Five Steps to Reading for Comprehension and Understanding

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A brief overview of five steps to increase reading comprehension. Applied here to complicated subjects where reading comprehension is most difficult.

When reading philosophy, or any other convoluted text, there are a few methods for which one can gain a greater understanding of the material. None of the skills needed, to read such texts, are foreign to any literate person; they are likely lacking in practice.


Look at your assigned work, or what ever it may be you are looking to read with a more complete understanding. Look over what you are looking to tackle and try and gage how much time it will take. At this point, you may notice there are one or a few locations where the texts allows a clean break in which you can stop and start. The point here is to look for a spot(s) which allow easy breaks in the study session. Remember to keep your goals obtainable. For example; if there is approximately four hours worth of reading. You may have allotted two hours for studying at two separate times you should look to break the work in half; along with adding a half hour to each study period.


The first act of reading should nearly always be a skim. Read it with maximum proficiency in mind. Look to see the main points, most often found at the beginning and ends of any given paragraph and chapter. While noticing main points you will also gain an understanding of the format and architecture of the work. Think of this portion as a chance to gain a mediocre understanding of the work. I like to think of this as the absolute minimum to have a chance to participate in discourse on the subject.


After skimming, you should pick up a pencil and prepare to read for comprehension. Reading for comprehension generally means you may be reading a sentence over and over, looking for cues from the author in previous and posterior sentences. Here it is all about understanding and it is not uncommon to find an entire study period consumed in reading a single paragraph. As you may be wondering, where does the pencil come in? Well while annotating, all of those things you noticed while skimming, and many you didn’t, should be marked to show their importance. Sometimes I like to underline, though underlining too much completely defeats the point. Annotations must never becoming encumbering; the value lies in simplicity. From this I most often find a vertical line, inclusive of those lines I would have underlined for importance, with a short two to three word note on what it ‘underlined.’



This method is most often used by those who wish to write and yet it is valuable for retention as well; a quality of good reading, while outlining one can first start by writing the outline out simply by memory. You’ve likely read the text two to three times between skimming and annotating and should have a good idea of how to outline it if you where to be the writer; which is a good way to view this step. Imagine time moving backward that you are looking to write the work you just read. After your rough outline is finished skim through your annotations and fill in the important points on the outline.


A good review session is the key to retention. At this point if you followed the steps you have read for comprehension and likely have much of the information. But, rereading your notes, annotations, and outline will help keep the information stored and accessible. Never do this step the same day as the previous steps. It is a review and should only take a fraction of the originally allotted time.

With proper use and practice this in-depth method of reading can become second nature. I myself practiced this in my ladder years of study in Philosophy at University. I also found that this was the perfect lesson to teach upon meeting a student in need of tutoring. It was over many years and many students in need that I developed this even though I take no credit as my professors were ‘teaching’ it even if they never put it so explicitly.


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