Strategies and Systems for Smarter Reading and Better Retention | Hacker Noon

@z3nch4nZen Chan

Interested in Infosec and Biohacking.

There’s a better way to digest and absorb knowledge from your silent teachers.

“Reading, like unaided discovery, is learning from an absent teacher. “ — Van Doren, Charles; Mortimer J. Adler.

No one teaches you how to read properly.

Everybody reads — no matter whether it is a book, a Hacker Noon post, or social media noise. We encountered multiple challenges during our education that require us to read. But in all of them, no one teaches us about reading books to really gain increased understanding.

When I was in school, my first memory of reading was in a classroom with many students. We all said out loud, word-by-word, after the teacher. We then learned the fundamental method to read. That was the slowest and least effective way.

Reading is the best learning.

I am blessed that my secondary school teacher, Miss Ngai, taught and guided me to build the habit of reading. Although she is not here, I know she would be glad that I keep reading.

For me, the most addicting thing about reading is the moment from not knowing the first impression of understanding. I am addicted to learning new things. Lighting up a lightbulb above my head is one of the best things of my daily life.

People who love to learn like me could not be more satisfied than learning how to read more efficiently. It is because reading is the most direct and required no assistance from anyone but yourself.

From my own experience, having a better reading skill is not about how sophisticated your language skills are. Although the language is the barrier, once you have the moderate skill to read, it is a system you can learn and practice.

Learning how to read not only mean reading faster but also have a deeper understanding of the material. By gradually increasing reading skills, you can read books that seemed too challenging in the past.

Related posts [PAYWALL]:

How to read a book

Reading for fun and reading for learning are two different things. In this article, I will focus on reading as a means to gain knowledge instead of entertainment. Books, as silent teachers, can be separated into different levels of reading.

The most important reference is to build a reading system, without question, How to read a book by Van Doren, Charles, and Mortimer J. Adler. From this book, you will learn how to create your own reading system to read any book.

The first important concept of learning how to read is through Active Reading instead of a passive one. Passive reading is what we did in the classroom when teachers “reading” the book out loud. Students are required to receive what teachers prepared and digested passively.

Active Reading, on the other hand, is normally done alone. It requires readers to absorb information from the book by asking questions during the time you are on the book. You need to keep track of yourself about the answers to the questions below during the reading journey.

1# What is the book about?

Any book would have a message to be received. The author does not simply write a book to say nothing. For a practical book, the goal should be clear and properly stated at the beginning.

You can further split your answers to be more specific, like “What is this chapter is about?” or “What does this section want to say?”

You can compare your answers to the outline of the author to see if there is any gap. If there are differences between the reader and the author, the follow-up question is why.

2# How is the author trying to prove their arguments?

After looking for what the book is about, you need to find the author’s supporting arguments. I suggest making notes on the page and highlights the statement sentences.

Proofs could be in the form of assumptions, mathematical equations, or another book or research paper. Finding the proof of a point can help you further analyze if this is true or worth agreeing to.

If you know 1# and 2#, you can easily estimate how well the book is written. A “good book” for you is the one telling exactly what you want to know about and giving you verifiable examples of how to prove the points. The book’s statements’ consistency can also tell you if the author has a persuasive message to tell.

3# Do you agree with their argument, and why?

After you check the author’s arguments’ validity does not imply that you should agree with them. But whether you agree or disagree, you should come up with the reasons behind the answers.

As said, a good book answers all your questions by the contents of the book alone. But if you cannot find what you are looking for in the book, there are chances that you may find it from the examples, references, or further readings suggested by the author.

Asking why to yourself keeps you active in reading. It is like attending a lesson without a teacher. Active reading is, in simple terms, a way of asking and finding answers from a book.

Stages of Reading

Your Reading System could be ranked into 4 stages:

  • Elementary Reading (What you learn in elementary school, reading word-by-word)
  • Inspectional Reading (Slow reading, it is similar to what we prepare for an exam)
  • Analytical Reading (A more sophisticated level of reading, which can help the reader to gain a better understanding)
  • Syntopical Reading (It involves more than one reading material, e.g., doing research, writing academic study)

Analytical Reading

Similar to what is required in Active reading, Analytical reading could be applied to a specific type of book. Although the rules are general for analytical reading, the reader should distinguish what kind of book they will read. It requires specific methodologies on different forms of books.

Keeping this idea in mind helps me to apply the rules flexibly and adaptively. Above all forms, the fundamental division would be whether the book is theoretical or practical.

  • books that are concerned with the problems of action
  • books that are concerned only with something to be known

Theoretical books, therefore, are books providing information such as history and science. Practical Books, on the other hand, can be on different topics. There are suggestions, guidelines, or precautions in practical books.

The most significant difference between these two is the result after reading each of them. The most important thing to remember about any practical book is that it can never solve the practical problems with which it is concerned.

Treating a practical book as a theoretical book is the biggest mistake of all time for all readers. A self-help book is useless if you read it and put it on your bookshelf. A theoretical book can solve its own problems. But a practical problem can only be solved by the action itself.

When you read a practical book, remember you need to act based on the method/ idea/ guideline. For example, you can only know a cookbook is useful if you can make the dishes from the book’s instructions.

Reading sometimes may require some assistance. And some practical books, including the dictionary and encyclopedia, could be used as extrinsic aids to reading. The problem is when and how to use them.

Extrinsic Help

Dictionary should be used carefully. The dictionary is full of words, and words are almost all vague because they have many meanings. But a word that has multiple meanings can be used in one sense at a time.

Reading a book with a dictionary, on the other hand, is a bad idea, but this does not imply you should never go to a dictionary for the definitions of words that are unfamiliar to you.

In short, it is best to do all that you can by yourself before seeking outside help. If you act consistently on this principle, you will discover that you need less extrinsic help.

What reading required is not the meaning of a word but a term or sentence. As an analytical reader, you should spot the most important words in the book and figure out how the author uses them, i.e., the interpretation of its contents or messages.

Syntopic Reading

The highest level, Syntopic Reading, requires reading the same topic across multiple materials. It is useful for a more rooted knowledge of a subject(e.g., scientific research) and more details of an event (e.g., historical event). This reading level is difficult to apply as readers must be skilled at the previous levels first.

The Snowball Reading method

On the 4th level of reading, I found another book that further established the same idea in more practical terms. It is a Japanese Book called ”どんな本でも大量に読める「速読」の本.” (Direct translation: A Speed Reading book that can help you read many books.)

Although you may not have a chance to read this, I cannot find this book in other languages. A reading method called “Snowball Reading” was introduced in this book. In short, it is to “read” a challenging book or a large number of materials in a short period of time by involving repeatedly skimming the words.

Snowball Reading, different from traditional techniques and speed reading, considerably depends on our subconscious in understanding information. As this is a totally new reading concept, it takes some time for the reader to practice and understand.

1# A Clear Goal

The first thing you need to do, similar to the previous one, is to tune yourself into the active reading described above. Reading for knowledge requires a clear goal. However, you may not know what information is important in the first place.

With the specific goal in mind, you can start investigating the book by reading the cover page, the table of content, the back cover… After all, familiarize yourself with the book. This idea is the same as Inspectional Reading from “How to read a book.”

2# Speed Read and Repeat

Next step, readers are required to speed reading the materials in a concise period of time, i.e., 10–15 seconds a page. The goal here is not to read the words but to “absorb” the book using our subconscious mind. Reading like this can be illustrated by a snowball rolling down the slope. The snowball will gain its weight and speed down the slope.

Instead of closing the book at the finish point, the reader should revisit the material, but this time, faster. By repeating this process several times, the author claimed this would help the reader to pick up information from the book like a snowball.

This reading method is not for entertainment but for identifying useful information from a vast amount of data. In short, Snowball Reading can be summarized as procedures below:

  1. Switch to Active Reading mode before start
  2. Read the context of the book.. (Inspectional Reading)
  3. Snowball Reading (3 to 4 times on the same book/ material)
  4. Review (Can switch back to Analytical Reading of the selected materials from step 3.)

Extra Tips for Active Reading

There are a few things that are universally applicable for all. I guess everyone wants to read smoothly and spend less time (i.e., to read faster). Below are some of the useful tips I applied.

1# How to Speed Read | Tim Ferriss

Please watch this 9 minutes video from Tim Ferriss. He provided some tips not related to what I mentioned but also useful for eliminating some bad reading habits.

Speed Reading is not an art but a practical skill. Like riding a bicycle; once you learned it, you can use it anytime. Same as using a bicycle, you can get off and walk (go back to your old reading speed) any time you want.

2# Making Post-It Notes

To read without jotting down notes is not long-lasting, especially for practical books. Note-taking can be as easy as highlighting the book and writing down keywords on the same page. If you are a fast reader like me, I use a journal to organize all my book summaries.

One easy tip is to keep a pad of post-it in the book (or stick it in the book cover). Then I would jot down notes on the post-it and stick them to my Journal By doing that:

  • You can make notes even though the book does not belong to you
  • No need to write twice
  • Can re-organize the ideas and move notes from one Journal to another

3# Teach the others

From all the books about learning how to read, all of them mentioned the importance of teaching. Reading is another form of learning. And to test if you truly understand what the book is about is by telling others about it (teaching).

This article is an example of what I learned about the topic of enhancing my reading skill. There is nothing more entertaining for me than learning something new.

The moment of “aha!” always amuses me in different ways (sometimes it is painful). I am also excited to tell anyone about it. That is why I started writing on medium to share.

Final Words

I start reading again on one book that I bought a long time ago but could not finish before. It is the “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” This time, with a well-established training of my reading skill, I am certain I will turn the book to the last page.

Learning how to read in a more sophisticated way helps you read faster, more organized, and gain a deeper understanding of the material. Do not hesitate and try the tips right away!

Image by Perfecto_Capucine from Pixabay

Reference Books:

Thank you for reading — happy reading and learning how to read.


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