Want to Remember More of What You Read? Do These 4 Things, According to a Linguistics Professor


Do you want to remember more of what you read? If so, some ways of reading are better than others. That advice comes from Naomi S. Baron, professor emerita of linguistics at American University, and the author of multiple books and studies on reading and learning. In a piece for Big Think, she explains why some ways of reading, and absorbing information in general, are better than others and lead to greater retention and also greater comprehension, especially of abstract concepts.

Here are some tips drawn from her insights. Try them out and see if they help you remember more of what you read.

1. Read, don’t listen.

Audiobooks are a great invention. Many a drive from Upstate New York to Florida was much more fun than it could have been because my husband and I spent our hours on the Interstate listening to novels. But I have to admit that I can’t tell you much about those novels today.

If you want to remember what you read, actually reading is better than listening, Baron says. It’s also better for comprehension because your mind is less likely to wander, and also because it’s easier to go back and reread anything that you don’t quite understand the first time.

2. Read on paper, not digitally.

For anything longer than a few hundred words, Baron says there is a “cascade of research confirming that we learn better when we read words printed on paper than on a tablet, reader, phone, or computer. Why? One reason is that our memory of the material is tied to the physical world–we’ll recall where something was on the page or how far along it was in the book, she writes.

But there’s also a subtle attitude shift when we read digitally, she says, which researchers call a “shallowing hypothesis.” She explains, “According to this theory, people approach digital texts with a mindset suited to casual social media, and devote less mental effort than when they are reading print.”

3. Stop multi-tasking.

I have to admit it–the news that people remember more when they read on paper was very bad news for me. I love to read, but I am just over paper. If you’d moved as many times as I have in the past few years with as many books, you might feel the same way. Besides I love the convenience of having my entire library in my pocket at all times, and of being able to download a sample of any book I come across or hear about the moment it strikes my fancy. I’m never going back to paper.

But Baron’s research suggests that if I want to retain what I read, I have to approach it with some seriousness. And I can see for myself that if I interrupt my reading every time a text or other notification comes in, it has a negative effect on my concentration and ability to absorb information. So whether you’re doing it on paper or digitally, when you read, just read. Silence the notifications if you can. That’s what I plan to do from here on out.

4. Review often. 

There are several practices common to digital media that make it harder to learn, Baron writes. Among them are less use of annotation, and less frequent reviewing. That’s a shame, because e-reading is designed to make both annotating what you’ve read and reviewing it a very seamless experience.

In fact, one of the many reasons I prefer digital books to paper books is the search function. If I encounter something that refers back to an earlier point, or to a person who appeared earlier in the text, it’s so easy to do a search on that person’s name or that term so you can quickly find previous mentions.

Reviewing what you’ve read is often the key to both greater understanding and greater retention. So review a lot, and take advantage of the power of search.

There’s a growing audience of readers who receive a daily text from me with a self-care or motivational micro-challenge or tip. (Interested in joining? Here’s more information and an invitation to an extended free trial.) Many are entrepreneurs or business leaders and they tell me how important it is to keep learning throughout their careers and their lives. Reading is one of the best ways of doing that, and these four tips will help you do it better.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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