How can I improve my reading comprehension skills?
People who ask this question are often seeking shortcuts to mastering reading comprehension. Let’s explore the root of the difficulties that students face and, more importantly, the best solutions.
Many students drill themselves on thousands of vocabulary words to improve their reading and writing skills. The problem? Rote memorization of definitions isn’t nearly as effective as learning the words via context—and you can do that only by reading.
Linguist J. R. Firth put it best: “A word is known by the company it keeps.” He asserts that the “complete meaning of a word is always contextual and no study of meaning apart from context can be taken seriously.” So how does this apply to you and your reading comprehension skills?
To not only learn new words, but also know how to use them, you have to study them in context. This means seeing how they are employed in sample sentences, or better yet, reading them “in the real world”: books, essays, and articles.
Definitions on their own are incomplete components of language. Therefore, a new word comes alive only when it’s surrounded by other words. Our brains have a much harder time absorbing definitions that are stripped of contextual vitality.
Ultimately, reading comprehension is not only about understanding the individual words you’re reading—it’s about understanding how those words work together, in sentences and paragraphs, to produce meaning. So instead of thinking about vocabulary and reading comprehension as two separate knowledge pools, think about them as being inextricably linked.
When training students for reading comprehension tests, many tutors focus on short-term solutions, or “scoring strategies,” in hopes of raising their students’ scores quickly. In fact, some prominent tutoring services even try to show their students how to answer multiple-choice questions without even reading the passages first.
Unfortunately, these tricks and tips fail as often as they succeed. Here’s what’s even more important: scoring strategies won’t result in true improvement of your reading skills. That means you’ll be woefully unprepared for whatever comes after you finish answering the last question on that standardized test.
There are no shortcuts for building up your reading comprehension skills. Improvement requires practice and steady learning.
Taking lots of practice tests and getting tutored will certainly help improve your test scores to some degree, but there are limitations.
First of all, quick-fix tactics and test-taking tricks may lead to poor reading habits that are difficult to undo down the line.
Secondly, no matter how much you study for the test, your reading score’s upward trajectory will get stuck at a certain point if you lack a solid foundation of reading skills.
Reading nonfiction on a daily basis will help you move beyond this plateau.
Inference questions on the SAT and ACT, which are typically the most challenging, test the reader’s ability to catch the contextual flow of the passage. That’s a complex skill that requires slow and steady work, and a commitment to true learning.
Fortunately, by starting early and keeping up a steady pace, you don’t have to spend hours and hours every day. With ReadingCare, 15 minutes a day of nonfiction reading—accompanied by tutorial notes and quizzes—will add up over time. You’ll develop reading skills that will take you far beyond a couple of standardized tests in high school, through college and beyond.
Here’s something I learned while running an SAT-prep tutoring business in an Asian-American community for 20 years: While many students studied hard, only a small number of them were able to steadily improve their English scores toward a perfect 800. The rest of the students showed general improvement before their progress inevitably plateaued. The score at which they plateaued varied from person to person.
If anything, this score-stagnation phenomenon has become more pronounced in recent years. Unfortunately, because most students (and their parents) usually look for clues in the wrong places, they also end up with the wrong solutions.
"The last SAT’s Reading section was too hard!" I’d hear this from many students after each SAT test. (Most of you already know that the new SAT English test, revised in 2016, consists of two parts now: Reading section and Writing & Language section.) Of course, as true as this may have been felt to those students, the College Board that administers the SAT is constantly adjusting the test to ensure that the national average scores of both the English and Math sections remain relatively stable.
"I've been studying so hard—getting tutored, taking practice tests—but my English score is still almost 200 points lower than my Math score." This kind of disappointment wasn’t rare, even among many brilliant Asian-American students whose performance was outstanding in all the other subjects.
Many people believe that getting straight As in English at school will translate to high English scores on the SAT. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. What you learn in English Lit won’t necessarily help you nail reading comprehension questions.
Additionally, recent studies show that grade inflation in schools is rampant across America, meaning that there’s a weaker correlation between straight As at school and high SAT English scores than you might assume.
There’s no shortcut: You have to read, read, read in order to improve your critical reading skills. In this sense, the best teacher...is you!
Think about it this way: You could sit in a classroom and have the winner of the Tour de France teach you how to ride a bike. Sit this way, lean this way, pedal that way. You can even learn the physics behind how bicycles stay upright. But no matter how expert the instruction, there’s absolutely no replacement for hopping on a bike and riding it yourself. By riding every day, it becomes second nature to you.
In just the same way, you should read constantly, until it becomes natural and even enjoyable. Your eyes and brain will become accustomed to working together, so that instead of drilling yourself on reading techniques and thinking about what you’re doing step by step, you’re naturally comprehending, analyzing, and assessing the sentences on the page intuitively. That’s what it means to have good critical reading skills.
Of course, it might be hard at first. Just as you can’t hop on a bike for the very first time and go for a leisurely spin around the block, you’ve got to practice reading. The tricky part is to stick with it, even when it’s not exactly fun. (You can make it more fun by starting with stuff you like to read anyway!)
Teachers can definitely show you how to write a basic essay, and elements like structure aren’t too hard to learn. But it’s incredibly difficult to learn how to write a very good essay if you haven’t already developed an intuitive sense of language through a good habit of reading.
I’ll give you an example. At our tutoring school, we had a high school student whose essay-writing skills registered at 12 out of 24 when he first enrolled. (This indicated to us that he hadn’t developed an avid reading habit.) After about eight weeks of tutoring, his essay scores improved to 15.2, on average. Not bad. During the next eight weeks of tutoring, however, his scores plateaued, fluctuating between 14 and 16. Because he hadn’t come to us with a firm history of reading in place, he was having to fight and struggle for every additional point.
On the other hand, we had another group of students who had maintained a good habit of reading since they were young. They displayed radically different results. Their average score upon enrollment was 18.2 out of 24, and it took only four weeks for the group’s average score to reach 22.4.
From these observations, weI can confirm that, for both reading and writing performance, the effectiveness of teaching tips, tricks, and techniques is very limited. Without a self-driven reading practice, it’s a major struggle to improve your SAT English scores above a certain threshold point.
And remember: even if you somehow miraculously achieve your dream score by focusing strictly on scoring strategies available to you in the test-prep market, that score has nothing to do with your true English proficiency. I’ve seen students come to understand this—with a great deal of stress and consternation!—once their college life begins.
It’s the absolute best way to improve your SAT English score.
CNN reports, “In America, teens spend 9 hours a day using media.”
Half of teens say they do their homework while also using social media or watching TV; even more say they’re texting and listening to music. Multitasking is clearly the rule rather than the exception.
How many of these teens could read a 500-word expository essay from start to finish without being distracted at least once by Instagram, or a text?
Probably not many.
This is just part of why it’s harder than ever to help teens learn how to read comprehensively. Many SAT/ACT tutoring services don’t spend time teaching students how to analyze reading passages; they focus on reading the questions and selecting answers based on tips and tricks. That’s also the strategy for many SAT/ACT workbooks.
In truth, tutors know that there’s no way to “teach” how to read. They know that reading skills are best acquired through a self-driven reading practice, one that’s developed over many years.
Sadly, once these students start college, they won’t have a chance to use those test-taking tricks. They’ll have to read the assigned material, from beginning to end, and write essays and take in-depth exams. At this point, they may find their reading comprehension skills simply aren’t up to the task. Furthermore, their addiction to online distractions will pose another constant challenge.
The fact is, unless they’ve been reading nonfiction since their early teens, college coursework —much of which will be nonfiction—will be extremely difficult.
Some parents think that subscribing to newspapers and magazines are a simple solution to this dilemma, but very few teens are voluntarily reading the kinds of essays and articles that are going to be helpful. Moreover, news articles alone aren’t sufficient for expository reading practice, since they do not include debates, reasoning, or opinions. Factual descriptions are of limited value for developing critical reading and in-depth analytical skills.
Reading Care provides daily passages that are an opportunity for focused practice: they’re short, but require concentration that’s free of distractions, because there are accompanying quizzes that must be completed.
Detailed annotations minimize the stress of reading about unfamiliar subjects, and instead of having teachers spoon-feed these notes to them verbally, students must read the notes themselves.
Think of the annotations as additional reading practice, a bit like training wheels, until students can read, comprehend, and analyze on their own.
Vocabulary previews, analyses of challenging sentences, paragraph summaries: they’re all tools Reading Care provides to smooth the journey to a self-driven reading practice.
Long story short: test-taking tips and tricks are of limited value now and will be completely useless in the long run. Because students today are fighting a multitude of distractions that are as close as their smartphone, their best chance for success in college and beyond is the ability to read critically.
And the best way to help them attain that ability is to foster the habit of reading now.