Six Basics of Efficient Reading

Reading and listening are at the foundation of most learning. While we don’t need to be taught how to listen well, many of us read suboptimally. We might spend more time reading something than we should, or maybe we can’t recall enough. Or, a potentially interesting passage might seem boring.

Here are a few “best practices” of reading in general: How to comprehend and retain more from a reading session.

1. Get the broad picture
One of the most oft-quoted, and most neglected, ways to increase focus and retention is to read higher-level items first. If it’s a book, read the table of contents — without bothering too much about the details. If it’s a longish news item, read the paragraph headings first. For a white paper, read the section names and descriptions. This sets the context and focus for the actual reading.

An extension of this idea, applicable to shorter pieces like single web pages, is to read the first sentence of each paragraph before you read the entire paragraph. 

The writer naturally structures the material — of whatever type — such that these “top-level” items carry the rest of the material forward. Capitalise on that!

2. Why do you want to read this?
This idea is best illustrated with an example. Suppose you’re listening to a song, and a friend suddenly hands you a printout with two paragraphs on it. He asks you to read it aloud. You ask why, and you’re told: “Nothing… just read it out.” And so you do. Then your friend asks you what you remember of it. 

You’d probably remember almost nothing, and your explanation would probably be that you weren’t paying attention. Along with the lack of attention, a major point is that there were no questions in your mind while you were reading out.

When we read with a purpose, the written material answers one or more questions that we have; it satisfies some or the other curiosity.

So here’s the tip: After you have an overview of what the material is about — and as you read each chapter, webpage, or section — ask yourself: “What do I intend to learn from this?” “What will this answer?” “Reading this will explain _______ to me.” That little internal question can make the difference between learning and idle recitation. 

3. Don’t bother with each little word
This is a habit that can take some time to develop: As you read, you’ll encounter words, phrases, and sometimes entire sentences that don’t make complete sense. Rather than re-reading them to become fully clear about them, proceed. Complete the paragraph or page. If something still seems missing or unclear, go back.

4. Pause to review
If the subject matter is unfamiliar, complex, or difficult, pause every now and then and mentally review the material to that point. If there are significant question marks, go back and re-read a fragment or paragraph. 

If your main intent is to remember as much of the material as possible, a second reading will always help!

5. Highlight/underline/reinforce
Experienced readers tend to underline or highlight significant sentences or fragments. This reinforces the highlighted text, aids in recall, and helps maintain focus.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a pencil with a book, or a mouse cursor on a webpage. Just the act of highlighting has the reinforcing effect.

6. Don’t treat all text equal
Depending on what you’re reading — a news webpage, a classic work of literature, a serious movie review online, a magazine page — you would (and should) read at a different pace, and with a different degree of attention/focus. 

If you read a casual piece too slowly, you’ll soon realise it was a waste of time — and you’ll end up paying even less attention than you should. Worse, if you read a heavy segment of text too fast, you might stop after three pages, and decide that you need to start over.

Gauge the material before you start, and mentally adjust your reading speed. This also applies to different parts of the same piece — for example, info-heavy and info-light paragraphs.