How to Improve Reading Comprehension – 10 Expert Tips

September 24, 2023

how to improve reading comprehension sat

We’ve all had those moments: you’re reading a book, your eyes start gliding over the lines, and before you know it, you’ve reached the end of the page, but you haven’t understood a thing. In high school, college, and in our careers, we’re bound to encounter texts that are challenging to read. Writing is full of literal and implied meanings, five-dollar words can make us zone out or panic, and not every text is written to entertain or engage. The good news, though, is that our expert strategies can help you make quick strides toward improving reading comprehension.

How to Improve Reading Comprehension – Who Can Use These Tips?

Improving reading comprehension is often a major focus inside English classrooms, but better reading skills can help you succeed no matter your age and no matter what you’re studying. Our tips below can be applied to:

  • Math, science, history, English, and all other classes
  • Acing your SAT, ACT, GRE, LSAT or other college admissions exams
  • Developing your writing skills, since strong readers make strong writers
  • Workplace communications
  • Reading newspapers, magazines, and other media
  • Reading for fun

Ready to learn how to improve reading comprehension? Read on for our 10 expert tips.

How to Improve Reading Comprehension – 10 Expert Tips

1) Read Aloud

Sometimes, our eyes move faster than our brains. Especially if you’re taking a test and the pressure is on, it can be all too easy to succumb to the adrenaline, start skimming, and miss out on essential information. If you notice you’re not understanding what you’re reading, start reading out loud. This will slow you down and help you take in each clause of every sentence.

If you’re reading a passage that feels like it drones on and on, read aloud with as much intonation in your voice as possible to help improve reading comprehension. Exaggerate positive and negative tones and pause for emphasis. This strategy will help keep you engaged and ensure that you understand the author’s angle.

2) Summarize What You’ve Read

It can be easy to get bogged down in the details and lose track of what a text is trying to say. As you read, take regular pauses to summarize what the author is saying. Use your own words to describe their argument or main point.

If you’re reading a short text that’s a paragraph or two long, you can write a couple sentences of summary after you’re done reading. If you’re reading a longer text, take a moment after each paragraph to jot down a note summarizing that paragraph’s main points. That way, when you reach the end of the text, you can look back at your paragraph-by-paragraph summaries to help you write one more note that summarizes the main point of the entire text. One paragraph at a time, you’ll be improving reading comprehension.

3) Replace Confusing Words and Phrases

If a clunky phrase, unfamiliar jargon, or abstract concept is hindering your comprehension, you can swap those terms for words that are part of your everyday vocabulary. Use the dictionary to look up the definitions of words you don’t know and find another word or phrase more comfortable with. Then, cross out or mentally block out the words you don’t know, replacing them with your new phrasing as you read.

Let’s practice on a sentence:

“Au’s is a book of deceptive simplicity, weaving profound questions of identity and ontology into the fabric of quotidian banality.”

This quote is from Claire Messud’s book review, published in Harper’s Magazine, of Jessica Au’s novel Cold Enough for Snow. There are many phrases here that could be hard to parse. We can go piece by piece to put the sentence into our own words.

  • “Au’s is a book of deceptive simplicity” is a way of saying that Au’s novel is simpler than it seems.
  • When we get to “weaving profound questions of identity and ontology,” you’ll likely need to look up the word ontology. According to Merriam-Webster, it means “a particular theory about the nature of being or the kinds of things that have existence.” Ontology has to do with the nature of being, so we can use that phrase to replace the original word. We can rewrite this part of the sentence so that it says the novel weaves together profound questions about identity and the nature of being.
  • “the fabric of quotidian banality” is another mouthful of big words. If we look them up, we’ll find that quotidian is a synonym for everyday and banal is a synonym for commonplace and cliché. Replace those words so that the phrase reads the fabric of everyday clichés.

How to Improve Reading Comprehension (Continued) 

The full sentence with replaced words now reads:

Au’s novel is simpler than it seems. It weaves together profound questions about identity and the nature of being with the fabric of everyday cliches.

Step by step, we’ve replaced confusing phrasing in the original sentence, improving reading comprehension.

4) Improve Your Vocabulary: A Holistic Approach

If you notice you struggle to understand writing regardless of what you’re reading, you may need to expand your overall vocabulary.

To improve your vocabulary holistically, look up any unfamiliar words you encounter while reading and begin creating your own flashcards. On each card, make sure to include the dictionary definition, a personal, easy-to-understand definition, and a sentence that uses that word. Take advantage of existing resources, too, to further improve reading comprehension:

5) Improve Your Vocabulary: A Targeted Approach

If you’re taking a class or studying for an AP Exam and finding the reading difficult to follow, you may need to use a targeted approach to expanding your vocabulary. In this instance, it probably won’t be useful to read the whole dictionary or pick up any old pack of flashcards. When you’re trying to improve reading comprehension in a specific topic, you need to focus on learning that field’s key words and jargon.

Here are some steps you can take:

  • When you’re reading, look up any word you don’t know and create your own flashcards. On each card, make sure to include the dictionary definition, a personal, easy-to-understand definition, and a sentence that uses that word.
  • Check your textbook to see if it has a glossary of terms. Turn those terms into flashcards.
  • Search online for existing vocabulary lists or flashcards specific to your topic.
  • Listen to podcasts or watch TED Talk videos and other expert lecture series to gain more exposure to the topic. It can be easier to infer the meaning of tricky vocabulary when it’s spoken rather than read.

How to Improve Reading Comprehension (Continued) 

Studying for the SAT, ACT, GRE or another admissions test? You can use a targeted approach to improve reading comprehension for these exams, as well.

6) How to Improve Reading Comprehension – Use Context Clues

If you’re taking an exam, chances are you won’t have a dictionary on hand to look up words you don’t know. Even if you can’t figure out the exact definition of a word, you can examine the text surrounding the mystery word, using context clues to improve reading comprehension. First, consider the primary topic of the text to narrow the scope of possibilities. Then, look for synonyms and antonyms to help you pinpoint the meaning of the word. Writers often use synonyms to avoid repetition, so you may find the same thing said a different way elsewhere in the text.

Here’s an example:

Let’s say you read tip #4 above “Improve Your Vocabulary: A Holistic Approach” and didn’t know the meaning of the word “holistic.” To use context clues to figure out the meaning of this word, 1) Consider the primary topic of the text. In this case, we’re talking about strategies for improving your vocabulary, so the word “holistic” probably has something to do with a strategy.

2) Next, look at the passage for synonyms or antonyms. The first sentence of this tip suggests, “you may need to improve your overall vocabulary.” We’re getting warmer.

3) Third, look for antonyms. Tip #5 also has to do with improving vocabulary, but it’s likely going to take a different approach. In this case, we can look at the title, “Improve Your Vocabulary: A Targeted Approach” and assume “targeted” is an antonym for “holistic.”

We’ve gathered enough context clues now to safely assume “holistic” means full, comprehensive, broad.

 7) Make Lists and Diagrams

Sometimes, authors want you to follow a series of points or a sequence of events. But when their first, second, and third points are spread paragraphs apart or the events occur over the span of many chapters, it can be hard to keep track of the details. To improve reading comprehension, make lists and diagrams that track important information.

When to use a list:

If you come across sentences like these: “Five primary factors impact a business’s bottom line” or “The problem is twofold,” that’s a signal that the author is about to start listing things. 1) Make a note describing the primary topic at hand, and then 2) Jot down each item in their list as it comes up.

When to use a diagram:

If you come across words like “First,” “Initially” or “To begin with,” those are phrases that signal the author is setting up a sequence. First, 1) Write down items in the sequence as they come up. Then, 2) Draw arrows between them to create a visual illustration of how one thing flows into the next.

8) Categorize

Sometimes, a text can span a wide range of topics or weave multiple topics together. To keep track of an author’s points and improve reading comprehension, examine key words and identify main categories to organize your notes.

Here’s an example:

In the prologue to the essay collection Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes that her book is “an intertwining of science, spirit, and story.” Take heed! Kimmerer has given you three key words to pay attention to as you read and three categories you can use to organize your notes. As you read, note down information, anecdotes, and arguments that fit into each of these three categories.

9) Define Your Questions

Often, the first step in improving reading comprehension is knowing what you don’t know. If you’ve read a text and don’t fully understand it, you’ll likely need to reread it. But before you do that, define your questions so that you can reread with a strong game plan.

Ask yourself: What is confusing in the text? What information are you missing? Are there words you need to look up or use context clues to understand? Did you notice a pattern of categories or key words that you’re still trying to parse?

Define your questions so that when you return to the text, you have a specific objective in mind.

10)How to Improve Reading Comprehension – Reread

Language is loaded with explicit and implicit meaning, sentences can trail on for half a page, and paragraphs can be jam-packed with unfamiliar words. There’s no shame in it: sometimes you just need to reread. But before you do, use the tips above to develop your strategy for improving reading comprehension. Look up or use context clues to define words, replace fuzzy phrases with wording you’re comfortable with, and define your questions. On your second read, you can read aloud, summarize as you go, make lists and diagrams, and categorize to ensure you’re on your way toward better comprehension.