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How To Read with Understanding: The Definitive Guide

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How to read with understanding

How to read with understanding

I promise you that by the end of this article will gain enough knowledge and effective reading techniques which will significantly improve your reading understanding.

Reading helps us to develop ourselves personally and professionally. It is a source of new ideas, insights and joy.I read every book differently.

I read many books for understanding not justfor information. I use gradual and deep learning for improved comprehension.

There is a big difference between reading to understand an idea or concept and reading just for information. The way you will read Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” will be very different from how you will read “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Train. They are both great authors with two different ideas and stories.

“If a book is easy and fits nicely into all your language conventions and thought forms, then you probably will not grow much from reading it. It may be entertaining, but not enlarging to your understanding. It’s the hard books that count. Raking is easy, but all you get is leaves; digging is hard, but you might find diamonds,”

— Mortimer J. Adler

A good book deserves an active reading. Reading effectively or learning something insightful requires mental work. It’s uncomfortable, which is why few people embrace deep learning in the age of skimming and fast reading.

“Every book should be read no more slowly than it deserves, and no more quickly than you can read it with satisfaction and comprehension,”

—Mortimer J. Adler

How To Read with Understanding
How To Read with Understanding

6 Steps to Better Reading Understanding

How to read with understanding

Learn and practice following 6 steps and you will improve your reading understanding quality very quickly.

Step 1: Preparation

How to read with understanding

 Eliminate distractions:

  • Get off the computer
  • Turn off the TV
  • Set your phone to “Don’t Disturb” mode
  • Turn off social media and messenger’s notifactions

It’s very difficult to read, especially if you’re reading something difficult when your attention is divided. Reading closely means you have to find a nice, comfortable location that’s distraction-free.


Make reading fun by getting yourself a snack or a drink and getting comfortable. Turn a calm background music to make yourself as comfortable, and make reading as enjoyable as possible, especially if it’s not something you’re excited about reading

Step 2: Set a goal of reading

How to read with understanding

Before you start reading ask yourself: “Why am I reading this particular book?”

Maybe you are:

  • preparing for exam/test
  • want to learn investing instruments to allocate your assets
  • it’s a new book on your professional subject

In each case level of reading will be different. 

Step 3: Quick skimming

How to read with understanding

Some reading tasks require no more than skimming.

 During skimming pay attention to the following:

  • headings
  • pictures
  • charts
  • tables
  • bold text
  • italic text
  • underlined text

 Benefits of skimming

Read with understanding

  • memory preparation making it easier to remember when you read it the second time
  • thinking orientation helping you to know where the important content is in the document

Step 4: Pause regularly

How to read with understanding

While reading I suggest you to stop after each significant paragraph and do one of the following:

  • Retell yourself (make a conclusion) in your own words what you have just read and try explain it to yourself
  • Imagine a picture of read paragraph i.e. visualize. This will help to remember the material better as our brain prefers to work work with visuals. Picture worth a thousand words.
  • Think of implementation. Try to see the ways of how you adopt in real life.

Step 5: Taking notes, highliting and summarizing

How to read with understanding

While you read it’s effective to do the following:

  • Writing down ideas, questions and remarks that come to your head, as later it will save a hours when you will to recall a book’s content. You may use a notebook, a Notes App on your phone or computer.
  • Highlighting. If book belongs to you a highlighting a small parts of text becomes quite a handy technique.


Use a tiny sticky bookmarks for easy access to your highlights

  • Summarize. After each chapter you may write a several sentences summary of chapter’s key points. And again it will save many hours when you will want to recall book’s content.

Step 6: Write down a final conclusion

How to read with understanding

After you have finished a book it’s great to conclude all your thoughts, ideas and conclusions. I have a big A4 format 100 sheets notebook for that.

Usually 2-5 days after I finish the a book I sit down and start writing down all the things I found interesting and useful. I rewrite all highlights and remarks which I made during reading process.

I consider it a ritual – “I’m officially done with this book!”

This notebook like a reference book for book I’ve read. And anytime when I prepare material for seminar, training or public speech I may refer as it contains the material I’ve absorbed.

How To Read with Understanding
How To Read with Understanding

4 Levels of Reading

How to read with understanding

Familiarize yourself with 4 levels of reading. By practicing it you will teach yourself to choose a proper level for each book, enhancing overall understanding, quality and speed of reading.

Level 1: Elementary Reading (literacy)

How to read with understanding

This is the level of reading that we all learn in elementary schools. If you’re reading this article, you already know posses that skill. Other names might be rudimentary reading, basic reading or initial reading.

In mastering this level, one learns the rudiments of the art of reading, receives basic training in reading, and acquires initial reading skills.

Level 2: Inspectional Reading (skimming)

How to read with understanding

The second level of reading is inspectional reading, which can be thought of us intelligently skimming a book in a limited amount of time. Not only does this prepare our brain with the material in the book, but it helps us determine if we want to read the entire book.

We’ve been taught that skimming and superficial reading are bad for understanding. That is not necessarily the case. Using these tools effectively can increase understanding.

Adler defines it as “systematic skimming” — it is understanding the outline and structure of a book in a short period of time.

Systematic skimming —quick check of the book by:

  • reading the preface
  • studying the table of contents
  • checking the index;
  • reading the inside jacket

This should give you enough knowledge to understand the chapters in the book, pivotal to the author’s argument. Read in here and there, but never with more than a paragraph or two. Skimming helps you reach to a decision point: Does this book deserve more of my time and attention?

 If not, you put it down.

Level 3: Analytical Reading (understanding)

Reading with understanding

It’s a in-depth and complete reading of a book. At this level, the person reads the book in detail and ask questions. Analytical reading is not for entertainment books – it is for serious ones.

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”

— Francis Bacon

At analytical reading level, you start to engage your mind, think deeper and begin to make sense of an author’s writing by comparing and contrasting it with your personal experiences, feelings, thoughts, and previously gained knowledge.

If you are reading to improve understanding, analytical reading is entirely necessary. It is both a more complex and a more systematic activity than either of the two levels of reading discussed above. The analytical reader must ask many, and organized, questions of what he is reading. Analytical reading is always intensely active. On this level of reading, the reader grasps a book and works at it until the book becomes his own. 

Level 4: Syntopical reading (synthesis)

Reading with understanding

This is the most complex of all reading levels. It represents the most demanding and difficult reading of all. It is the most rewarding level of reading because it helps to understand a topic deeply.

Syntopical Reading involves reading many books on the same subject and comparing and contrasting ideas, vocabulary, and arguments.

It is the most complex and systematic type of reading. It makes very heavy demands on the reader, even if the materials he is reading are themselves relatively easy and unsophisticated.

Another name for this level might be comparative reading. When reading syntopically, the reader reads many books, not just one, and places them in relation to one another and to a subject about which they all revolve. But mere comparison of texts is not enough.

With the help of the books read, the syntopical reader is able to construct an analysis of the subject that may not be in any of the books.

If you want to learn this subject more in depth, make sure you read Mortimer J. Adler’s great book How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading

Audiobooks vs eBooks: Pros and Cons

Audiobooks vs eBooks
Audiobooks vs eBooks


How to read with understanding

SQRRR or SQ3R is a reading comprehension method named for its five steps: survey, question, read, recite, and review. The method was introduced by Francis P. Robinson, an American education philosopher in his 1946 book Effective Study.

SQRWRR is enhanced version of the method. You can use it to improve your comprehension of books.

So, let’s dive in.

S = Survey

How to read with understanding

Before you start to read, survey the material to gain an overview of the contents.

Look through the whole reading/ chapter to preview it. Approach it by scanning:

  • title(s) and subheadings
  • summaries or abstracts
  • the introduction and conclusion
  • visual materials (pictures, charts, graphs or tables) and their captions
  • the first and last sentences in paragraphs
  • the conclusion
  • any focus questions

This step typically usually takes several minutes, but it provides an outline for what will be presented.

Q = Question

How to read with understanding

Your reading will be more memorable if you question the material.

As you are surveying, note down your questions. Writing down questions keeps you alert and focused on your work.

1. Ask yourself

Reading with understanding

  • What is this chapter/ article about?
  • What do I already know about this subject?
  • How does this reading relate to what I already know/ have read?

2. Form questions that will guide your reading

Reading with understanding

Think about specific questions for which you need to, or would like to, find answers. Read any focus questions at the end of the reading.

Turn the title, headings and subheadings into questions. For example, if the heading is Qualitative and Quantitative Research, your question might be: ‘What is the difference between these two types of research?’

3. Make a list of your questions for consideration.

Reading with understanding

You will use them during review to help you remember what you have read

R1 = Read

How to read with understanding

Be prepared to READ material twice.

First, read without making notes:

1. Decrease your pace and read actively

Reading with understanding

Active reading requires concentration, so take your time and find a quiet place where you can read and focus. Make sure you understand what you are reading. Reduce your reading speed for difficult passages. Stop and reread parts which are not clear.

2. Look for answers to the questions you noted down earlier

Reading with understanding

Seek and you will find.

3. Compare diagrams and illustrations with the written text

Reading with understanding

Often you will understand more from them.

4. Use dictionary

Reading with understanding

If you have difficulty understanding a text, look up difficult words in the dictionary or glossary of terms and reread. If the meaning of a word or passage still evades you, leave it and read on. Perhaps after more reading you will find it more accessible and the meaning will become clear.

W = Write

How to read with understanding

On your second reading, begin to take notes:

1. Take notes

Reading with understanding

Take notes from the text. Write them in your own words.

2. Read by section

Reading with understanding

A section might be divided up by headings or subheadings.

3. Sum up

Reading with understanding

After you read a section, try to sum up the main point in one sentence.

4. Underline and highlight

Reading with understanding

In your notes, underline or highlight the important points. This will be useful for later review.

R2 = Recall (Retrieve)

How to read with understanding

Do a short retell of key points and ideas from a chapter/book in your own words. You may also write it down.

1. Don’t peak

Reading with understanding

Close the book and cover your notes.

2. Turn on your memory

Reading with understanding

Tell or write notes of what you remember about the main idea and key points of the reading.

3. Compare

Reading with understanding

Check their accuracy against the notes you made during your reading.

4. Double check

Reading with understanding

Return to the reading and double check.

R3 = Review

How to read with understanding

Now REVIEW what you have read.

Check the accuracy of your notes against the original material, if you have underlined the main points, this should be simple. This is an important part of the process because it can really help you clarify and remember what you have read.

The next day read through your notes to reacquaint yourself with the main idea and key points.

How To Read with Understanding
How To Read with Understanding

PQRST Method

How to read with understanding

The Preview, Question, Read, Summary, Test or PQRST Method is an effective way to learn material and retain it in your memory. PQRST Method is aimed at helping readers assimilate the information learned in books into long-term memory.

Learn and practice PQRST method to improve your reading understanding ability.

P = Preview

How to read with understanding

1.1. Table of contents

Reading with understanding

To get acquainted with the book you are up to read, read through the table of contents. Note chapters’ name and how the content is structured.

1.2. Headings, summaries and keywords

Reading with understanding

To get a sense of a book, scan it first. Look thtorughheadings, bolded keywords and chapter summaries. These parts should offer a general idea of what the chapter or section will cover and frame further reading of the content. In some books materials, pictures, maps, or diagrams may serve the same purpose.

Q = Question

How to read with understanding

2.1 Turn subject headings into questions

Reading with understanding

Formulate questions that you would like to be able to answer once you have finished studying. Start by using subject headings or subheadings to formulate questions. For instance, turn the heading, “Einstein’s Theory of Relativity” into the question, “What is Einstein’s Theory of Relativity?”

 2.2. Generate questions based on your preview

Reading with understanding

Write down any questions you may have after preview stage. Include as few or as many questions as you have based of your understanding of the content. If the book that you are studying includes some questions, add them to the list. 

For instance, your preview of “Money: Master the Game” book might lead you to ask question like, “How to reduce my tax fees by 10%?”

2.3. Generate questions based on your previous knowledge of the topic

Reading with understanding

Use the knowledge that you already have about a topic to generate questions. The questions should be geared towards clarifying the truth about the subject. As you study, these questions will be answered.

3. R = Read

How to read with understanding

3.1 Highlight important things

Reading with understanding

 Read through paragraphs with the intention of highlighting the important points of each. Each paragraph in a text contains one main idea and other, supporting ideas. Highlight the main point of each paragraph so you can refer back to it easily without having to skim through all of the content again.

Writing down notes in the margins of your study material is also a good way to note important details.

3.2. Evaluate your understanding

Reading with understanding

 Choose an interval at which to stop reading and evaluate your understanding of the content you just studied (e.g. every ten minutes, every chapter). Ask yourself if you’re learning anything from the text, or if you’ve absorbed all of the details you read. If necessary, reread the text.

S = Summarize

How to read with understanding

4.1. Write notes for yourself

Reading with understanding

Based on what you’ve read, write notes for yourself using your questions, the answers to them, and other content that struck your interest. Use the format of note-taking that suits you best. Be sure that your notes are legible and coherent enough to refer to easily later on.

4.2. Record page numbers and references within your notes

Reading with understanding

 While you write your notes, record the page numbers of the source material that you are referencing. Having this information will allow you to go back to the source easily when you review your notes. If any pertinent maps, charts, pictures, or other visual aids relate to part of your notes, write down the page numbers for those as well.

4.3. Recite notes in your head or out loud

Reading with understanding

In addition to taking written notes, summarizing the content you’ve read (either out loud or in your head) is an excellent way to process and retain the information. Organize your thoughts as if you were giving a lecture or presentation about the subject, and make the “lesson” as comprehensive as possible.

By formulating the material that you’ve studied in the style of a presentation, you make the content more engaging and understandable for yourself as well as your imaginary audience.

T = Test

How to read with understanding

5.1. Read and answer your questions

Reading with understanding

Answer the questions that you compiled for yourself. Do not look into your notes until you’re done testing yourself. Note the questions you got wrong or didn’t answer and focus extra attention on the content related to them.

5.2. Use mnemonic devices

Reading with understanding

Mnemonic devices are memory techniques that allow your brain to encode and retain information better. These study tricks are essentially shortcuts that allow you to recall things, in the form of acronyms, images, rhymes, songs. Create or use mnemonic devices for the content that you have more difficulty remembering when studying.

5.3. Review learning material

Reading with understanding

Based on the sections that you struggle with when testing yourself, review your study material. Reread your notes and, if necessary, re-write notes for the content that you have trouble remembering to reinforce your understanding of it. Continue testing yourself on the material until you feel confident that you’ve learned it.

How To Read with Understanding
How To Read with Understanding

KWL Method

How to read with understanding

The KWL reading method is an instructional technique used to improve reading comprehension. It also improves a reader’s ability to remember and understand the material better.

KWL stands for “Know – What – Learn

In the KWL method, readers are first asked to consider what they already know about the subject before they read the material.

For example, say they’re reading a book in class about Mexican food. In the “know” column, they would jot down the names of Mexican foods they’re familiar with, such as enchiladas, tacos, and tostadas.

When students finish the “know” step, they move on to the “what” column. Here they write down what they hope to learn about the subject from the passage. Given that Mexican food is the subject at hand, they could write that they hope to find out how to make enchiladas from scratch.

Third, students read the passage and then summarize what they learned from the reading. Perhaps they didn’t learn how to make enchiladas from scratch in the column but found out how pozole is made. They would write this down in the “learned” column.

KWL Table
How To Read with Understanding
How To Read with Understanding

Spacing Effect and Repetition

How to read with understanding

Spacing effect and Spacing Repetion directed to enhance quality of remembering the read material in a long run.

Spacing effect

How to read with understanding

The spacing effect demonstrates that learning is more effective when study sessions are spaced out. This effect shows that more information is encoded into long-term memory by spaced study sessions, also known as spaced repetition.

19th century psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus suggested that active recall with increasing time intervals reduces the probability of forgetting information. This robust finding has been supported by many memory studies.

This technique will be especially useful with learning new words, quotes and poems.

In Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language and Never Forget It, Gabriel Wyner writes:

Spaced repetition…[is] extraordinarily efficient. In a four-month period, practicing for 30 minutes a day, you can expect to learn and retain 3600 flashcards with 90 to 95 percent accuracy. These flashcards can teach you an alphabet, vocabulary, grammar, and even pronunciation. And they can do it without becoming tedious because they’re always challenging enough to remain interesting and fun.

— Gabriel Wyner

Hermann Ebbinghaus’s “Forgetting Curve”

What is a solution?

Spacing repetition

How to read with understanding

There is a way to slow down the process of forgetting. We need only to recall or revisit the information after we originally come across it. Going over the information later, at intervals, helps us remember a greater percentage of the material.

As Ebbinghaus put it:

“With any considerable number of repetitions, a suitable distribution of them over a space of time is decidedly more advantageous than the massing of them at a single time.”

-Hermann Ebbinghaus

The Most Effective Spaced Repetition Time Intervals

How to read with understanding

Piotr Wozniak creator of SuperMemo – a super effective language learning system spent a years researching this question.

The algorithm that determines SuperMemo’s intervals is quite complex, but here’s a simplified, nutshell-version of some of his first optimal intervals:

  • First repetition: 1 day
  • Second repetition: 7 days
  • Third repetition: 16 days
  • Fourth repetition: 35 days

You can read about Analog Spaced repetition System and Apps at Collegeinfogeek and Wikipedia.


How to read with understanding


To understand a text and books you read in a better way takes time and practice. And not a chaotic practice, but a specific one.

Start improving your reading understanding with 6 Steps for Better Understanding and 4 Levels of Reading which you were familiarized with in the beginning of this article, as they are the foundation. And then after you will feel comfortable with, start implementing techniques and methods: SQRWRR, PQRST, KWL, Spaced effect and Repetition.

And I promise that you will enhance your reading understanding.