Anyone who has ever tried to bulldoze their way through a narcolepsy inducing SAT or GRE reading comprehension passage will know just how hard it is to maintain focus when reading. No matter how hard you try to feign interest in scintillating topics like “The History of Corn Prices in 19th Century Dubuque” or “An In-Depth Look at Catatonia in Clams” we just can’t seem to keep our gray matter engaged. We end up like that dog in the movie Up. “Squirrel!”
I’ve got an easy fix to help keep your wayward brain on track and boost your comprehension.
Don’t be like Saint Ambrose.
Saint Augustine noted that when he went to visit Ambrose–then the bishop of a hoppin’ 4th Century Milan–he often found him reading silently. No lie. The guy read without saying the words out loud! I know. Weird, right? “When he read,” noted Augustine, “his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.” Although there is some reason to believe that others had read silently before Ambrose, it was considered very out of the ordinary! Most people in the ancient world read out loud apparently, and in Europe this persisted up until the 10th Century (Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading. New York, Viking, 1996).
Ancient students knew something most of us don’t. It sometimes really helps to read out loud. In fact, reading aloud not only ratchets up your focus, it increases your comprehension. The Summary of the (U.S.) National Reading Panel Report noted the positive effects of guided oral reading on many reading skills including comprehension. My own experience as a teacher has borne this out. It’s amazing how often my students struggle with GRE reading comprehension questions who, two minutes later, are slapping themselves in the forehead when I read the same question to them out loud. What was confusing and tangled when they read it in the silent caverns of their cerebelum suddenly makes perfect sense when they hear it read out loud, slowly, with pauses for punctuation and emphasis on key words.
Take it slow and easy. Read as slowly as you need to in order to think carefully about what you’re reading (but see my notes on speed reading below). I find most students try to read too quickly, especially on knotty GRE and SAT reading passages or dry, academic gristle. They bull their way through only to find themselves having to go back and reread more carefully in order to answer questions. Those of us in the know read slowly and carefully so we only have to read it once.
Imagine you’re reading to a group of fifth-graders and you’re trying to make it exciting. Emphasize key words. Pause for commas. Pause longer for colons. Just deciding how it should be read encourages you to uncover the author’s meaning.
When you read orally, you don’t have to be loud; just loud enough. If you were sitting next to me during a GRE or SAT, you would hear me quietly muttering to myself as I read. I can hear myself, but others can’t.
Reread. Was that last sentence confusing? Read it again. Rephrase it, and translate the less clear words into words you understand well.
Comment and argue. Have a running conversation with the author. Do you agree or disagree? What’s their real agenda? Why did they phrase that last line the way they did?
“But what about speed-reading?” you may ask. In speed reading they teach that verbalizing the words–even silently in your head–actually slows you down. Yes. It does. But I’ve found that speed reading is helpful mainly on very straight-forward clear texts when you are just going for capturing facts rather than trying to tease out nuanced arguments and hidden agendas. I do use speed reading for some things, but if I really want to understand and evaluate a grisly piece of science writing or a bony bit of philosophy, I have to slow down and chew thoroughly. You can eat oatmeal fast, but a lobster takes slow steady effort and special tools.
And now we’re back again to focus. This whole process of reading out loud–slowly, steadily, with pauses and emphasis–is interactive. We lose focus when our reading takes on the numbing cadence of a mindless recitation. Mindlessly reading the words in succession is not reading; it’s just a recipe for boredom. Engage with the text by reading aloud in the way I’ve described and focus is no longer a problem.© Cody Blair, All Rights Reserved.