10 Ways to Improve Your Reading Skills for College

10 Ways to Improve Your Reading Skills for College
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

College is about dealing with a heavy load of reading materials, often involving difficult subjects and technical terms. It follows, then, that students need to brush up on their reading comprehension skills. They will have to dedicate long hours of poring over their studies. If they’re not up to par, they’d be left behind. Thus the need for them to find the ways to improve their reading skills for college.

Coming from high school, some college students struggle to keep up with their reading assignments since they lack ample reading comprehension skills. The good news is that there are ways to improving college reading skills you can implement instantly until they become part of your reading habit. These strategies will not only help you improve your focus but also help you retain key facts and concepts from what you have read.

Improving College Reading Skills: Table of Contents

  1. What is reading comprehension?
  2. Why Improving Reading Skills Is Important
  3. 10 Ways to Improve Your Reading Skills
  4. Invest in Improving Your Reading Skills

As with any skill, you need to practice reading in order to be good at it. Reading in high school is not quite the same as reading in college. In high school, students who don’t develop a habit of reading their textbooks can probably get by with just listening and taking down notes from their discussions in class. This means that students might not get the reading practice they need to prepare them for what they will face in college.

In college, when a professor assigns a reading material, you are expected to read it. You need to be able to distinguish its fine points and write a conlusion in research. If students do not get much reading exposure in high school, they might not be able to properly read and reflect on their college-level reading assignment, causing them to lag behind their class. Worse, they might feel insecure and give up easily on their courses. Based on one survey on adult literacy, 43% of American adults had insufficient basic skills to understand college-level and other similar dense texts. It is also difficult for them to identify cause and effect, summarize, determine the author’s purpose in the writing, and make simple inferences from the text they have read.

What is reading comprehension?

When we are reading, we do it automatically that we often forget the complex processes involved in reading comprehension. Different regions of the brain work together to help us understand what we are reading. For example, the temporal lobe, Broca’s area in the frontal lobe, and the angular and supramarginal gyrus interact to help us traverse through the multiple layers of meaning and context found in each paragraph we read. In other words, reading comprehension is not merely understanding the meaning that is in the text. It also entails a transaction between the text and the reader as an active constructor of the meaning of the text. The reader must process the relationship between words, decode the subtle language and vocabulary usage that impacts meaning and emotions, and understand how different paragraphs come together as a coherent whole.

With this in mind, it is easier to understand why two people can read the same book or text and have totally different interpretations of the author’s purpose and key concepts in the text. Also, it can happen that someone is able to read but not truly comprehend the full meaning of what they have read.

Why Improving Reading Skills Is Important

Reading and comprehension skills have an impact on all subjects and a student’s academic performance. Even for students who have strong computational skills but are struggling with reading comprehension, it can be hard to solve a word problem. Meanwhile, students who want to excel in science classes need to apply strategies on how to improve college reading skills since the subject delves into research, which can demand many hours of reading and comprehending scientific concepts, theories, and data.

Moreover, literacy and reading performance has a direct impact on graduation rates. Indicators start to show as early as primary education as revealed in a study by the American Educational Research Association. It stated that students who cannot read on grade level by the time they reach 3rd grade are four times less likely to graduate by age 19 compared to their peers who do read proficiently by that time (Sparks, 2011).

Furthermore, poor reading skills lead more students to drop out than poverty. Seventy percent of students who did not finish high school have problems with reading comprehension. On the other hand, 89% of students in poverty who can read at grade level by 3rd grade graduated on time. Also, more than 25% of poor, struggling readers did not graduate compared to only 2% of good readers from wealthier families.

Based on these findings, we see how there is a strong relationship between reading and comprehension skills and school completion. If you want to achieve academic success, it is imperative to learn ways to improve your reading skills.

Reading Skills Affect Academic Performance

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10 Ways to Improve Your Reading Skills

1. Read in a comfortable, distraction-free place

Where you read has a huge impact on how effectively you can comprehend the material. The fewer the distractions, the better you can focus, and the easier you can grasp key points from the text. Consider these points when choosing a reading spot:

  • Distractions. Aside from avoiding busy and noisy places, distractions also include your own personal habits. It is best to mute your phone and do not reply to social media posts or instant messages during the time you have set aside for your reading.
  • Lighting. Is there ample light where you want to read? Find a spot near a window for daylight or make sure you are sitting in a corner where there’s good lighting.
  • Comfort. Whether you are reading in a cafe, the library, or your bedroom, make sure you have a good desk and comfortable chair when reading. Reading in a comfortable place will help you get through long hours of reading.

Furthermore, if you are able to read with intense focus, you can also avoid rereading and become more efficient in how you use your time. With so much college stress coming from schoolwork, the last thing you need is to have to reread everything when you already have a ton of assignments to finish.

2. Do a quick survey of the book or assigned reading

Before you dive deep into your reading, take a few minutes to survey the book or textbook you will read. Apart from the title, you can also get a good idea of what the material will cover by checking the table of contents, subheadings, glossary, and any chart or table you see on the pages.

Also, reading the introduction can help your mind have a clearer idea of the purpose of the material. When surveying your assigned reading or book, you can also ask prereading questions, such as what is the main topic of the reading material? Are you familiar with that topic? What do you already know about it and what can you expect to learn based on the table of contents?

3. Keep a pen with you when reading

Take it from Benjamin Franklin when he said that you should never read a book without a pen in your hand. Use your pen, pencil, or marker to highlight keywords and unfamiliar terms you encounter while reading. If there is a word you do not understand, mark it and look up its meaning. Doing so will not only help you better understand the key points in your reading material but will also help increase your vocabulary.

Moreover, you should also pay attention and mark summary words, such as therefore, in summary, as a result, hence, given these facts, etc. Paragraphs or sentences that contain these types of words can be your clues when it comes to highlighting parts of the text that summarize the main points of the author based on the arguments he or she presented in the previous paragraphs.

4. Divide the material into manageable sections

If your reading assignment seems daunting, try dividing the material into smaller sections for reading. You can also survey each section to get an idea of what key points will be covered for each of them. Once you have your sections, it is also good to estimate the time it will take you to finish each section. This will help you pace yourself and better manage your time for other school work.

When you are going through dense material like a textbook, do not forget to check for understanding after finishing a few paragraphs. Doing these short self-checks are important so that if you do not understand what is being communicated, you can go back immediately to reread previous paragraphs.

5. Take breaks

Even if you are in a distraction-free area, it can still be very challenging to maintain your focus, especially if you are reading a long and dense reading assignment. When you find your attention wandering, take a break, and give yourself time to reset its focus.

One study technique that applies these regular short breaks is the Pomodoro technique. It takes long study sessions and divides them into 25-minute study sessions. By doing so, time is no longer an abstract concept but a concrete one where you need to maintain your focus in short bursts. This allows you to be hyperfocused on the thing you are doing for that session instead of getting overwhelmed by the enormity of your assignment or project. It will better prepare you for dealing with abstract in research, a necessary requisite of life in the academe.

6. Read important sections out loud

If there are important points you want to remember from the text you are reading, try reading them out loud. One study explored the impact of reading aloud on memory. Results for both young learners and adults showed that people consistently remember words if they read them out loud rather than silently. Among 10-year-old students in Australia, those who read aloud remembered 87% of the words they have read compared to 70% for those who read silently. Among senior participants aged 67 to 88, those who read aloud remembered 27% of the words they have read, while those who read silently recalled only 10% of the words (MacLeod and Bodner, 2016).

Impact of Reading Out Loud on Memory

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7. Write notes and questions

Another way to improve your comprehension is to write notes and questions while you are reading. You can write the main point for each chapter or jot down key points on the side margins of the reading material. You can also use other note-taking techniques, such as outlining, bullet points, or mind mapping. Asking questions like who, what, when, where, why, and how and then looking for answers as you read can also be a good way to remember important information from the text.

8. Review your notes

It is equally important to review your notes and questions in order to retain what you have learned from your readings. Try applying the spaced repetition technique when reviewing notes. Spaced repetition uses review sessions based on a scheduled period to increase long-term retention. It can be an effective approach to efficient memorization and help you remember more of what you have read without actually spending more hours rereading the text.

9. Summarize what you have read

Writing a summary of what you have read can demonstrate what you have understood from the text. It will help you review and better remember the main ideas and key concepts discussed in the reading material. It will also reveal what points you might need to revisit in the text.

10. Explain what you have read

A great exercise in increasing comprehension is explaining what you have read to someone else. You can do this either when you have finished a chapter or when you have read an entire book. Repeating what you have learned to someone forces you to restructure your thoughts, which can help in retention and reveal confusing points you might need to review from the reading material.

Invest in Improving Your Reading Skills

Transitioning from high school reading to reading college-level text can be overwhelming. But remember that reading is a skill that you can improve with practice. Even people who have a lot of exposure to reading might find some materials that are still very challenging, so know that you are in good company.

Also, we have seen how reading skills have a direct impact on the academic performance of students and their chances of graduating from high school and continuing to higher education. This is why it is crucial to invest time in improving a student’s reading and comprehension skills as early as their elementary years.

By incorporating these 10 strategies into your reading, you can become a more effective reader. You will not only save time but also increase your ability to understand dense, college-level reading materials. It will prepare you to deal with the intricacies of research, from methodology in research to polishing your output.



  1. Bodner, G. E., & MacLeod, C. M. (2016). The benefits of studying by production . . . And of studying production: Introduction to the special issue on the production effect in memory. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, 70 (2), 89-92. https://doi.org/10.1037/cep0000094
  2. Sparks, S. (2011). Study: Third grade reading predicts later high school graduation. Education Week.
  3. Stevens, A. (2011). Poor reading skills lead more students to dropout of school than poverty. Reading Horizons.

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