This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Reading to learn

Reading to Learn

This is the third of several articles in our Reading to Learn series. By “reading to learn,” we mean a deliberate and mindful way of reading that promotes both understanding and remembering.

Quick Review of First Two Reading to Learn Articles

Before we dive into the nitty-gritty of reading deeply, let’s review where we’ve come from. In Get in the right mindset for reading to learn, we stressed knowing your purpose for reading; starting with short, concentrated practice sessions; and staying actively engaged with the text.

In Preread to get the big picture before reading to learn, we talked about the importance of prereading a chapter or article to answer two basic questions: What is it about? and What are its parts? We suggested finding the answers in particular places: the title, the headings and subheadings, and the summary at the beginning or end. Finally, we discussed what is most important to capture in your prereading notes: the chapter or article title; the main topics covered, in order of appearance; and the main points of the summary.

Actively Engage; okay, but how do I do that?

In this article, we’re going to get into what’s at the heart of reading to learn. We’re going to explore some ways to actively engage with a text for better understanding and remembering. This is not easy. That is, it may be easy to understand the suggested methods, but it can be very difficult to remember to use them every time you read. Old habits die hard. Trust me on this; I’m still learning this lesson every day.

Sentences and Paragraphs

This may sound simplistic, but it all begins at the sentence and paragraph levels. Your gut reaction to this may be, “Oh, come on, I already know how to read a paragraph.” I’m sure you do, but remember, we’re not talking about the reading you use to scan social media or browse through People magazine. We’re talking about reading to learn, i.e., to understand what you read and to remember it.

If you don’t take steps to truly understand each sentence, then at the end of the first paragraph, all you have is a vague idea about what you just read. You haven’t really taken in the information. If you go on like this, paragraph after paragraph, you’ll reach the end of a whole chapter and find that you haven’t retained much at all. That is a complete waste of your time, and your time is worth too much to spend it like that, right?

So the key is to read each sentence well. If you can fully understand a sentence, you can fully understand a paragraph. If you can master a paragraph, you can grasp the subsection it’s in. If you can understand a subsection, you can conquer a whole chapter. Build that wall, brick by brick. It will take you longer, no doubt, but you will actually know something at the end of your reading sessions.

The Steps of Reading to Learn

I’ve written this as though it applied to a book with chapters, but you could easily apply these steps to reading a long article or other text.

We’re going to put these basic steps into a numbered list. This makes the reading-to-learn process seem very linear. In practice, you may need to move back and forth between steps a little bit. For example, if you go past a sentence and then realize you didn’t really understand it, you may have to go back to it. To that extent, you have to “play it by ear.” But in general, here’s how you will proceed each time you sit down to read something:

Before You Begin Reading

  1. Remember your purpose for reading this text at this time.
  2. Remind yourself that you need to stay alert, focused, and self-disciplined. In other words, be an active reader and don’t let your mind wander off into La La Land.
  3. Preread the section of the text or article you plan to read during this session to see what its main topics are and how they are structured (i.e., the order in which the topics appear).

While Reading

  1. As you read each sentence, paraphrase it. If you can’t put it in your own words, you don’t really understand it.
    If you skip this step, the rest of the process is useless; if you don’t understand the individual sentences, you won’t understand the paragraphs, sections, or chapters. Game over.
  2. At the end of each paragraph, do three things:
    1. State its main point(s) in your own words. Be as clear and accurate as you can. Then help those main point(s) stick in your mind by taking just a few seconds to do one of the following:
      1. Elaborate on it in some way, e.g., relate it to something you already know, look away and explain it to yourself, or think of something it reminds you of.
      2. Think of an example or two.
      3. Sketch it or diagram it.
    2. Ask yourself how each paragraph relates to those that came before it. Is it an elaboration of a point made previously? Is it evidence for a claim? Is it an example of something discussed earlier? Try to see why this paragraph came after the previous ones and make some connection.
    3. Decide if this paragraph’s main point is important enough to put in your notes. If so, add it using your own words.
  3. At the end of each small section (e.g., everything under one main heading), take just a few moments to read over your notes, then:
    1. See if any new connections jump out at you. How do all those main points you’ve collected relate to one another?
    2. Try to create a quick outline, sketch or G.O. (graphic organizer) that summarizes the whole section. This is a way of stepping back to get the big picture of the section you just read.
  4. Continue in this manner, section by section. When you reach the end of the chapter:
    1. Read over your notes.
    2. Review your section summaries (outlines, sketches, or G.O.s), adding any critical information from your notes that you missed.
    3. Create a G.O. that incorporates the most important info from your collection of section summaries. Now you’re stepping back to get the big picture of the whole chapter.

The Short Version of the Steps

Okay, that was a lot of words to explain the steps of reading to learn. I did that deliberately, so that you can fully understand how to implement each step. Once you do, you can work from this brief version—maybe copy it onto a note card and keep it with you whenever you read:

  1. Paraphrase each sentence.
  2. At the end of each paragraph:
    1. State its main point in your own words, then:
      1. Elaborate on it;
      2. Think of an example; or
      3. Sketch it.
    2. Ask how does this paragraph relate to those that came before?
    3. If it’s important enough, add the paragraph’s main point to your notes.
  3. At the end of each major heading’s section:
    1. Read over your section notes.
    2. Think about how all those main ideas are related.
    3. Create a quick outline, sketch or G.O. that summarizes the section.
  4. At the end of the chapter:
    1. Read over your chapter notes.
    2. Review your section summaries, adding any overlooked critical info.
    3. Create a G.O. that incorporates the most important info from your collection of section summaries.

Wrapping It Up

Now you know the most critical, fundamental steps to reading to learn:

  • Be an active, alert, disciplined reader.
  • Paraphrase each sentence.
  • State each paragraph’s main point, then elaborate on it, think of some examples, or illustrate it.
  • Discover how each paragraph relates to those that preceded it.
  • Take notes on the most important points.
  • Your reading session’s not done until you review your notes, look for additional connections, and create an outline or G.O.
Series Navigation

<< Preread to Get the Big Picture