How to Improve Your Reading Recall

faded pictureIn the Kurt Vonnegut novel Bluebeard, the protagonist Rabo Karabekian is an abstract expressionist painter. Early in his career, he used a paint called Sateen Dura-luxe. At the time, Sateen Dura-luxe was cutting edge, top-of-the-line stuff.

After a few years, though, the Sateen Dura-luxe decayed and Karabekian’s paintings crumbled, leaving only vague impressions on the canvas. Work that had been hanging in galleries became worthless, putting an end to his painting career.

While this is a fictional example, it effectively describes what happens when we passively read books and texts. Here, passive reading refers to the way most people read, taking in the work from front-to-back.

Reading a book is like having a picture painted on your brain. Your brain is the canvas, and the paint is your ability to remember, recall and synthesize the information. Passive reading, though, is like using Sateen Dura-luxe to paint that picture. After a year or five, the canvas will still be there, but the image may be faded and cracked.

To put this another way, passive reading is like bailing water from a leaky boat with a pasta strainer. Active reading is like having a sump pump, a quality bucket, and a patch kit. Not only does active reading improve your memory and reading recall, it leads to a richer understanding of the text and, in my opinion, a higher quality reading experience.

Yes, active reading takes a little longer, but if the book is important enough to read in the first place, isn’t it worth taking the time to solidify the information in your mind? Plus, if you can remember something instead of having to dig back through a book to reference it, haven’t you saved yourself time?

Let’s look at some active reading strategies that will keep your memory paint bright and prevent the water of forgetting from sinking your boat.

Before Reading

  • Preview the material. Scan the chapter headings, table of contents, and index. Flip through the book and see if you can connect the themes to something you might already know.
  • Write down  any questions you would like answered.
  • Ask yourself what you want out of this book. Do you want to be entertained, informed, persuaded, challenged or cajoled?
  • Think about how you might be able to use or apply the material to your own projects.
  • Learn a bit about the author. For fiction, find out if the author has any recurring themes they like. John Irving, for example, has a thing for bears and boarding schools.

While Reading

  • Use a pencil or pen to annotate, underline, and circle the text. Use multi-colored highlighters to make important ideas stand
  • If you like, draw pictures or make little models.
  • Think about the questions you had before reading it. Are you finding the answers you’re looking for?
  • Can you connect this material to what you already know?
  • At the end of each section or chapter, take a minute to write a summary, in your own words, of what you just read. An hour later, go back and review your notes.
  • If you can, read aloud the key points and the summary.

After Finishing the Book

  • Both after a reading session and after finishing a book, see if you can summarize everything you read.
  • Make a mind map of the text entirely from memory. After you make it, scan the text again and see if you missed anything.
  • Ask yourself if the book answered your questions.
  • Think about what you got out of this book. Did it meet your expectations or give you anything useful?
  • Review, review, review. Spend about five minutes reviewing your summaries and mind maps after one day, one week, one month, and six months.

When I was at university, I only used a small portion of these techniques, but once I started annotating and summarizing, I cut my study time in half and improved my grades.

Today, though, most of the non-fiction I read is either on the internet or in audio book format. How do I apply these active reading strategies to other mediums? By taking extra notes and spending just a little more time summarizing each section. For especially useful internet articles, I’ll write an outline in my indexed black book as I’m reading. Each section of the outline gets a little paraphrased summary.

An extra trick for remembering and recalling audio books and podcasts.

I used to listen to a lot of audio books when I worked as a delivery driver, and I still listen to them when I wander the neon alleys of Seoul.

A couple years ago, I noticed a strange thing: when I passed a certain landmark or area, I would think about a particular section of the audio book, remembering things almost verbatim. This also worked the other way: if I re-listened to a section, I would see the exact spot where I initially heard these words.

I soon learned that if I mentally retrace my route, I can remember most of what I listened to. I suppose this is only a variation on the loci method, but it’s still cool. Those crazy Greeks…

I’ve been working to improve audio book recall, and here are some things I’ve found useful:

  • Consciously noticing your surroundings, the sights, smells and sounds, makes recall easier later.
  • Remembering the weather helps.
  • Associating chapter headings to landmarks can act like a fast forward and rewind button.
  • Retracing your steps or route can help fill missing gaps.
  • Pausing the audio book every half hour breaks things up nicely.

Whether you’re reading non-fiction, listening to a novel, or reading my blog, I hope these strategies help keep your mental paintings as bright and crisp as they were the day they were created. Even if you only use a couple of these strategies, I promise that you will remember more of what you read.

Further Reading

Close The Book. Recall. Write It Down.” Chronicle of Higher Education

Reading Tips from Povidence College

SQ3R Wikipedia Entry

Tips for Active Reading

@The Readers Have you used any of these techniques, and if so, what kind of success have you had?

Photo Credit: King Chimp

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Michelle November 21, 2009, 4:12 pm

    Yep, I used to study this way. Listening to music while studying, then thinking of the song while I took the test, really helped my recollection.

    Very cool post!

  • Alexandre Boudreau December 5, 2009, 11:55 am

    Great tips! thanks for sharing.

    I actually use many of these, but not all. I could probably leverage even more from my readings by applying those extra steps. What really helps me get most out of my books, without too much time, is to take notes while I read of things that I found inspiring or informative, etc. Then once I’m done I’ll write a blog article that relates to one or multiple books I’ve read. It helps synthesize your knowledge.


    Alexandre Boudreau

  • Phil December 20, 2009, 1:33 am

    Great post. Been following this blog for a while, keep it going