May 9, 2010 1:06 PM   Subscribe

After tracking myself for a few weeks, I learned that I have very, very bad reading habits. Help me improve myself.

I realized this was a problem only recently while reading science textbooks, but after tracking my habit, I realized it's not just reading science stuff (biology and physiology stuff), but reading anything.

While reading, my eyes (and I) skip around to various parts of the page as though I'm looking for something that appears interesting. Sometimes, while reading a paragraph, my eyes will skip forward.

I'm pretty sure this is a bad reading habit that happened after years of reading garbage. I think it also may have to do with vision that got worse and worse through the years (negative 9 in both eyes, but I wear contact lenses).

I never thought of this as a bad habit in college and grad school, where I did really well and read lots of info by skimming and scanning and getting the main idea. But now, I've been taking science courses (excitement and novelty and liking challenges got me through the first one and second one with excellent grades, now I'm on my third one and the excitement and novelty has died a little so I'm reverting to bad reading habits).

In college, I was an econ major and inevitably, I think how I would read would be to scan until I got to an equation or math, read the paragraph around that, and then shift back up to everything that explained it. I'm pretty sure I didn't read word per word. I still did well, but this is different and most of the science stuff I have to teach myself anyway (lecture is more useful after I've read the book already).

I also noticed that when I read silly chick lit trash for pleasure, I'll reread it and find sentences and words I skipped over that are entirely new to me. I think this happens because I'm so eager to get to the end and find out what happens.

What do I do? I don't have money for a specialist, but is there a way to keep my eyes (and brain) from trying to search out more interesting stuff (it's weird but I think I emotionally "tag" certain concepts before even knowing about them -- like for no reason, I'll like a section heading about the renal tubule, but feel dislike towards renal pelvis and look away and force myself to look back -- though there was nothing I disliked really about the renal pelvis other than weird associations like ("Pelvis=Elvis, I don't like his beach movies"), or to stop trying to start reading from the middle or the bottom of the page? Is it just a matter of having patience? Is there anyway I can practice?
posted by anonymous to Education (11 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Speed-reading people say that one way you can increase your reading speed (without sacrificing comprehension, so this isn't speed-reading per se) is to point at the words with a pen (or similar). Most people's eyes continually skip back to words they've already read, slowing them down. This is supposed to keep your eyes on track. When you've gotten into the habit of looking only at the current word, you won't need the pencil anymore.

I tried it, but I never got that far. I read two books like that, and I think it did help, but pointing at all the words was weird and I just wasn't persistent enough. And I don't care that much about speed.
posted by k. at 1:13 PM on May 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

You could also use a piece of paper (or index card, etc.) to cover up all the lines after the one you're reading, moving it down the page as you go. People do this when teaching children to read, because they easily lose track of where they are.
posted by k. at 1:17 PM on May 9, 2010

While reading, my eyes (and I) skip around to various parts of the page as though I'm looking for something that appears interesting. Sometimes, while reading a paragraph, my eyes will skip forward.

I'm hardly an expert but I wouldn't assume that this is abnormal without one saying so; eye movements when reading are very complicated, involve many forward and backward movements, and there is a lot of individual variation. More on eye movements while reading. I read fiction something like the way you do, FWIW.
posted by advil at 1:23 PM on May 9, 2010

This doesn't offer a solution and I think that the few offered above are good ones, but if it's any consolation, I think that you're reading habits are entirely normal. You obviously found a system that worked for you in school. You should be pleased that you're able to hone in on the important stuff, as I assume you did as you've said that you did really well in both undergraduate and graduate school. And if you're enjoying the chick lit (which I too find a guilty pleasure so no judgment here), does it matter if you've missed a word or even a paragraph or two?

OK, actually I do have a bit of advice. When I am reading something (usually fiction, sometimes biography) that is more serious, denser, and a with a higher quality of writing, than the average "chick lit" novel offers, I find that I have to slow down and read, rather than skim the words or skip ahead, to get all the information I need to follow the story and more importantly to appreciate the writer's ability. It is something that happens naturally and may be less intrusive than using a pencil, bookmark, or other means of forcing yourself to read line by line. I also had a friend who kept a notebook in which she'd write done bits that she found particularly well-written, quote worthy, or just struck her fancy at the time.
posted by kaybdc at 2:18 PM on May 9, 2010

Before you begin, try to understand your motivation for reading something.
Is it to hone in on important principles?
Is it to get a hold of all the small details e.g. anatomy and physiology.
Then, talk with the book.
I'm serious. Take a pencil out and make notes on the margins. Be proactive.
So, for a science book, you could say "Hm, this connects with what they said in Chapter 3".
Or, "But, this contradicts with so and so"

Also, read "How to Read a Book". It is much less hokey than it sounds.
posted by Lucubrator at 2:32 PM on May 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeahh, I do that. It's great for fluffy stuff, either fiction or marketing materials where conciseness isn't really the point. But textbooks were always a fight. [b]Lucubrator[/b]'s advice makes a surprising amount of sense - the only way I ever got through dense reading material was by thinking about it, and although I never would have said I was "talking to" the book it's a very good description of what I was actually doing. And it worked very well. At least in the content-rich parts of the book (so not so much the 'Electricity powers our world and our appliances and is so awesome' chapter introductions) you need to be processing every sentence, and treating it like a conversation is a really powerful tool for that. "Wait, what did you just say?" *re-read* "Krebs cycle, which one was that again? Oh yes..." and then you can make a little note. High-lighting helps with this too, in my experience.

The other thing that's good, for small sections if not for the whole book, is to read it out loud. This forces you to get the words straight and keep them that way, and to process every single sentence and every single word without glazing over any of them.
posted by Lady Li at 4:23 PM on May 9, 2010

I find myself doing this frequently also. The Guardian had an account from a dyslexic man recently about how his iPhone dramatically improved his reading ability. He attributed the change to the smaller amount of text shown on the screen and the brighter display. With less visible text he found that he was much less likely to be distracted.

I've wondered if the same thing might not help our problem also. Unfortunately, I don't know how realistic it is attain or read textbooks on something like an iPhone.
posted by John Frum at 10:23 AM on May 10, 2010

It's not clear to me from the question that you have a problem at all. Are you finding it hard to comprehend the material, or finding that you've inadvertently skimmed over details that you needed to know when writing your exams?

I find I have this same quirk, but (like you in undergrad) it actually helped in many of my more objective classes (sciences, psychology) where the texts were fairly straightforward: I didn't have to labouriously plow through every word and unnecessary example to get to the main point of a paragraph or chapter.

Where I do have problems is in reading literature or philosophy, where the text is dense and requires absolute attention to details and nuances. I find the only thing that helps is to force myself to slow down by internally vocalizing the text.
posted by tivalasvegas at 11:48 AM on May 10, 2010

This is how I read. I skim nearly everything on first reading, jump back and forth and return to a book (or a paragraph or a sentence), sometimes multiple times, if there's something there I feel I need. Maybe I absorb less on first reading, but I read faster than most people I know, so I figure if I read something a couple of times I'll absorb as much as more "normal" readers do on one pass. Possibly I read this way because I learned to read at home via the Scout Finch method instead of being taught the "right" way to read (start at the beginning, read every word, finish the book, move on to the next) at school. I think my way is more fun -- I get to read books like Jane Eyre dozens of times and find something new in each read.

I know the pain of buckling down to absorb as much as possible from a technical text, though -- I studied philosophy, much of which is brutally unskimmable. Just about the worst thing you can do is to pretend to read while mentally haranguing yourself to concentrate. Now, when I'm reading for information in a dense text, I skim first for important bits, then return to them and buckle down to trudge through sentence by sentence, pausing after each to rest and reflect. It's like riding a bike -- the bits with the information I need are like going uphill, and the bits I can safely skip/skim are like coasting downhill. But the more hills you do, the easier hills become.

I also help retention by mixing reading with doing -- writing notes, mentally paraphrasing what I've just read or, yes, talking to the book. I think you probably retain more than you're consciously aware of, anyway.
posted by stuck on an island at 12:03 PM on May 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

It's the same for me! I never met anyone who had the same thing -- God bless the internet!

Regarding workarounds: My solution is similar to what's already been mentioned. I read boring passages out loud, take notes, and quiz myself on the content of pages before I turn the page. (The idea of being "quizzed" helps focus my attention.) And I let myself skip forwards as long as I am mindful to skip back.

Good luck with it.
posted by hungrytiger at 11:37 PM on May 10, 2010

p.s. With regards to the eyesight thing -- my guess is that it doesn't have to do with your vision, at least with the way that your eyeballs process vision. I think it has to do with the brain. I have never worn glasses or contact lenses, FWIW, and I've been reading this way my whole life.
posted by hungrytiger at 11:42 PM on May 10, 2010

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