How to Increase Your Reading Speed and Retention

Take your reading skills to the next level by implementing simple strategies
Take your reading skills to the next level by implementing simple strategies

Have you ever wanted to increase your reading speed and retention for school or work?  Many professors at the university level tend to assign more reading than is possible to read.  Your workplace may require you to read and digest technical manuals frequently.  Or you may be a high school student trying to develop skills for college.  Whatever your case may be, reading is a crucial skill in the information age where many jobs are fast becoming knowledge work.

The tips I’ll share with you below are especially useful for textbooks that are mainly information gathering and retention-type reading.  The tips below can also be applied to other types of reading that require high retention.

Set aside a specific time block to read (Speed/Retention) – We all have varying degrees of reading endurance; some people may be able to read for an hour without fatigue, while some may lose focus in 30 minutes.  At first, try budgeting one hour and gauge where you are in terms of reading endurance.  You’ll also want to take into account the time it takes for you to get settled and focused.  It may take you 5 minutes, 20 minutes and sometimes even longer to get yourself focused.  In most cases, reading endurance of textbooks and manuals will be significantly lower than leisure reading.

Read when your energy levels are optimal (Speed/Retention) – When is your concentration and focus at its peak?  For most people, it’s when your energy levels are at their highest.  One way to figure out when your focus is at its peak is by knowing your chronotype.  Early birds tend to have the most energy early in the day, while night owls tend to wake up and work best later in the day.

Read in multiple sessions (Speed/Retention) –
When you’re fatigued, you’ll have a difficult time concentrating on the material and grasping all of the information.  I’ve had many experiences when I’d be too tired to be reading, but forced myself to keep reading and turning the page.  After many pages, I would snap awake, only to realize that I couldn’t recall anything.  Save yourself some time and take a break when you start to lose your focus.  Go for a run, take a nap or grab a bite to eat and work on something else and then come back to your reading at a later time.

Direct your focus on information rich areas (Speed/Retention) –
Read the chapter headings, introductions and skim though the table of contents to get a balanced overall grasp of what the book will be covering.  The beginnings of chapters will usually contain the broad points of the chapter and the ends of chapters will have summaries.  The middle of the chapter will usually contain detailed explanations of the  points covered in the introduction section of the chapters.  Focus on the chapter openings and ends and skim through the middle to speed up your reading.  Textbooks will frequently use bold or italicized fonts to highlight important terms and ideas.

Ask questions (Retention) –
As you read, ask yourself questions such as how the reading applies to real world situations.  How can the reading be applied to you?  What is the author trying to convey?  Are there points that the author brings up that you disagree with?  Why?  Also at the end of the chapter, take a few minutes to stop and quiz yourself on the main points of the chapter.

Visualize (Retention) –
We are visual creatures whose vision takes up half of our brain’s resources.  Because so much of the information we take in is through vision, our brains are wired to optimize visual memory.  By visualizing the meaning of the words, you’ll be able to retain more than if you were to read the text straight through.

Bonus tip:

Retain more information in the same time it would take to read just once – We may be used to reading a book from beginning to end, but when the reading requires you to extract information and retain it in the shortest possible time, there’s a better strategy than to reading just once through.  Utilizing your time wisely, reading your book/document 3 times in the time it would take you to read once through will help you retain significantly more.

  1. First Pass (Spend about 15% of your total reading time) The first pass will be very quick.  Skim though the book at a fast pace and highlight important terms and terms you don’t understand.  Your highlighting should be as minimal as possible.  Don’t highlight more than one sentence.  This is to keep from diluting the important information on the page.
  2. Second Pass (Spend about 60% of your total reading time) For your second pass, you’ll want to take extra time on areas that contain important information, which you caught during the first pass.  You can skim though areas that don’t contain the information you seek, but slow down in areas with dense information and take notes including terms you don’t understand.  When taking notes, make sure you write your notes in your own words rather than just copying verbatim.  By taking notes in your own words, you’ll process the information deeper, helping you retain more.
  3. Third Pass (Spend about 25% of your total reading time) The third pass will should focus on key terms and compare them to your notes you took during the second pass.  Put the book down and replay what you’ve learned in your mind.

What are your methods for reading?  Share by commenting below!

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16 thoughts on “How to Increase Your Reading Speed and Retention”

  1. I’m a very slow reader. However, that comes with advantages. As a slow reader who tends to read word for word, you can pick up many typos that most will miss. Lol! I have proofread several ebooks and posts and notified the author of their errors. They always appreciate it.

    However, as I’m not wanting to get into the proofreading and editing field, I would still rather learn how to read faster and retain more information.

    Thanks for this useful post.

    1. @Gordie: Yup, slow reading does come in handy when you’re proofing. I consider myself a slow reader too, but I’ve been implementing little changes which have been working out for me.

  2. I’m a fairly fast reader and I do alot of what you said subconsciously. But, I think the fact that you dissected it is great. These are really useful tips especially for reading and commenting on bllogs 🙂

  3. I didn’t read 3 times, but used to scan a book 2 times during my university days. It may have worked better than I thought!

    1. @Jon: Highlighting important portions while skimming the book is a great way to retain the information. We just have to make sure that we go back and re-read the important parts to retain more for later use. Thanks for the comment!

  4. Hey Ken!
    Cool article.

    I dont mind reading once I sit down and do it, but I have to force myself to sit down and read sometimes. I enjoy reading, and don’t really do the skimming thing. I know in Tim Ferris 4 hour WW there is a section related to speed reading, where he gives specific techniques how to at least double your reading speed. It takes a bit of training and I think would be worth learning if you do a lot of reading, especially if it is for work or college.

    Cheers 🙂

  5. @Diggy: Thanks for letting me know about Tim’s speed reading post. I’ll have to check it out!

  6. Hi Ken,

    I plow through my reading. I find that when I slow down I become anxious. When I decide to finish an article quickly I stay more focused and retain exactly what I need to.

    I agree with your idea of setting up blocks of time to read. I attack my day in segments, with an alarm being my best friend. It’s one thing to say you’ll stop reading at a certain time but this time is forgotten if merely held in the mind. There’s too much going on upstairs. An alarm screaming at you is a mental wake-up call.

    Thanks for sharing your insight.


  7. @Ryan: I’ve been also thinking of implementing an alarm clock to keep me on track when reading or writing. It’s still a work in progress and I’d love to share it with everyone when I get it ironed out.

  8. I’ve found that asking myself questions after finishing reading helps to drive home the main points too. I’ll have to give your bonus tip a try to see how it works! When I first read over it, it seemed like it would take a lot more time but then I realized that all 3 steps would take just about as long as someone reading through it normally once =P

  9. @Becca: The bonus tip will depend on the person, but reading 3 times in the time it would take you 1 time normally would help you retain a lot more!

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