How to Improve Your Reading Comprehension as an Adult

Christine Ro

Staff Writer

Christine writes about books for Literary Hub, VICE, and the Ploughshares blog. She occasionally writes about other topics, because someone once told her (although it seemed implausible) that there’s life outside of books. Blog:

The ability to process and retain information from texts: it’s not just for kids. Reading comprehension, which has been defined as “the act of translating text into mental representations”, has also been described as the ultimate goal of reading. But the bulk of research on reading comprehension focuses on children. When it comes to adults, consensus-level findings and proposed suggestions are still emerging.

This also applies to non-text-based forms of reading. So this article mainly applies to people reading visually, rather than via listening, say, or Braille. The suggestions compiled here aren’t exhaustive.

Slow Your Roll

The good news from the research that does exist is that older adults do just as well as younger adults, or better, in many aspects affecting reading comprehension. While older adults have more general knowledge they can apply to a particular situation in a book, which helps them to understand it more readily, it takes them longer to encode new knowledge. So some aspects of reading performance do decline with age. Refusing to acknowledge this decline can worsen understanding.

This applies, for instance, to ambiguous passages. Older adults need to call on more of the brain to parse complex sentences. Take this benign-looking sentence:

While Anna dressed the baby played in the crib.

In one study, 70% of younger adults interpreted this correctly: while Anna put on clothes, the baby was playing. (This sentence is basically a PSA for comma use.) However, only 50% of older adults did.

Because eye movement and cognitive patterns change with age, older adults take longer to scan and process text. When reading Chinese, which is visually complex, older adults take almost twice as long as young adults.

It’s theorized that some people resist this, trying to keep the same reading speed that they’re used to. They might skip or guess more words in a sentence, for instance. Yet speed reading doesn’t improve mastery of information. A simple strategy for retaining more of what you read is just to accept (sniff) that you can’t race through books as quickly as you used to, and slooooow it down.

The ends of clauses and sentences are especially good places to slow for a beat. Psychologists refer to this as wrap-up, and more time spent on wrap-up tends to be associated with better recall of text. So a rule of thumb could be to pause after a sentence, especially a complicated one, to make sure that you’ve digested how the different concepts relate before moving on. Sure, it might be hard to do the literary equivalent of chewing each morsel of food 40 times, especially when reading a page-turner, but you’re likely to keep the (literary) food down longer. (This particular metaphor is belabored and unwieldy, for instance, so it would have been useful for a reader to devote some extra time to wrap-up at the end of the previous sentence.)

open book beside white ceramic teacup on saucer
Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

Practice the Basics

“Print exposure” (how much someone reads) contributes to “crystallized intelligence” (accumulated knowledge, reasoning, and vocabulary). Crystallized intelligence helps people apply their reading skills. And print exposure plays an important role in word-reading processes, for children and adults alike.

This is pretty intuitive, even circular, stuff: read more and you’ll get better at reading. But sometimes elementary things get overlooked. So even though adults tend to have larger vocabularies and better word recognition than children, enlarging your vocab and generally practicing reading is likely to improve reading comprehension over time.

Activate the Senses

All that highlighting you did in history class may have helped. Highlighting, underlining, color-coding, note-taking, and other forms of active learning can help to identify the most pertinent information and enhance reading comprehension. But this is only up to a point. Excessive highlighting tends to defeat the purpose, and actually limits comprehension.

In a potential blow to diehard digital readers, reading comprehension is still stronger in print than onscreen (although more research is needed on the exact mechanisms for this). But visual aids can help readers of all ages in all formats, such as seniors choosing prescription drug plans on a Medicare website. Reading more comics and imagery-rich texts may also help to activate more of your visual sense while reading.

It’s common for teachers to encourage young learners to make “brain movies” while reading – in other words, to mentally visualize the scene being read. Some evidence suggests that this can help reading comprehension in adults as well.

The sounds of language are also related to reading comprehension skills, for both deaf and hearing adults alike. So to become a more effective reader, you can pay more attention to how letters correspond to sounds. This might involve reading poetry aloud or making handshapes to correspond to rhymes.

Think About Reading

Annotation is a tool for active reading, or reading with a specific purpose. Along with the physical markings on a text, you can read actively by, for instance:

  • summarizing or rephrasing what you’ve just read
  • explaining it to others
  • answering questions about it (looking up book club questions might be a useful aid here)
  • assessing the difficulty of a passage
  • making predictions about what will happen next in a book
  • thinking about how your background knowledge is helping you understand a piece of text, or where there are gaps in your prior knowledge
  • relating what you’re reading to your own experiences
  • making associations and comparisons

All these strategies are part of metacognition: essentially, thinking about thinking. It shouldn’t be a shocker that if you want to improve reading comprehension, you should think and plan for doing so. This can include setting goals and tracking progress. Basically, channelling your inner middle-schooler can help you retain more of what you read.

Choose Quiet Surroundings

If possible, you can help yourself out by optimizing your environment. Finding a calm and quiet space may help, for instance, given that sensory distractions take up your brain’s computing power – redirecting it from processing words. Of course, this may not be people for people in overcrowded living situations (no chill-out room), with little money (hard to linger in a cozy café when you can’t afford to eat out), or living in places with few public amenities (libraries, parks, and other free spaces).

This is useful in the short term, to master a single text. But it can also help in the longer term, because as mentioned previously, reading comprehension improves with practice.

Enhance Your Memory (Maybe)

In a nutshell, both short-term memory and working memory involve temporarily storing information in your mind, but working memory also allows you to manipulate that information. There are ongoing debates about which type of memory is more significant to reading comprehension. That’s likely to depend on factors like age, fluency, literacy level, reading disability status, and type of writing system (e.g. alphabetical or character-based).

Focusing on memory may be less helpful in boosting adults’ reading comprehension, since memory declines with age and adults’ memory skills are harder to change than kids’. Researchers haven’t definitively found that working memory training helps with reading comprehension among adults. It may be that focusing on core skills will ultimately be more useful.

So keep exposing yourself to text, pausing to make connections, mixing it up with sounds and visuals, and giving yourself enough time to process information. Your relationship with reading comprehension is bound to change across your lifetime, and there are steps you can take to keep that relationship humming along. More effective readers tend to use multiple strategies simultaneously, for instance thinking about sounds and ideas at the same time. It might sound like a lot of work now. But becoming more deliberate about your reading now is likely to make your experience of reading more rewarding in the long run.