Improve Your Reading Comprehension

Are you trying to read a book and have no idea when a character appeared and became the most important character in the book? Trying to follow Charlotte's Web, whilst feeling trapped in a web yourself? Read this article to help improve your reading comprehension.


Keep Notes

  1. Eliminate distractions. Turn off the music and the TV. Flee to the library or the bathroom, if that's where you can have peace and quiet to read.
  2. Find any type of paper to keep notes in. Taking notes, while not immediately exciting, is a good way to boost reading comprehension. If you're reading for a class, try a notebook. But if you're reading for fun, get as many pieces of paper as you think you'll need for the story and, of course, grab a pen or pencil.
    • Jot down what you remember about each chapter, section, or even paragraph. If your reading comprehension is already decent, you may only need to take occasional notes.
    • Don't rewrite the novel. On the other hand, don't write so few notes that you can't follow what was going on chronologically in the story at a given point.
    • Anytime a major event happens, or a new character is introduced, or some odd detail sticks out, write it down in your notes.
    • Try writing down characters and their relationships on one page and a basic time line for the story on another page. Draw a family tree, if it helps.
  3. Read back through your notes occasionally, making sure they make sense. Wait a day, then read your notes again. If your notes make absolutely no sense, you know you either need to take more notes, or take better notes.
  4. Ask questions about the theme or the author's intentions. Getting in the habit of asking questions will help you improve your comprehension by getting you truly involved in the story. You're trying to figure out what's going on, and in order to do that, you need to ask some questions and pose possible answers. Write down your questions in your notes, as well as your answers.
    • Some hypothetical questions that you might ask yourself while reading a book and taking notes:
      • Did the main character let the cat out the back door for a reason, or was the author just trying to fill space?
      • Why does the author start the book in a cemetery? Does the setting of the book say anything about the main character right off the bat?
      • What is the real relationship between these two characters? On the face of it, they seem like enemies, but could it be that they actually like one another?
    • Pose these sorts of questions after you finish a section or a chapter and are trying to make sense of the story. Predict what the answer is going to be. When the answer is revealed, ask yourself what supporting details in the book make that explanation the best one for the story.
  5. Keep your notes together so that you can refer to them later. If you jotted down notes on loose leaf paper, put the paper into a binder, separated by tabs for each different story. If you used a single notebook for your notes, create section headings outlining where the notes for one story start and end.

Let Information Guide You

  1. If you are reading factual information, such as a textbook or a newspaper, use the organization of the piece to guide you. In addition to the table of contents, section headings, and titles, look at:
    • Summaries, introductions, and conclusions. These will have clues about what parts are especially important.
    • The main idea in each section you read. Often, it will come first or early in the section. Jot down these main ideas when taking notes.
  2. If you are reading for a class, guide yourself using another set of clues available to you. Pay attention to the following and use them to help guide your focus as you read:
    • The syllabus or class outline.
    • The homework assignment(s). If you know there's a question coming about a particular character, for instance, you will know to pay attention to that character.
    • What the instructor emphasizes in class.
    • Any available sample tests or quizzes on this material. You may be able to get these from student groups, from your instructor, or from the text or reader.
  3. Use digital information to your advantage. Select key words or phrases and use those to search within the book electronically, if possible, with something like or Google Reader. This is particularly helpful for looking up quotes because the page number will often be listed.

Master Other Strategies

  1. Read aloud. Reading aloud is a great way to slow down while reading. Slower reading usually means more comprehension, because you have more time to process what you're reading. An added benefit of slow reading is that you get to see the words on the page (visual learning) and hear the same words spoken aloud (audio learning).
    • If you decide that hearing spoken words helps you improve your comprehension, don't be afraid to get narrated books. Of course, you'll want to read the books in addition to hearing them spoken, but this could greatly improve comprehension.
  2. Start with books at or below your level, not with books above your level. It's like being thrust into a chess match with a master when you've only just started playing. Of course you're not going to do well when that's the match up. Start with books at your level; you shouldn't be straining to figure out what words mean, or reading sentences over and over again.
    • If you're reading for a class and the book you're assigned is above your level, read it as best you can, but continue to read other books at your level. Reading those books will help you understand the harder ones.
  3. Read books over again to gain fluency. Reading teachers talk about this concept called fluency. Fluency is the ability to read words at a certain speed. To be fluent, you want to be able to read 90 words a minute.[1] That seems like a lot, but with only a little bit of practice, you should be able to get there. What kind of practice? Re-reading! Read books over again, twice or even three times. After the first time, the words will read easier and fluency will improve.
  4. Get better at identifying words (vocabulary). If you don't know what a word means, it's going to be hard to improve comprehension. Have a rough idea of what vocabulary level you should be at given your age. If you're below your level, try starting with books that you fully understand and then work your way up.
    • There are a number of ways to improve reading comprehension:
      • Have a dictionary or computer with you while reading. When you come across a word you don't know, look it up and write the definition down in your notes.
      • Read lots of books. Sometimes the definition of a word will be clear given the context of the sentence. The more you read, the better you'll get at guessing the definition of a word given its context.
      • Read books above your level. Books above your level will contain lots of tricky vocabulary words. Getting through these books will be harder, but you'll come away with great knowledge.
  5. Read with a helper. Whether that helper is a teacher, a friend, or a parent, read with someone above your level who you're comfortable with talking to and asking questions. When reading with a helper, follow this structure[2]:
    • Pre-reading: define vocabulary words ahead of time; preview key comprehension questions so that you can look out for them while you read.
    • Reading: look out for the comprehension questions you went over before reading; ask questions; read aloud if necessary; take notes; listen to someone else reading.
    • Post-reading: summarize what you just read; ask any questions you had; predict what's going to happen next based on what you just read.


  • Write down words you don't know, or interesting phrases on their own pages. You'll probably want to check the meanings of the words later, and you never know if you could use those phrases.
  • Try reading lots of different things. Practice on fun stuff, even if it's graphic novels or your favorite magazine.
  • Learn what works best for you, whether that is locking yourself in your room, reading out loud. Try many different approaches.
  • Get the Cliff's Notes. Many well-known classics have notes or guides available. Use these notes as a supplement to help aid your understanding of a difficult-to-read work.
  • Always go to the library as much as possible, whether it is after school, or at lunch try to go to the library a lot!
  • Ask questions. If this is assigned reading and you don't understand something you have read, discuss it with classmates or a teacher or parent. If it's not assigned, consider finding a discussion group, real or online.
  • A good idea would be to create a page for each character so that each character can have his/her own details, so you can see the character deeper throughout the whole story rather than remembering only him/her at certain parts.
  • Read books above your reading level to challenge your mind and force yourself to learn new words.
  • If you are running behind in your reading for a class, it can be more valuable to take a high-level tour of a chapter, reading perhaps headings and introductory sentences and paragraphs, than to comb through every word.


  • If you use ideas from published notes or criticisms in any writing assignments you do, know the rules about citations and plagiarism. You will not fool your instructor by parroting something that has already been written.
  • Genuine reading difficulties often go undiagnosed or unheeded. If you have been diagnosed, practice note-taking and study habits
  • Do not use Cliff's Notes or similar supplementary material as a substitute for doing required reading.

Related Articles

Sources and Citations