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Unweighted GPA: 3.7
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9 Tips to Improve Your Reading Comprehension Skills

Having advanced reading comprehension skills will benefit students not only in their academic careers, but also in their personal and professional lives. Much like other skills—whether it’s solving a math problem or shooting a basketball—reading comprehension skills are improved with a plan and practice. 


In this post, we’ll go over some effective ways to practice your reading comprehension, to help you become a stronger and more efficient reader.


What is Reading Comprehension?


At its most basic, reading comprehension is the ability to understand what you’re reading. However, reading comprehension is more than having a basic understanding of what you’ve read—which is useful for reading directions, signs, and labels—but less valuable when reading denser work like books, articles, and emails. Rather, reading comprehension is an in-depth understanding of what you’ve read, using text and subtext to fully understand the meaning and emotion of the text as a whole. 


Tips to Improve Your Reading Comprehension Skills


Keep reading to learn some popular strategies to go from regular reader to someone with remarkable reading comprehension skills. 


1. Find a Distraction-Free Environment


Concentration is key when working on your reading comprehension skills, and your attention needs to be focused on the text in front of you, not what’s happening around you. Find a place away from the television and your computer, and silence your phone, turn its notifications off, and tuck it out of sight. A quiet room in your house and the library are both great places to work on your reading skills. If you can’t find a completely quiet place, ambient music without lyrics is a proven way to drown-out distracting noises. 


2. Focus 


To fully understand what you’re reading, it’s imperative that you remain focused. If you feel your attention starting to wane, step away from your book and take a short break before continuing on. If time isn’t the issue—rather, it’s how much reading is in front of you—try breaking down the text into smaller, easier digested sections. For example, work on reading a chapter (or a certain number of pages) at every sitting. Much like reading comprehension, focus is built through practice, so try increasing the amount of time between breaks as your reading progresses. 


3. Slow Down Your Reading 


One of the main reasons why some readers struggle with comprehension is that they read too fast. Rushing through tricky texts, like those of your American Lit course, often leads to only a surface-level understanding of what the author is saying. Reading more slowly allows you to better absorb information, make connections with the knowledge you already possess, and take notice of the literary devices being used, such as symbolism and foreshadowing. 


Even the best readers don’t always process all of the relevant information on their first pass. If you encounter a sentence, paragraph, page, or chapter that leaves you perplexed, go back and read it again. The famous poet Ezra Pound once said about reading literature that “no reader ever read anything the first time he saw it.”

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4. Speed Up Your Reading 


Slowing down is a tried-and-true method for building reading comprehension skills, but some people benefit from speeding up their reading, which allows them to improve comprehension by exposing them to more volume and diversity of texts. A few tips for speeding up your reading without sacrificing your comprehension are: 


  • Stop subvocalizing: many people read by “speaking” the words in their head, which is extremely slow; think of reading as humming instead of speaking 
  • Read in clusters: focus on chunks and blocks of text instead of individual words
  • No rereading: rather than going back to understand difficult or challenging sections, move forward and use context to make sense of them
  • Skim and scan: train yourself to find the relevant bits of information in a text and use it increase your understanding of its more challenging parts


These tips can be especially helpful for denser texts (like history books), where you don’t necessarily need to catch every detail. 


5. Note Unfamiliar Words and Look Them up Later 


If you don’t understand what a word means, it is difficult to know what a sentence using that word is saying. One way to combat this is to expand your vocabulary. If you encounter a word you don’t understand, try to figure out what it means using context clues and make a note of the word to look up later (if you can’t understand the passage the word is used in, stop and look it up before continuing on). Dedicate some time to learning the definitions of the words you’ve written down and work to incorporate them in your own writing to cement them in your memory. 


6. Read a Wide Variety of Texts


The best way to improve your reading compression skills is to read more widely and more often. Newspaper articles, magazine features, and books of all genres are great tools for building reading compression. One easy way to encourage yourself to read more is to find enjoyable reading material. A few favorites include:


For those who love adventure, non-fiction classics like Endurance, The Greatest Adventure Story Ever Told, details Ernest Shackelton and his 27-man crew’s epic fight for survival in the South Atlantic Sea, or check out The White Spyder, a suspense-filled account of the first rock climb of the Eiger’s north face, also known as the death wall. 


Looking for something more modern? Between a Rock and a Hard Place is the harrowing story of a hiker trapped in one of the most remote spots in the U.S. who cuts off his own arm to save his life. 


Those who would rather escape to less dire circumstances in their reading might enjoy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a fast-paced and funny ride through the cosmos. The entire series of Harry Potter books offers another escape into a mirror world of witches and wizards. Lastly, the dwarves, elves, magic, and questing of the Lord of the Rings trilogy has delighted readers for decades. 


Other works of the authors you’ve already encountered in school and enjoyed is another great way to find fun-to-read books. For example:


  • Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, tells the tale of the Stampers, an Oregon timber family.
  • If you enjoyed The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, his novel East of Eden intertwines the stories of two families into one unforgettable tale. Another Steinbeck favorite is Travels with Charley: In Search of America, a travelogue about Steinbeck’s trip around the U.S. with his dog Charley. 
  • Hemingway’s novels—from For Whom the Bell Tolls to The Sun Also Rises to A Farewell to Arms—have a way of making it into everyone’s high school curriculum. For many readers, however, his novella The Old Man and the Sea is their favorite—it’s short, easy to read, and works on multiple levels. 


7. Don’t Try to Understand 100% of the Text


It is not always necessary to understand everything in the text; what’s most important is to grasp the main ideas that the author is trying to convey. When reading, pause every few paragraphs (or any time you feel confused) and think about what the author is trying to say, summarize it, and put in your words to clarify the idea.


8. Underline Important Points (If You Can)


If you own the book, or you’re working with a printout of an article, feel free to mark it up. Highlighting and underlining key concepts and ideas as you read has a way of forcing you to pay attention, and is a useful way to identify important parts of the text if you need to revisit a section later. Similarly, making notes in the margins is another way to help you remember and understand important sections of text. 


9. Seek Professional Help


Some people struggle with reading comprehension as the result of a learning disability like dyslexia or ADHD. For example, people with ADHD have a tendency to lose interest, miss important information, or become easily distracted. While those with learning disabilities can benefit from the strategies listed above, they may also need additional assistance and more specialized techniques for building reading comprehension skills.  


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Short Bio
A graduate of Northeastern University with a degree in English, Tim Peck currently lives in Concord, New Hampshire, where he balances a freelance writing career with the needs of his two Australian Shepherds to play outside.