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College-Level Reading Skills: How to Retain More and Read for Speed

College-Level Reading Skills: How to Retain More and Read for Speed

As a college student, you’ll encounter reading requirements that are much more intense than in high school, which means you will quickly need to adapt to keep up. Learning to read more quickly and efficiently as well as retaining as much as you can are important skills if you plan to do well in school. Use this guide as a jumping-off point to begin improving these reading comprehension skills and learn to read like a speed demon!

Did you know that most college students read at a pace of 250-350 words per minute? However, students with a “good” reading speed are able to power through study material at an incredible 500-700 words per minute. The speediest readers can even hit 1,000 words in the same amount of time.

Interestingly, studies suggest that those quick readers grasp the content better than their slower-paced counterparts, and students who read at slower speeds work harder to comprehend the material. So if you’re ready to up your reading game, it might be time to boost your comprehension skills. The good news is that improving your reading skills is achievable for students willing to do the work. 

Our guide can be your roadmap to leveling up your reading skills, providing you with the tips and techniques to master reading comprehension and turbocharge your reading speed.

Start Here: Active-Reading Roadmap for Better Comprehension

Behind every fast reader are strong comprehension skills, but these complementary skills can present a challenge for many readers. According to a National Assessment of Adult Literacy study, 43% of American adults lack the basic skills to read and understand college-level texts. If you’re ready to boost your comprehension — which should in turn supercharge your speed — we’ve got you covered with practical steps to help you improve. At first, focusing on comprehension might feel like you’re slowing down your pace, but you’ll get better with practice and time.

  • Find Somewhere You Can Focus

    Deep diving into a text takes focus, so seek out a quiet and comfortable study spot that helps you concentrate. Minimize distractions by turning off TV shows and background music and keeping your phone silent. Take things a step further by picking one spot you can return to for every study session. A consistent routine can help you get into the right mindset when it’s time to hit the books.

  • Skim Before Reading

    Don’t give in to the pressure to start at the beginning of a text and read all the way through right away. Instead of poring over every detail in order, skim through a passage to get a sense of what it’s about and orient yourself to the context. Note what visually stands out in the text, like section breaks, headings, lists, bold text, and proper nouns. These visual cues point to parts of the text you may want to pay closer attention to later.

  • Take Notes as You Go

    As you work your way through the text, keep a record of essential facts, dates, and names. While you don’t have to record everything you read, documenting the most important details can be helpful. If you find something that sparks a connection, a question, or a thought, jot it down. Note-taking isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, so feel free to experiment with bullet points, outlines, mind maps, and techniques like Cornell Notes to discover your preferred method.

  • Highlight Main Points

    Highlighting allows you to spotlight critical sections of the text for quick reference later. In particular, keep your eyes peeled for main ideas, arguments, or data. Though it’s tempting to highlight everything, remember that less is more. After all, if you highlight everything, then nothing will stand out when it’s time to revisit the text later. Using diverse highlighter colors can help you stay organized when it comes to keeping track of different types of information.

  • Look up What You Don’t Understand

    College-level texts often include elevated terminology and higher-level ideas that take more effort to understand. Familiarizing yourself with these concepts and terms broadens your knowledge base, which increases your reading comprehension skills over time. When you encounter a word you don’t know, write it down or highlight it in your notes, then look it up later. The more vocabulary and concepts you internalize, the more quickly you’ll be able to move through readings in the future.

  • Ask Questions & Look for Answers

    Start by making a list of questions you’d like to answer while reading, focusing on the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the topic at hand. If you’re unsure which questions to ask, you can rephrase section headings from the text into questions. As you read through the text, write down the answers to those questions in your own words. When you begin a reading session with clear intentions, learning from the text and drawing relevant conclusions is much easier.

  • Make Connections Within the Text

    As you work your way through any text, you’re bound to notice relationships between what you’ve already read and what comes next. Identifying those links within the material helps you master a concept more quickly, retain more information, and interpret what you’re reading. Try to identify recurring themes or arguments, asking yourself how different parts of the text relate to each other and reinforce the main idea of a section or passage.

If You Get Stuck: Try These Additional Strategies

Even if you’ve given it your best shot, you may occasionally find yourself struggling with a particularly challenging text. Don’t worry; it’s all part of the learning journey. This section introduces techniques to help you approach even the most difficult texts with a plan for success. If the tips we’ve already explored aren’t quite enough to work your way through a reading assignment, try some of these strategies to boost your reading skills and overcome obstacles.

  • Read it Aloud

    Reading complicated texts aloud may be just the thing you need to engage with a text in a fresh way and process information more thoroughly. You’ll engage multiple senses, focusing not just on reading the text but also on speaking it out loud and pronouncing new words. Find a quiet place to read aloud and read at a pace that allows you to fully comprehend what you’re reading. You may even prefer to record yourself so you can listen to the text again later.

  • Look at the Structure

    Sometimes stepping back and getting a better sense of the structure of what you’re reading provides much-needed clarity. Fortunately, many academic books and textbooks provide context clues on what you’ll find in a text and how to organize the information for study. Locate the main points outlined in the introduction and conclusion and challenge yourself to find them in the text. Pay special attention to headings, lists, images, and paragraph layouts as well.

  • Summarize the Text

    Keep a notebook nearby to take notes while you read. After you’ve finished, review your notes, reflecting on the high points of the passage. Using your notes as a guide, write down what you remember about a paragraph, section, or chapter. Writing things in your own words can be challenging at first, but rephrasing the essential points of a passage is an excellent exercise for reading comprehension and retention.

  • Reread or Review the Section Again

    When you’re reading a particularly dense or complicated text, it’s common to miss out on the whole meaning of the text the first time around. If you’re studying for an extended time, periodically check in with yourself and see if you’re processing everything you’re reading. Note anything that doesn’t make sense to you on the first read-through so you can circle back for a reread later. More often than not, repetition and review resolves confusion.

  • Skip Ahead to Look for Clues

    If you have questions as you work your way through a reading, don’t be afraid to skip ahead in the text and see if answers lie ahead. After all, there’s no rule that you must read all writing in the order it was written. Instead, work through a text in the order that suits you. Plus, it can boost comprehension and motivate you to keep reading if you know the information you’re interested in is coming up soon.

  • Become the Teacher

    One of the best ways to put what you’ve learned to the test and measure your understanding is to teach it to someone else. A family member, study partner, or even an imaginary student will do. Try to explain the concept you’ve just learned to your new student. The process will solidify parts you understand in your mind and expose gaps in your knowledge that let you know what you should review.

  • Take Breaks

    Everyone has their limits, and study time is no exception. From time to time, you may encounter a text that is overwhelming and feel like you’ve hit a learning wall. In that case, taking a break might be just what you need. Give your brain a break, get some distance from the material, and try again later. If you push through when you’ve already passed your limit, it may hinder your comprehension.

Level Up: How to Increase Reading Speed

Once you’ve mastered reading comprehension, the next milestone is to increase your reading speed. To do this, you’ll need to be highly motivated to improve, willing to experiment, and driven by a determination to become better. Remember that upping reading speed is a step that builds on a solid foundation of reading comprehension skills and should only be pursued once you’ve made significant progress in that area. When you’re ready to shift your reading skills into high gear, here are some tips to try.

  • Practice, Practice, Practice

    When working on reading pace, practice makes perfect. Time spent reading builds stronger eye muscles, word recognition, and concentration skills. The more you read, the faster you’ll get, so read as much as you can, as often as you can. As you gain experience with academic or other challenging texts and familiarize yourself with their structure, you’ll become better at understanding them, pulling out the salient points, and recalling the content after you’ve finished reading.

  • Scan the Text

    Scanning a text is a vital skill for reading content more quickly. It requires taking stock of the text as a whole, quickly identifying the important information within, and focusing throughout the process so you remember what you’ve already read. Practice scanning large sections of text, then try summarizing things in your own words to check your comprehension. Scanning and truly retaining what you’ve read may feel challenging at first, but it gets easier with time.

  • Look for Words That Stand Out

    Paying attention to unusual words or common terms within a text is a valuable tactic for identifying essential points or themes. These keywords provide clues to the main ideas, arguments, and themes. To spot them, watch for bold or italicized fonts, proper nouns, and words that appear repeatedly throughout the text. You may also notice technical terms or specific phrases that an author uses to signal transitions, add emphasis, or establish conclusions.

  • Know When to Slow Down & Speed Up

    Speed reading doesn’t necessarily mean you read through an entire text at the highest speed possible. In fact, it often looks like managing your reading speed based on what you’re reading. Slow down when you encounter unfamiliar words or concepts, detailed material, or something you want to remember particularly well. On the other hand, if you’re reading about ideas you’re familiar with or excessively in-depth explanations, feel free to breeze through those sections at a higher clip.

  • Read at Your Optimal Time

    Whichever time you’re at peak mental capacity for the day is best for reading challenging material or information you’d like to retain. For most people, that means tackling these texts in the morning when they’re well-rested and have a clear mind before starting the day. However, choose the time of day that you feel most alert and have the capacity to take on a challenge. Conversely, avoid diving into high-investment texts when you’re tired, distracted, or ready to go to bed.

  • Try the Pointer Method

    When speed reading and moving your eyes rapidly through a text, it’s all too easy to lose your place. Try placing an item below each word or line of text and move it along as you read. Most people like to use their index finger or a bookmark to do this job. Having a physical item for your eyes to track in your peripheral vision prevents your gaze from getting lost or wandering to another part of the page.

  • Read for Fun

    Even reading for pleasure can improve your overall reading speed and skill. Settling in with a book you enjoy keeps your mind engaged with reading without putting your mind to hard work. Aside from improving your focus and speed, it trains your brain that reading is something you enjoy. If you’re not accustomed to reading for fun, start with a page-turner or a book slightly below your reading level to help you get into the groove.

Speed Reading Mastery: What to Look for When You Read

Speed reading is about more than quick eyes; there’s also a bit of strategy involved. In this section, we’ll explore the types of language that can efficiently guide you through a text, word clues that highlight the essentials while sidelining extraneous information. Let’s discuss some common structural cues that can serve as cognitive signals for increasing reading speed.

  • Additives

    These words let you know that new information or points are coming up in the text that will add more context. If you’ve already flagged a passage as something you’d like to read more about, look for additive words nearby. Some examples of additive words and phrases are “also,” “too,” “similarly,” “in the same vein,” and “moreover.”

  • Amplifying

    Amplifying words, such as “specifically,” “particularly,” “notably,” or “for instance,” enhance the clarity and depth of a sentence. They’re used to expand or emphasize a point in greater detail and offer additional insight into an idea or theme. If you’re looking for specific details that will aid in understanding, then take note of amplifiers in the text.

  • Contrasting

    Contrasting words, like “conversely,” “alternatively,” “albeit,” or “yet,” signal a shift in perspective or the introduction of contradictory information. The sentence following a contrasting word can provide an alternative view or counterargument to what you’ve read so far. If you’re looking for differing viewpoints in the text, keep an eye out for these types of words.

  • Cause & Effect

    When establishing connections in a text, cause and effect words are crucial. They highlight relationships between concepts, providing a narrative thread of how two or more things are related. These include phrases like “because,” “as a result,” or “due to.” Spotting these terms as you read can help you weave together interconnected ideas.

  • Emphasizing

    Emphasizing plays a crucial role in stressing chosen points or arguments. Words like “indeed,” “particularly,” “certainly,” and “undoubtedly” highlight significant ideas within a text. Whenever you see them, take note that you’re reading one of the points the author finds particularly important, which can assist you in identifying central themes or drawing conclusions.

  • Qualifying

    Qualifying words and phrases, including “although,” “even if,” “given that,” and “unless,” note conditional situations or reservations by the author. By showing you that there’s reason to consider other possibilities or limitations, qualifiers can help you understand the greater context surrounding an issue or influence your interpretation of facts.

  • Repeating

    These words reiterate key points, and authors employ them to ensure their clarity and importance to the reader. Keep an eye out for phrases such as “once again,” “essentially,” and “in other words.” These signifiers can help you pick out parts of the text that are worthy of your focus.

  • Timing

    Words like “initially,” “simultaneously,” “before,” and “after” are used to place events on a defined timeline in relation to one another or against the broader strokes of history. These temporal markers can provide cues about the sequence or duration of events, offering a chronological context that will enhance your understanding of narratives or processes.

  • Summarizing

    These wrap-up words and phrases are often found at the end of sections of text and serve as a cue to consolidate understanding, remember key points, and reiterate you’ve read. Take note of words like “to summarize,” “in short,” and “in conclusion” to find the sentences that encapsulate the central ideas or arguments of a text.

Reading Resources for Maximizing Your Potential

Looking for more ideas to explore and ways to stay motivated as you implement these best reading practices? We’ve put together a list of 15 standout resources to help you ramp up your reading skills. From note-taking apps to videos with actionable strategies, these resources will equip you with diverse techniques to help you rise to any reading challenge.

  • 10 Tips to Improve Your Reading Comprehension: This video outlines 10 practical strategies for improving reading comprehension through stronger study habits. Each tip is clearly explained with real-world examples.
  • Evernote: This popular app allows you to take notes, keep track of what you’ve read, and store photos of study materials. You can organize materials any way you like and access them from your phone, tablet, or computer.
  • Forest: Download this app to help you focus on tasks like reading assignments. It discourages users from picking up their phone by planting a virtual seed that grows into a tree while you stay on task.
  • How to Focus While Reading: This short episode of the podcast LifeKit provides adult learners with four reading techniques to make reading more fun and approachable in everyday life.
  • Mindmeister: Use this online mind-mapping tool to visually organize information, which can be helpful for note-taking when trying to understand complex topics.
  • Quizlet: This website and the accompanying app allow students to create digital flashcards to enhance learning. It’s beneficial for mastering new vocabulary or concepts.
  • Reading and Note-Taking: This free course module from Open University coaches students on reading and note-taking techniques that students can adapt to different areas of study.
  • Reading Trainer: Check out this app that offers 15 challenging exercises designed to increase reading speed while improving retention of information. Using the app, students can customize activities to their reading level and track progress.
  • Rewordify: This free online software makes it easy to simplify challenging English-language sentences. If you’re working with a complex text, paste confusing sentences into Rewordify for a simpler translation, which can aid your comprehension.
  • Snap & Read: This tool aids in reading comprehension and note-taking, including leveling text, PDF markup, text-to-speech capability, and text-based note-taking.
  • Spreeder: This is a free online program to help users improve their reading speed and comprehension. You can upload virtually any material you like and practice speed-reading the text of your choice.
  • The Sq3R Reading Method: This informative video explains the popular Sq3R reading method, a time-tested method for enhancing reading comprehension and retention.
  • Taking Notes While Reading: The Learning Center at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill authored this resource outlining popular methods and strategies for better note-taking.
  • Thomas Frank: This YouTube creator has uploaded numerous resources college students may find helpful, including “How to Read a College Textbook,” “How to Read Faster,” and “How to Take Notes from Books.”
  • Vocabulary.com: Visit this platform to learn new words through engaging activities and online games. It’s a helpful tool for expanding your vocabulary, which is crucial for reading comprehension and speed.

Interview with a College Reading Expert

A professional headshot of a smiling woman with long blonde hair, wearing a dark suit jacket and beige shirt, against a grey background.

Dr. Joanna Hunter

Dr. Joanna Hunter is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Radford University and the Center for Social and Cultural Research. She received a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from Miami University and a Doctor of Philosophy in Sociology from Florida State University. In this interview she discusses how she overcame challenges in college and graduate school to improve her reading skills and eventually earn her doctorate.
  • 1. What are some common challenges you’ve faced when reading texts at the college/graduate level?

    For me the most common challenge was my ADHD which makes it difficult to focus, particularly if the thing I’m reading isn’t inherently interesting. This is especially difficult if the text is dense and/or complex, and if it takes time to process the meaning of it. I also sometimes struggle with a sense that if I don’t understand something entirely right away, then it is hopeless and I might as well not read it all, which is something I also see in my students quite often.

  • 2. Can you share any techniques or practices that have helped you improve your reading comprehension and critical thinking skills while reading these kinds of texts?

    I recommend accepting that you won’t be able to fully grasp the content of a complex text with one quick read. Just get over that idea. It is not going to happen. You might be able to skim for some basic ideas (more in that in a second) but if you’re really trying to do a close reading, you’re going to have to read it more than once. That’s just the facts. Once you accept this, you’ll be happier and less frustrated. 

    Also, think about how you can “chunk” the text. Most readings have headings and subheadings, which is a good start. Sometimes if you’re reading a whole book, the chapter is “chunk.” Focus on one chunk at a time. 

    First of all, throw away your highlighter and get a pencil. Underlining/highlighting is fine, but if you are underlining/highlighting more than 30% of the text, you are defeating the purpose of highlighting. Using a pencil/pen to take marginal notes, add stars, underline sparingly, draw arrows to other chunks of text, etc. is way more useful. 

    Use this pencil to underline/star/note words or concepts you don’t understand in your first pass. Understand that if the reading is complex and/or advanced that this may be most of the text and that’s OK. I’m a big fan of the “?!” in a margin next to a paragraph that I don’t get right away. 

    Take this first pass of the text, reading relatively quickly, skipping over things that you don’t get, and trying to get a broad overview of the chunk. Once you’ve given the chunk a first pass, set it aside, get a fresh document/sheet of paper and try to summarize what you just read in 3 or 4 bullet points. These aren’t things you copy from the text. Just basically write down what you think you just read. If all three bullet points are questions, that’s fine! Go back and answer them. 

    Then, go back into the text and read again, this time more slowly/carefully. Pay attention to the bits of text that you underlined. Look up words you don’t know (seriously, this is going to happen and it’s fine, just accept you don’t know all the words that exist in the English language). Think about how you can answer the “?!s” you put in the margins. Think about how the author is trying to connect concepts. If you finish this second pass and you are still completely lost, do it again (remember, you aren’t doing this with the whole book or chapter, just this chunk) until you can at least get one good bullet point of a summary. Rinse and repeat. 

  • 3. Are there any note-taking strategies you use to help you better understand and retain information?

    This one is really tricky because everyone finds different types of notes useful. But I think overall, less is more. Don’t try to copy down what the author says, don’t worry about how the notes look to anyone except you, think about how they might help you. These are your notes.

  • 4. Based on your experience, how can students become more efficient readers while maintaining a high level of comprehension, especially when covering a large volume of material?

    Approach your reading like you would any other task by first assessing what your goal is. Is the goal to read a stack of articles in order to understand the broad strokes of a specific issue/question? Is the goal to read a few textbook chapters to prepare for a test/quiz? Is the goal to do a close read on one relatively short bit of text for discussion? Knowing what your goal is will guide how you approach reading. 

    If the goal is to read a stack of journal articles to get a sense of the field, focus on the specific outcomes of each article/study. Skim the lit reviews and methods sections, read the conclusion/discussion closely. Do the same note taking strategy as above; set the text aside and write one-two bullet points in your own words that describe what you read.

    If the goal is to get ready for a test, focus on main ideas/concepts and words that might be bolded. But don’t just highlight a definition and then try to memorize it; put it in your own words! 

    If you’re trying to understand a relatively small bit of text for discussion, or some other task, give yourself ample time to engage with it. Read a paragraph or two, set it aside, and jot down some notes about what you just read. Did reading it bring up any feelings or thoughts or questions? Again, the goal of all of this is to develop a strategy that works for you – don’t worry that what you’re developing “doesn’t make sense” – it should only make sense to you and that is OK!

  • 5. Any tips for effectively approaching and navigating academic textbooks, which can be notoriously dense and challenging?

    The best bit of advice I have for this is to just take it slow, take notes as I described above, and give yourself space to do the meta-cognition that’s necessary to make the connections. Also, realize that the test itself is not just a box to check for the class you are taking but can be part of the learning process! If you get a question wrong, go back and look up the correct answer, figure out where you went wrong, make note of it and then try to remember that going forward. 

    This is a bit tangential, but another tip I have about reading for comprehension in an academic setting is to bring your book/reading to class with you each time. Generally speaking, the professor expects that you’ve read the assigned reading before class. If you haven’t (no shame, it happens!), take the five minutes before class begins and/or as class is getting started and literally just look at the reading, skimming bits and pieces. What is the title/who is the author? What, generally, is the reading about? Is it a continuation of what you discussed in class last time? Is it a new concept/part of a new unit of the course? The point, here, is to give yourself a chance to be even a little bit familiar with the reading even if you haven’t read it in full. Then, pay attention to how class unfolds and when/how the professor refers to the reading. Which leads me to another general tip: do not spend class simply transcribing what is on your professor’s slides. Most professors will provide the slides after class and when you transcribe you do not learn. Pay attention to main ideas, make note of headings/new concepts that you can fill in later. 

  • 6. In your experience, how does reading comprehension differ across various disciplines? Have you ever used any subject-specific strategies?

    My background in sociology is particular but I teach a course in sociological social psychology which is by definition a ‘bridge discipline’ which means I have to be familiar with psychological research as well. These fields are similar enough that the strategies I learned for sociology tend to work. When I read outside my field, though, one thing I do is simply accept that a certain proportion of what’s written is written for experts in that field, and that I am not one! My goal in this situation is to focus on what the main idea is and how it might contribute to whatever my broader goal of the project is. Which brings me back to the idea from above: what is your goal? Articulate that goal, focus on it, and let everything else slide.

  • 7. Do you have any tips for developing a stronger ability to make connections between different texts or articles?

    This is where your notes come in super handy. Like I said above about accepting that you likely won’t be able to fully understand a bit of reading with one pass, accept that your notes are in progress! Take notes on your notes. Organize your notes into headings. If you are preparing for a test, think about how your notes from week one lead to your notes in week five. If you are working on a paper or some other written product, I am a big fan of the “spew draft” which is exactly what it sounds like: simply open a clean document, set a timer for five minutes, and just…spew everything that comes to mind. Don’t worry about whether it “makes sense” or if it will be useful later, just write for five minutes. If you are typing something and you realize you have no idea where you’re going, just hit enter three times and start a new thought. When time is up, look at what you have. Chances are, a big portion of it won’t make sense as written, but you have something to edit now. Editing is much easier than staring at a blank page.

  • 8. How did you manage to balance a demanding reading load with other academic and personal responsibilities?

    Sometimes you have to accept that you may not be able to read every single word of every single thing. But use the tools you do have, pay attention in class, take notes on your notes, and eventually you’ll get a fuller understanding. 

    Another thing is to think about how you can carve out even small bits of time. Use the pomodoro technique (set a timer for 25 minutes, focus entirely on the reading, then take a five minute break; repeat 2-4 times) if you can or if it works for you, carry your books/articles around with you to skim while you’re waiting in the preschool pickup line, etc. But also, give yourself real downtime and real breaks. This may sound defeatist, but one thing I’ve learned after getting a PhD and being a professor for 15 years is that the reading is never finished. The work is never done. And that may be terrifying but it can also be very freeing! You’ll never be done. It’s fine. Do what you can, take care of yourself, touch grass occasionally. 

  • 9. How have you handled situations where you found it difficult to comprehend the material you were reading, and which strategies did you use to enhance your understanding?

    This is where your classmates and your professors can be great resources. If you’re struggling with a reading, ask a classmate what they got from it. If they start their answer with “I don’t know, but….” pay attention to what they do say, talk it out with them. Learning is an ongoing process, you aren’t going to get it right away, that’s the whole point. Talk it out, ask for clarification, be ok with not knowing.