Tips for increasing reading comprehension in college students
So here you are fresh into college, and despite having read a few books in your life thus far, you suddenly find yourself faced with a mountain of knowledge bulging out of text and reference books that you need to read and digest in a pretty short space and time. I have to concede, it seems a pretty daunting task, and quite off-putting if you are not a regular reader or someone who has trained himself to speed-read.
It appears there are two issues here: the sheer volume of necessary reading that needs to be done, and the ability, not only to read it all, but also to comprehend and digest most of it meaningfully. Let us deal with each issue separately as, on the surface, they appear to contradict each other.
First, there is the problem of the amount of reading that is expected from college students. In many cases, this may well exceed anything that you have had to read so far: whereas before you may have read one or two fiction works to study, you pretty much would have worked your way through other text books at a pace determined by the curriculum demands and teacher lesson plans. Now, at college, where more emphasis is placed on individual self-study, you are going to find yourself having to read less for pleasure, and more for study-based comprehension.
There will be more reference books to read, and, unless you are already accustomed to reading such material regularly, you are going to find it a bit difficult to read and concentrate for long periods of time. Learning to speed read, then, is an option to help you cope. And this is where the apparent contradiction occurs: many people cannot comprehend how speed reading, which, by its very nature implies haste, can in any way improve comprehension, which, for some, refers to slow intense focus.
The truth of the matter is that those people who have trained themselves to speed read properly, have no difficulty absorbing what is read. The trick lies in training your eyes to focus on the key words in a sentence and to recognise the triggers and supports. What this means is, in a reasonably short sentence, not every word is necessary to convey the full sense of the sentence. Let us take this following sentence as an example:
Did you know that Walt Disney was afraid of mice?
The art of finding keywords is a simple one to practice. If you were writing the above sentence down as notes, not every word is needed for you to remember the main ideas. So what you are aiming to do is to identify the fewest words possible to convey the message. One way I do this is the 3:1 method. Once I have read a sentence, I then decide which the three most important words in that sentence are. For me they are DISNEY, AFRAID and MICE.
Then I mentally place a dot above the three words. Once I have done this, I then focus on the three words, and mentally underline the most important of the three (Disney). This is my trigger word. That means, when I hear or read that word again, I am going to be reminded of the other two supporting words, and thus, be able to remember the whole sentence.
Practising finding the trigger and support words in the keywording process does, admittedly, take time. Having taught many a student the system, what I discovered was that, over time, students began to read so that they saw sentences as whole sentences first i.e. trained their eyes to read a line at a time, not one word at a time. Then they would mentally bounce their eyes off inconsequential words like “if”, “and”, “the” and train their eyes only to stop on the words which were important.
This technique is not too dissimilar to the speed reading process of training your eyes to read groups of words at a time, allowing your eyes to pause two or three times in a line, rather than at every single word.
Students found it useful to practice by reading single sentences very quickly by trying to see the whole line at a time, rather than start at the beginning and focus on every single word. Then they would back skim the sentence, mentally finding the keywords.
By practising this for a while and it could take, sometimes up to three months before they perfected the art, students were able to then read through a paragraph by training their eyes to focus on the most IMPORTANT sentences only. Once they were able to master this technique, I then showed them how to read paragraphs quickly to improve comprehension.
All well-constructed paragraphs, regardless of their function, will contain at least one sentence that acts as the topic sentence for that paragraph. This is the sentence around which the whole paragraph is constructed. Most writers tend to place their topic sentence at the start of the paragraph, so students are trained to look there first in order to find it. This means that if they are faced with a chapter from a book which contains many paragraphs instead of reading every sentence word for word, I get them to skim read only the first sentence in each paragraph first. This allows them to get an overview of the chapter’s contents. Then they go back and repeat the process, this time with a little twist.
Once they have found the topic sentence in a paragraph, I get them to mentally enlarge the sentence so that it grows bigger and bigger until it exceeds their scope of vision. This is something that takes only a second or two to do. Then students are asked to skim read the rest of the paragraph, and while they are doing so, to ask themselves how the other sentences expand upon the topic sentence.
Topic sentences, however, are not always placed at the start of each paragraph. When they are, they create what are known as loose or open paragraphs. Topic sentences can also be found in the middle (which creates what is known as a balanced paragraph) and they can be found as the last sentence of a paragraph (which creates an end-stopped paragraph). So another technique which students found useful was to ask themselves the question: Is the paragraph I am going to read an OPEN, BALANCED OR END-STOPPED one? Regularly asking themselves this before reading a paragraph trained their minds to actively seek out the most important sentence quickly and helped them to better understanding what they were reading.
Another technique which students found useful when reading paragraphs is the SING technique. Simply put, this is an acronym for
IDENTIFY THE MAIN POINT
NEVER MIND THE DETAILS
GET THE GIST OF IT.
So, after reading a paragraph, students would stop reading. That is, they would not immediately start reading the next paragraph. Instead they would stop, and then pause to identify the main point of the paragraph (younger students used to enjoy turning away at this point and pretending, with their hands, that they were on the phone gossiping to a friend about what they had just read). Only after doing this would they then read the next paragraph.
It amazes me still how many students, when faced with a comprehension reading test, gleefully read paragraph after paragraph without actually absorbing anything. Training younger students to use the SING method, most definitely improves comprehension. But if you are a college student and you are not used to reading this way, then there is little point in tackling book after book without learning some basic comprehension skills.
The techniques I have mentioned so far work, but need to be practised regularly. So try starting off slowly at first. Learn to identify key words in sentences. Longer sentences may require more than one trigger word, and that is okay, as long as each has two supporting words. The more sophisticated you become at this technique, the easier it will be for you to read sentences by reading groups of words at a time and training your mind to mentally identify the main point.
Then, once you have practised this and feel confident that you can do this quickly, move on to skim reading paragraphs, and mentally enlarging the topic sentence in each. Asking yourself to determine the type of paragraph (loose, balanced, and end-stopped) before and after you have read a paragraph also allows you to slow down long enough to digest the meaning.
These ideas very much support the notion of PURPOSEFUL reading.
This leads me on to the reading of whole chapters and longer texts. If you have to read text and reference books, chances are you will not be looking to absorb every single piece of information. Therefore, when you are next faced with an assignment and have to read a number of resource books, before beginning reading, ask yourself these basic questions:
1. Why do I have to read this? What specific information am I looking for? Often your assignments will require your finding particular pieces of information. I find it useful to jot down what I need to find in the form of simple questions.
2. Then I ask myself: where in the books I have before me, will I find the answers? Armed with my specific questions, the next step is to go to the back / index page of the books and to identify where in the books I might find answers to my questions. I also check the contents pages and skim through them to determine where in the book I will need to look. I then go to the sections mentioned in the index or contents pages and write the page numbers down next to my questions. I do this for all the books I have chosen as reference.
At the end of this process, I then know exactly where I need to look in order to find the information I need. Now it is just a simple matter of going to the relevant chapter, skimming through all the headings and titles to the paragraphs first (if there are any) and then reading each paragraph as quickly as I can. As soon as I think I have found the answer to my questions, I stop and read the text, using the identify-the-topic-sentence method. Now I can write down the answers to my questions.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of ways to improve reading. These are simply ideas that I have put to personal use as a full-time researcher and ex-teacher. Again, my suggestion is start by using the keywording process. Then look for topic sentences. Train your eyes to see groups of words at a time and use the SING method as often as possible. These are skills that require regular practice before the ability to speed read and still retain comprehension can be reached.
I’ll end with another tip that students have found useful. Some used to like to set themselves daily challenges in order to improve their reading speed. In other words, they would mentally prepare themselves by telling their brains that they were going to read faster and time themselves to see if they could improve daily scores. Some would challenge themselves to see how many pages they could read in five minutes, and then the next day, try and beat their own score. I have not tried this method myself personally, but from the literature I have read on the topic, and from speaking with students who have done it, I can see that it has worth.