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Improving Reading Comprehension
By Joan Whetzel
No matter what you're reading - short or long pieces, fiction or nonfiction - it's no fun to read it unless you understand what you're reading. And it's not about how fast you read or the number of words, either. If you cannot grasp what you're reading then the words mean nothing more than a bunch of ink spots on a piece of paper. You can improve your reading comprehension by training your brain to extract meaning and value from the words using a few simple exercises.
Before Reading - Scan the Material
First, give the material a quick once over. It should not take more than 5 minutes. Check out the table of contents to get an idea of the book's layout. Scan one chapter of the material, reading through the chapter titles, subtitles, and anything in bold print, which will provide an overall sense of the material's organization. You'll get a general idea of what to expect from the reading material. The rest of the chapters will be arranged in a similar manner, so there will be no surprises when you move from one chapter to the next.
Scanning applies to individual paragraphs as well. The first sentence in each paragraph - the topic sentence - gives the reader an idea of what the paragraph discusses. The rest of the paragraph fills in the details and provides examples that explain the topic sentence more fully. So scan the topic sentences, picking out only nouns and verbs, to get the gist of the material. Paragraphs can be read for details later.
By scanning through the material first, before reading through the entire piece, you will know what information it provides, what information is missing, and what you will need to locate elsewhere. If you are looking for specific answers, then you will know up front, whether you are looking in the right place.
If the reading is for research, write down a list of questions that need answering. Also use the textbook questions as a guide to reading and note taking. The mind tends to automatically gravitate toward the information required by the questions. Visualize what is being read so that the material creates images, which may be more memorable than the words, especially for anyone who responds well to visual learning techniques. Look for films, videos, drawings or photos that relate to the material so that it takes on more meaning. Take notes while reading as a way of reinforcing what you read. Finally, if you run across words that you don't know, and can't infer the meaning from the sentence or paragraph, then write the word down and look it up at the end of the page. Be sure to write the definition next to the word, and use the definitions when reviewing the material. Besides providing a better comprehension of the material, it will improve vocabulary skills as well.
Review the answers to questions jotted down before the reading, as well as any notes taken and definitions you found. A review of personal notes afterward, reinforces what was learned during the reading process, and points to holes in the information, which in turns points to the need to look further to fill in those holes. If the reading will be used for tests later in the semester, review the notes, answered questions and definitions first, before returning to the reading material.
Reading Comprehension Tests
A special note on Reading Comprehension Tests. These are the kind of tests schools use to pass students from one grade to the next, as well as SAT and ACT tests, and college entrance exams. They are aimed at seeing how well the students can gain an understanding of what they are reading, by answering a series of questions following the reading material. The best way to navigate this is to scan the questions first, then while reading the material, the brain will naturally gravitate toward the answers. The reading will go more quickly and be more meaningful, and the reader will be able to answer the questions afterward.
Reading comprehension has nothing to do with memorization and everything with understanding the material, with taking away some meaning from what was read. Reading comprehension techniques generate the mental structure necessary to sort out the words and ideas presented by the author so that the reader can make sense of it and store it in his or her separate mental compartments. With practice, anyone can read more productively by extracting the information and mentally storing it in usable bits.