Keeping Up With The Penguins

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How To Read: The Psychology Of Reading

Have you ever really thought about what happens when you read a book? When you sit down and open that cover, you’re recalling millions of bits of information, activating the neural pathways in your brain that control the movements of your eyes, using the learned patterns of language, applying complex concepts of comprehension and assimilation, and that’s just for starters! It’s taken hundreds of thousands of years of evolution to get you right here, to this point, staring at ink printed on paper, a storytelling tradition older than time manifested into a physical form through the miracle of the written word. So, we’d best figure out how to make the most of it? Here’s my best advice on how to read, calling upon the psychology of the very act itself.

How To Read - The Psychology Of Reading - Text Overlaid on Image of Woman Reading - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Why think about how to read?

Statistically, reading is a dying art. The Pew Research Centre recently found that nearly a quarter of American adults had not read a book – in any format – in the past year. We’re spending less and less on books (just ask any publisher!). And perhaps a big part of the reason for that is that we stop learning how to read, and thinking about how to do it better, at a very young age – most of us before we even reach high school.

Simultaneously – and I’m well aware of the inherent contradiction, but stick with me – we’re reading more than ever before. A 2009 study found that the average adult was exposed to over 100,000 words each day, and that was long before we all carried smart-phones as a matter of course. You’re actually reading more than you think you are; at that rate, you could knock over Crime and Punishment in just two days!

It’s one thing to learn how to recognise and interpret the written word; it’s another thing entirely to learn how to read in a way that engages you and enriches your life. Most people who have standard levels of literacy read passively, focusing only on the words on the page. Passionate readers, life-long bookworms, often find ways to read actively; they invest time and energy in the act of reading, thinking inquisitively about what they’re taking in and engage in a focused practice of applying what they’ve read. People who read in this way generally have thicker cortices, better withstand neurological injuries, score better on tests of empathy and emotional intelligence, and are better protected against degenerative diseases of the brain. Think of active reading as interval training for your thinking muscle.

But I already know how to read!

Maybe you do, but that’s not to say there’s no room for improvement. Reading requires multiple comprehension strategies to take place simultaneously. You need to monitor your own understanding, use inference to fill in the gaps, visualise the images evoked by the text, adjust your application of skills as required by what you’re reading… are you sure you’re scoring 10/10 on all fronts?

Step One: Read More

I know, I know: it’s hardly a surprise that I’d recommend reading more, is it? But it’s really the best first step. The more you practice reading, the better you’ll get at it, and the most important thing is that you start right now!

The bookworms that everyone picked on in school, the ones who read books even when the teacher didn’t make them? Yeah, they’re running the world now. Children who read independently and for fun are better at it than their less-enthusiastic peers, and they see the most benefit over the course of their lives (across the whole triad, too, of intellectual, emotional, and physical health).

The good news is that the tiniest effort will snowball: the more you read, the better you get at it, and the more benefit you reap. And it’s not all that difficult to make it happen! Whatever your age or inclination, you’re more likely to do something if the tools are readily available – or, put another way, humans are lazy by nature. So, if you surround yourself with books, keep them on your nightstand and in your handbag and in your line of sight, you’re far more likely to reach for them. That one small change adds up to a whole lotta benefit long-term.

Heck, you can even go multi-media with it: load your phone up with audiobooks, install the Kindle app on your iPad, and make use of that new-fandangled technology that syncs your progress across all those platforms. If you’re never more than a meter or two away from a book, you’ll inevitably find yourself reading more.

Step Two: Build On Your Knowledge Base

The more you learn about the world through reading, the better you’re able to comprehend other stuff you read. Take, for instance, my experiences learning about the British Raj through A Passage To India; I was much better prepared, and much better able to understand, the subcontinent when it came time to read Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. Your knowledge about the world, in terms of both quantity and variety, is one of the key pillars underpinning how you reap benefit from reading. It’s not all that hard to imagine how your brain finds it easier, and more effective, to build upon existing knowledge than it does to start from scratch.

So, stretch yourself! Find books that link what you already know to what you don’t yet know, and build upon the familiar. It means thinking more strategically about how you pick your next read, which isn’t much fun (I know), but it will make a world of difference in a relatively short period of time. Plus, it’ll help you remember what you read through the power of association!

Step Three: Choose The Right Time To Read

I’m no purist: I say any time spent reading is better than no time at all. That’s why this isn’t my first tip in the list. I hate to think that some time-starved full-time-working single parent beats themselves up for reading at the “wrong” time just because I say it’s not necessarily optimal psychologically. So, fuck that: read whenever you can!

But if you have the luxury of being a bit more flexible with your time, there’s some science behind choosing the optimal time of day to read.

On the one hand, there’s a long tradition of reading before bed at night, and in some ways that can be beneficial. Sleep is like a de-frag for the brain; it helps you consolidate and retain what you’ve read for future use. Plus, at the end of the day, we’ve (hopefully) crossed all those niggling items off our to-do lists, so our brains are able to properly relax and focus on what’s in front of us (instead of drifting back to those invoices we haven’t paid or those dishes we haven’t done). And reading helps you relax even more, which is just what you need at that time of day. As little as six minutes with a book is enough to reduce the physiological symptoms of stress.

On the other hand, by tucking in at night with a book, you’re conditioning your brain to associate reading with sleep. That’s great news for insomniacs – it’s certainly cheaper than sleeping pills, and there are fewer side effects! – but not so great for everyone else. Plus, the dim light of the evening isn’t the best for your eyes. It makes it more difficult for your eyes to focus, which makes them fatigue more quickly and you’ll feel compelled to rest your eyes by – you guessed it – closing them. The phenomenon is unlikely to cause permanent damage, according to optometrists, but installing a 100-watt lamp – or, better yet, reading in natural daylight – is the best way to avoid short-term problems.

So, how to choose? Well, maybe you don’t have to. There’s a lot of evidence in favour of reading in “sprints”. As alluring as a whole day reading might sound to a bookworm, your brain will actually perform more efficiently if you read in 20-minute bursts (giving you a chance to condense and consolidate in between). Your eyes and your brain both benefit from a break between reading sessions. That’s how to get the best of both worlds: sprints throughout the day, and one before bed, will stop your brain from associating reading only with sleep while still letting you exploit its relaxation qualities and other benefits. Plus, you’ll end up reading more into the bargain (and that was Step One, remember?).

Step Four: Design Your Dream Reading Nook

OK, you don’t have to emulate those fantastic rooms you see on Pinterest, but you can still set yourself up with an optimal distraction-free reading environment to make sure you’re getting the most out of your books. The lowest hanging fruit is to read in a room without a television – and without a computer, if you can manage it. That might mean reading in the bath, or in the back-yard, or something else a little more creative. Escaping those distractions-by-design is a big step forward.

If you can, put your phone on silent or airplane mode while you’re busy with a book. Better yet, leave it in the living room with the TV while you’re off reading elsewhere. Of course, that’s not realistic or even possible for everyone, but if you can go without your device while you’ve got your nose in a book, you’ll find it surprisingly effective in helping you focus.

Don’t believe the hype: music in the background won’t help you. Even if it’s calming, even if it’s classical, even if it’s soft – it’s still an additional cognitive processing load that will compete for the attention of your brain. Some people swear by background music, and they’re sure it works for them – I’m not here to yuck their yums… but I am saying that the science doesn’t back them up.

You want your reading nook – wherever it is – to have daylight-like conditions, plenty of fresh air, a pleasant cool temperature, and snacks nearby. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs won’t let you focus on what you’re reading if you’re hungry, but you don’t want to be stuffed either! A heavy meal will trigger the production of leptin, the sleepy post-meal hormone that makes you want to nap.

Step Five: Choose And Use Your Reading Materials Wisely

I really hope I don’t trigger the ire of eReader converts, but there’s some evidence to suggest that paper books are best.

HOLD THOSE ROTTEN TOMATOES! Like I said earlier, any time spent reading is better than no time spent reading, and if eBooks are the most accessible and affordable option for you, have at ’em! I certainly won’t deny you the pleasure. That said, this post is about finding the optimal way to read books, and I can’t deny that the weight of evidence falls slightly – slightly! – in favour of the old-fashioned variety.

As nice as it is to see that percentage bar move along, readers actually feel a better sense of progress when they’re physically flipping pages (and – don’t ask me how exactly, but I promise the science backs this up! – that feeling actually helps with memory retention). Paperback readers better remember what they read, are less likely to be distracted while reading (because their books aren’t connected to WiFi), and generally feel better about what they read than eBook readers.

And even though the technology to mark-up, highlight, and review texts in electronic formats has progressed considerably in recent years, nothing really compares to the good ol’ pen and paper. Most people still find it easier to flick through a paper book for a high-level overview, mark down notes for review, and flag passages for future reference in the traditional format. That said, nothing quite compares to the ability to look up a word in an eBook immediately, with the tap of a finger, without even lifting your eyes from the screen. So, it’s up to you which you find easiest and which benefit is of the most importance to you personally.

If you really want to stay with the times and use your eReader, make sure you get one with proper lighting. Adapted iPads and electronic blue-light “filters” aren’t sufficient to avoid altering your brain’s neurochemical balance in a way that can seriously fuck with your sleep functions. E-ink readers, such as the Kindle, are specifically designed to glow, rather than shine, which your brain interprets as lamp light glowing off a paper page rather than the sun shining into your eyes.

Step Six: Don’t Bother With Speed Reading Programs

I know I’ve been singing from the Read More hymn book, but speed-reading programs that promise to turn you into a 1000-words-per-minute wonder overnight are a waste of your money and time. You might think that these are a recent development, of the age of apps and life-hacking, but actually speed reading programs have been around since the 1950s. They promise full comprehension, but – surprise, surprise! – that’s complete baloney.

They often promise to “eliminate bad habits” like subvocalisation and eye movement regressions, but increasingly evidence is showing that those habits are actually crucial to our deriving benefit from reading to begin with. A lot of their claims, about reading entire lines of text with peripheral vision for instance, are biologically impossible and completely bogus. We’re constrained by the capacity of our anatomy and the ways in which our brains process information – no program can change that. At best, these programs teach you to skim more effectively, which is a skill that you can learn by (you guessed it!) simply reading more, at your regular speed, without handing over any of your hard-earned money for a program.

And don’t think you can game the system by simply listening to audiobooks at 2x or 2.5x speed. The science is still emerging on the effectiveness of this strategy, but I think it’s safe to say that chewing through an audiobook at twice the speed of regular speech is going to mean you miss a thing or two along the way. Plus, audiobook readers are prone to multitasking, and – as with listening to music while reading – the additional cognitive load on your brain as you cook dinner while listening, or answer emails, is going to detract from your ability to process what you’re hearing.

If you need a real-life example: I took a reading speed test online as I was preparing this post, and learned that I average about 590 words per minute. That’s on the high side, but it’s not off the charts. It’s a far cry from the 2000+ WPM world records, but I still manage to read more than most people, and my retention rate is streets ahead of those record-holders (who manage only about 30%). We readers are not limited by the speed at which our eyes can detect information, but the speed at which our brains can process its meaning – and the latter is, of course, the most important part of reading to begin with.

In the end, I could go on and on about how to read optimally and how to ensure you derive the maximum benefit… but do we really want to treat reading as just another books to be ticked, alongside eating our greens and doing our laundry? My hope is that, instead of taking from this post a list of “rules” for how to read, you take away a suggestion or two that helps you in the long term. Maybe you put a brighter bulb in your bedside lamp to avoid eye strain, or maybe you stop throwing your money down the drain of a speed reading program subscription – and maybe you do nothing at all. The most important thing is that you read, in a way that feels good and natural to you. What’s your best tip on how to read? Tell me in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).


  1. This is such a confirming and encouraging post! I love your tips and hope that reading really does keep our brains active into old age, and stave off dementia related illnesses. I used to think the sprint method (20 or 30 minutes bursts when we can) was forced upon me by circumstance, so it’s great to see research in favour of it. I’m a great reading in the bathtub advocate. Our new house has no decent bath, but we’re hoping to fix that as soon as we can. I’ve never bought into those speed programs, as I like to ruminate and chew the cud a bit, so I’m glad your research agrees. I love these facts that you find, so please keep it up 🙂

    • ShereeKUWTP

      May 27, 2019 at 11:34 AM

      Oh, I SO MISS reading in the bath! If I’m ever in a house or hotel room – literally ever, I don’t care if I’ve just popped around to a friend’s for coffee – I’ll eye the bathtub and think “Is there a way I can justify jumping in for a quick soak and read?” 😂

  2. I am now exposed to so much information that actual reading has more or less ended. I skim everything, get to the main points, see if I can understand/make use of them. possibly flick back if I need a few clarifications and then move to the next thing. 30 years ago I would pick up a book and it was the centre of interest until it was all read. but now I might have 3 books a couple magazines some printed out articles and whatever I’m studying at the moment. I think that is pretty typical in the information age.

    • ShereeKUWTP

      May 27, 2019 at 11:35 AM

      Yep, that sounds very on-trend Phil. I was always a one-book-at-a-time kind of gal, but now that I’m back at uni, I’ve had to stretch my attention across multiple things at once – I think I’m a better reader for it!

  3. I enjoyed reading your tips on reading. At 66 years old I continue to rea

  4. Angela Dannson

    March 8, 2024 at 5:07 AM

    I enjoyed your tips. I am 64 and have aways tried to read fast without success. I am glad you have debunked the claims. I agree with your statement that it is more important to be able to process what is read than the number of words our eyes can pick at a time . You write very well , great piece!!

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