6 Way to Improve Reading Comprehension

Whether you’re an adult or a child, a teacher or a parent, understanding the importance of reading comprehension is indispensable. Diving into a good book, fully soaking in what you’re learning at school, or even achieving regular goals throughout your day – they all come down to reading comprehension and the way you contextualize a message. OxfordOWL defines reading comprehension as “the ability to read text, process it and understand its meaning.

BlogEducation6 Way to Improve Reading Comprehension

Whether you’re an adult or a child, a teacher or a parent, understanding the importance of reading comprehension is indispensable. Diving into a good book, fully soaking in what you’re learning at school, or even achieving regular goals throughout your day – they all come down to reading comprehension and the way you contextualize a message. OxfordOWL defines reading comprehension as “the ability to read text, process it and understand its meaning. It relies on two, interconnected abilities: word reading (being able to decode the symbols on the page) and language comprehension (being able to understand the meaning of the words and sentences).” 

This is a skill we can improve on throughout our lives; as we pick up new vocabulary, challenge ourselves to read new types of media, and learn to slow down and take in information – reading comprehension is something you want on your side. Read on to find six simple ways to improve your reading comprehension today.

1. Eliminate Distractions

In today’s digitally overloaded society, getting rid of too much noise is something we could all use. Whether you’re a child or an adult – you’re probably no stranger to finding yourself having too much screen time. The brain is actually only equipped to handle two (related) tasks at once – any more than that and you’re scientifically unlikely to be achieving much at all. Studies have dove into this for decades, and the information age has proven that we aren’t listening very much. Today, we take on way more than two tasks at once. Think about what you’re doing while you’re streaming shows or while you’re working; are you listening to music? Playing a game on your phone?

It’s said that about 80% of Americans spend more than two hours a day on a digital device, and 67% of those people are using more than one device at once. Another article claimed that kids between the ages of 8 and 12 are spending nearly five hours staring at a screen. As is evident, we are constantly surrounded by noise, screens, and digital media and have become used to intaking more than one stimuli at a time. If you’re trying to improve your reading comprehension, you’ll need to eliminate as much distraction as possible. Dedicate your time to sitting down and putting your entire focus onto what’s on the page in front of you. It’s likely you’ll find your comprehension improves with that small step. 

You can't do big things if you're distracted by small things.

— Anonymous

2. Read Out Loud

There’s a reason why you see parents and teachers having children read out loud when they’re first beginning: it works. The tactic encourages you to remember what you’re reading instead of rushing through or scanning over information. When we take the time to slow down and say each and every word, then sentence, then paragraph, we’re actively participating with our brain’s functioning. You’re more likely to recall what your voice sounded like as you read a certain word, or how you felt when you formed an idea about a particular sentence. Reading out loud isn’t just for kids – adults can reap the memory-building benefits as well. We’re so accustomed to trying to just get through our days that we never slow down and realize we’re wasting time by rushing. One study reported that we only actually remember about 20% of what we read. What was the point of even reading it then? Maybe if you read this sentence out loud you’ll remember it better.

Other than memory function, reading out loud can help you better contextualize ideas. In fact, The Critical Reader blames the end of lecturing for the decline in reading scores. When we are audibly taking in information, whether being read to or reading it ourselves, it helps us decode the message and form ideas about it as we go. The act of reading out loud also forces us to slow down and focus so we don’t miss anything. This technique may feel a little off-putting at first, but once you are comfortable with it you’ll start seeing a difference in how much you better understand what you’re reading.

3. Expand Your Vocabulary

This doesn’t sound fun right off the bat, but expanding your vocabulary can actually become something you enjoy. The more words you know and learn, the easier it will be to fully take in what you’re reading. It’s frustrating to be reading through something and stumbling over pronunciation or meaning as you go. It can feel like a foreign language entirely – but you can overcome this obstacle. One way to do this is by carrying around a pocket dictionary with you at all times. If you hear a word in conversation that you don’t know, take the time to remember it and look it up later. If you happen to see a term you don’t recognize at the grocery store, look it up right away. These tiny actions add up and before you know it, you’ll have an entirely new dictionary of words that are all your own.

Another interesting way to challenge yourself is by trying to use your new vocabulary words as much as possible. Once you can better understand how to use a term in the right context, you can work it into your daily interactions either by writing or speaking it. It might feel forced at first, but pretty soon these new vocabulary terms will be a normal part of your vernacular. Many people find that creating flash cards helps with this process. If you’re a kid, this is often a yawn because it’s associated with homework. But as an adult, you might have fun making the activity entirely your own. You’ll have to do more than just write them and leave them – go back and revisit as often as possible to work them into your vocabulary. The more words you understand, the less time you’ll have to spend with reading comprehension.

English language is the most universal language in history, way more than the Latin of Julius Caesar. It's the most powerful language because its vocabulary has a certain critical mass that makes a lingo good for punning.

— Richard Lederer

4. Start Below Your Skill Level

If you’re trying to improve your reading comprehension, you are probably antsy to get moving. However, like the other techniques listed above, slow and steady wins the race. It’s recommended that reading below your skill level is better than jumping right into where you “think” you should be. The first (and most important) reason for this is it will boost your confidence level. If you start with material that is above your reading level, you’re more likely to give up or think that the task isn’t worth it. Everyone’s reading levels are different, and it’s easiest to determine this by using an online quiz.  Something may feel entirely too easy for you, but that’s the point; to accurately test your comprehension it’s more about what you’re retaining versus your ability to read the words.

When you have a handle of where you’re at, you can begin to test your comprehension skills. One technique is to write a miniature “book report” where you imagine you’ll be summarizing the piece. What were the important take-aways? What was the writer’s tone and what was their goal? Who (or what) were the main subjects? What happened in the beginning, middle, and end of the material? The questions you ask and the summary you write will depend on what you’re reading. If you’ve chosen a popular book, there are usually resources online to guide students as they study. Some people who are testing their reading comprehension choose to purchase materials that have built in questions after every chapter. The way you go about your journey is entirely up to you. Just taking the time to boost your skill level makes you better than you were yesterday!

5. Don’t Be Afraid to Reread

It’s not just with reading that we as humans don’t get things the first time around. Our attention span as a whole has plummeted, and we all have some serious work to do on our concentration skills. When you’re already struggling with reading comprehension, this fact just adds another obstacle to tackle. But have no fear – the extra effort is more than worth it. It can feel daunting at first but the more you practice the technique the less burdensome it will feel. Even if you think you understood a passage, go back through and read again to see if there is any information you might have missed. There’s a chance you will have a completely new understanding of the message.

Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goal. My strength lies solely in my tenacity.

— Louis Pasteur

Using a highlighter can help with this process. Instead of struggling over and over with the same sentence, highlight the part you are having trouble comprehending. Go through the rest of the material and ask yourself what you learned. Once you have a good grip on what you’ve read, go back and revisit the highlighted sentences. Did they add anything to the material? What part of it was confusing? Was there a word you didn’t recognize or was the sentence perplexing? Sometimes skimming is necessary, and even people who don’t struggle with comprehension use it as a reading tool. Don’t get hung up on the minor details if you can help it. You’re improving little by little and you have more patience than most people just by practicing.

6. Ask a Friend or Tutor for Help

Who doesn’t need a second opinion sometimes? By asking a friend to read with you, you’ll be better able to gauge your own understanding of the material. Tell them what you got out of the passage or book and then compare notes. This practice is a great way to see if you’re on the right track. Even if your summaries aren’t exactly the same, as long as the gist is there it’s a win. It’s not unusual for two people to get completely different messages – even if they don’t struggle with reading comprehension. Be easy on yourself, and if you feel you didn’t hit the mark as your friend for help. They can show you key points in the story or piece where they took information from. Evaluate why you may have missed it and have your friend explain their reasoning. 

Don't be afraid to ask questions. Don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I do that every day. Asking for help isn't a sign of weakness, it's a sign of strength. It shows you have the courage to admit when you don't know something, and to learn something new.

— Former President Barack Obama

If you want a higher level of attention, there are plenty of tutoring programs (some free) that offer reading comprehension services. Look for a literacy center in your area and tell them what you’re struggling with. Usually they will give you an assessment and match you with a tutor who best suits your needs. This can feel more comfortable than working with a friend because you’ll know the tutor is specialized in this area. They can also offer you tools and resources from the literacy center that have even more tips to take in. 

Reading Rules

No matter your reasoning for wanting to better your reading comprehension, you are gaining a lifelong tool. The benefits of obtaining this skill far outweigh the minor inconveniences of learning it. Reading comprehension truly changes your perspective. Suddenly you’ll find yourself picking up on messages you never had before. You’ll breeze through tasks that may have felt daunting before. You’ll feel less intimidated with certain subject matter. Most importantly – you’ll realize you’re a lot better at reading than you thought you were. Sometimes we just need the tools in our toolbox to move forward with confidence. 

The best, and perhaps most surprising part is, you’ll find reading fun. Isn’t that something? Once you have reading comprehension on your side, books won’t just be boring piles of paper – they’ll become magical. Even educational reading can become more enjoyable as you actually comprehend what is being said. Dive into a subject you’ve always wanted to learn more about. Take out a book from your local library that you would have never touched before. There’s a whole new world waiting for you out there – go after it.