Scott Postma

A blog about the Great Books, the Craft of Writing, and Human Flourishing.

Two Tips You Can Use Today for Better Reading Comprehension

Some readers are naturally better than others.

To be on the bottom end of that spectrum is to be disadvantaged in many respects. After all, as the saying goes: readers are leaders.

So what makes the difference? How does one move up the spectrum and improve his or her reading comprehension? In his classic work, How to Read a Book, Mortimer J. Adler asserts,

A piece of writing, however, is a complex object. It can be received more or less completely, all the way from very little of what the writer intended to the whole of it. The amount the reader “catches” will usually depend on the amount of activity he puts into the process, as well as upon the skill with which he executes the different mental acts involved.

I highly recommend the book, but if you want to get a head start, there are two things you can do right now to improve your reading comprehension.

First, ask questions of the author as you read. Second, answer the author by writing in the margins of your book.

By asking the author questions as you read, you are staying alert and engaged with the author’s ideas. This is one way to keep your mind from wandering off and thinking about whether your neighbor’s cat is a Persian or a Siamese, or how your boss got his hair to comb that way. It keeps you from getting to the bottom of a page and wondering what your were just reading for the last five minutes.

By answering the author, it allows you to think through his arguments and conceptualize what is being asserted. It further allows you to make notes that you can return to when you want to meditate on something you’ve read or when you want to scan the important parts of the book for review.

There’s no “right way” of doing this. You can simply underline or make some stray marks as you dialogue with the author, casually, or you can develop a simple system that allows you to read more carefully and retrieve ideas more thoughtfully.

Below is a simple system I use. I think it’s simple enough that you don’t need to learn a new alphabet, but robust enough to provide some valuable feedback to your reading.

! – I whole-heartily agree, so be it, or Amen.
√ – New understanding or useful knowledge
* – Act on, implement, or develop further (idea to write about)
{ – note on the passage
? – not sure what it means, that I agree; or, I need to ponder further
X – I whole-heartedly disagree
† – gospel, Christ, Church
⌡ – (squiggly line) memorable or remarkable quotation.
͇͇ – (double underline) contrasting ideas
_ – (underline) take note
B – book to read that the author references or recommends
⁄⁄ – slanted lines around a word for emphasis. Especially when it marks a change in the writers thoughts.

Of course you can incorporate your own symbols and their definitions, or add or subtract from these. I recommend that you keep it as simple as possible, and natural as possible. Thus, B for book to read seems very natural to me. Maybe it’s another symbol that seems natural to you.

The idea is to read actively, comprehend more of what you read, and have a consistent system of note-taking you can return to–even years later.

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About Scott Postma

Scott is a writer and teacher living in North Idaho. He loves teaching the Great Books, writing and blogging, and collecting more books than he'll ever read in a lifetime. You can subscribe to the tribe and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.

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2 Replies

  1. Laura Mc Coy

    Good points!