Improving your vocabulary and increasing the amount of time you spend reading overall will help you to improve your reading comprehension over time, but what do you do to help you to comprehend a particular piece of text?
Here, I’ll walk you through the steps to take as you’re reading so that you can understand the text and improve how you’re reading, when you’re reading.
Tip 1: Stop When You Get Confused and Try to Summarize What You Just Read
As you read, let yourself stop whenever you lose focus or feel confused. Just stop. Now, without re-reading, summarize aloud or in your head what you’ve comprehended so far (before the place where you became confused).
Skim back through the text and compare how you’ve summarized it with what’s written on the page. Do you feel you’ve captured the salient points? Do you feel a little more focused on what’s going on now that you’ve put the material into your own words?
Keep reading with your summation in mind and let yourself stop and repeat the process whenever the piece becomes confusing to you. The more you’re able to re-contextualize the work in your own words, the better you’ll be able to understand it and lock the information in your mind as you keep reading.
Tip 2: If You’re Struggling, Try Reading Aloud
Sometimes, we can form a sort of “mental block” that can halt our reading progress for whatever reason (maybe the sentence looks complex or awkward, maybe you’re tired, maybe you feel intimidated by the word choice, or are simply bored).
Reading these problematic passages aloud can often help circumvent that block and help you to form a visual of what the text is trying to convey.
Tip 3: Re-read (or Skim) Previous Sections of the Text
For the most part, reading is a personal activity that happens entirely in your head. So don’t feel you have to read just like anyone else if “typical” methods don’t work for you. Sometimes it can make the most sense to read (or re-read) a text out of order.
It is often helpful to glance backwards through a piece of text (or even re-read large sections) to remind yourself of any information you need and have forgotten—what happened previously, what a particular word means, who a person was…the list is endless.
Previous sentences, sections, or even whole chapters can provide helpful context clues. Re-reading these passages will help to refresh your memory so that you can better understand and interpret later sections of the text.
Tip 4: Skim or Read Upcoming Sections of the Text
Just like with the previous step, don’t feel that the only way to read and understand a text is to work through it completely linearly. Allow yourself the freedom to take apart the text and put it back together again in whichever way makes the most sense to you.
Sometimes a current confusion in a work will be explained later on in the text, and it can help you to know that explanations are upcoming or even just to read them ahead of time.
So skip forward or backwards, re-read or read ahead as you need to, take the piece in whatever order you need to in order to make sense of the text. Not everyone thinks linearly, and not everyone best understands texts linearly either.
Tip 5: Discuss the Text With a Friend (Even an Imaginary Friend)
Sometimes discussing what you know so far about a text can help clear up any confusion. If you have a friend who hasn’t read the text in question, then explain it to them in your own words, and discuss where you feel your comprehension is lacking. You’ll find that you’ve probably understood more than you think once you’ve been forced to explain it to someone who’s completely unfamiliar with the piece.
Even if no one else is in the room, trying to teach or discuss what a passage says or means with “someone else” can be extremely beneficial. In fact, software engineers call this technique “rubber duck debugging,” wherein they explain a coding problem to a rubber duck. This forces them to work through a problem aloud, which has proven time and time again to help people solve problems. So if a piece of text has your head spinning from trying to work through it by yourself, start chatting with your nearest friend/pet/rubber duck. You’ll be surprised with how much easier it is to understand a text once you’ve talked it through with someone.
Even if that someone is a duck.