps you to retain more and reread less. The steps for the SQ3R method are:

  • Survey Survey the material before reading it. Look at the topic headings and try to get an overview of the reading. Skim the sections. Read the final summary to get an idea of where the chapter is going. Spend only a few minutes surveying the reading. You’ll gain background knowledge and an initial orientation to help you to organize the material as you read it.
  • Question Look at the first heading in the chapter and turn it into a question. Ask yourself questions to be answered in the reading. This step requires effort, but leads to active reading. It is also the best way to retain written material. By asking questions, you focus your concentration on what you need to learn.
  • Read Read the first section of your reading assignment to answer your question. Actively search for the answer. If you finish the first section and haven’t found an answer to your question, read it again. Read reflectively by considering what the author is trying to say and how you can use that information.
  • Recite After you’ve found the answer to your question in the reading, look away from the book and try to recite (in your own words) the answer. If you are able to do this, you understand the material. If you can’t, look at your reading again. As you answer your questions, write them down.
  • Review After you’ve read the entire assignment, test yourself by asking the questions you’ve identified. Review what you’ve written down. Consider how it fits in with what you know from lectures, experience, and other classes. Why is the material significant? What are the applications or implications of the material? What questions do you still have?

Reading comprehension requires practice. Vary the types of materials you read. Reading different types of reading will improve your reading abilities. If you experience problems with reading and reading comprehension after trying these tips, use the resources available at your school. The academic help center can provide more assistance.


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Mark Pennington over 8 years ago Mark Pennington


An update on SQ3R (with a better research base) is the easy-to-use PQRAR read-study method. Find this at <a href="http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/reading/how-to-read-textbooks-with-pq-rar/">PQRAR</a>.