Reading for Retention – Dr. Dan Crabtree


“Why can’t I remember more of what I’ve read?” That wishful thought has crossed the mind of more than one frustrated reader. Why is it that we don’t retain more of what we read? What can we do about it? Here are a few helpful suggestions for increasing your reading retention.


Don’t Skip the Introduction


Before plunging into reading a book word-for-word take a few minutes to get comfortable with the book. Picking up a new book is like meeting someone for the first time. You don’t immediately jump into a ‘deep’ or ‘profound’ conversation. You start with an introduction so you can get to know the person and develop a level of trust and understanding. This is why the introduction of a new book should never be skipped. In the introduction listen for what the author tells you about their reason for writing the book? What motivated them? What do they hope to accomplish? In a well written introduction the author will also outline the book’s organization and development and most importantly, tell you the book’s key concepts. Grasping the ‘big ideas’ of a book greatly increases your understanding and retention. Some people highlight, or take notes, but I recommend that after reading the introduction attempt to write in your own words what you think the key concepts of the book are. Reading for retention means reading for concepts, not just reading words. But, just like when you meet a new person, this is only your initial impression, so be prepared to make needed adjustments in the future. Read the table of contents to see if they confirm your initial impression.


Survey the Book


Carefully reading the introduction is a great start, but to further familiarize yourself with a new book you will need to survey the contents. This may seem like a daunting task, but here are a few tips. Look for any headings or subheadings that may be found in the chapters. These will give you the outlines for the different chapters. Read the author’s summary if one is included. If not, read the first few paragraphs and the last few paragraphs of the chapter. In your own words attempt write out what the key concept(s) of the different chapters. This may seem like a tedious process, but getting well-acquainted with a book will help you greatly with retention when you are later confronted with all the minutiae of details. It may be easier to write this as a question since the problem or challenge is usually easier to identify than the solution. Normally, the author will present the problem or challenge at the beginning of the chapter. Later, when reading the chapter, note how your question is answered. If it is not answered, be prepared to refine your question. Understanding the key concept(s) of the different chapters will greatly increase your level of retention.


Practice Immediate Recall


While reading the book pause at the end of a chapter or section to reconstruct and summarize what you have read. Since most forgetting occurs soon after learning, practicing immediate recall is important. Glance back over the chapter or section to remind yourself of the information you’ve just been exposed to.

If you found the ideas in the book stimulating, purchase a copy of it so you can keep it in your personal library. Re-read the book a year or two later. Often the most fruitful reading with the greatest amount of retention happens on the second and third reading of a book. This is part of the reason we read and re-read our Bibles – because our retention and understanding grows with each reading.


Help Yourself Concentrate


Experts tell us that most people can read with a fairly high degree of retention for about half an hour. After that our ability to concentrate, and therefore retain information, begins to fade. It is usually best therefore to take about a five minute break about every half hour. Get up walk around, have a brief conversation with someone or get something to drink. Experts tell us that ‘chunking’ material we are trying to learn increases our concentration and retention.