Making College Reading Less Difficult

Finding a strategy that works

First, some basic assumptions

A note about reading speed

According to several articles, the average adult reads at about 200 to 250 words per minute. If I were to assign "The Free-Speech Follies" by Stanley Fish, you would have 1819 words to read. The adult who reads at 200 words per minute should blast through that in about 9 minutes, right? Not necessarily!

Active versus passive reading

There is nothing wrong with casual, passive reading—in its place. If you get a Tweet from a friend about the latest cute singer in a music group, you are not going to analyze it. The comment might only need you to respond with "OMG!!!" College reading is different. If you just let the words flow over you, you are not going to really get them. Here's an analysis of the difference between active and passive reading.¹

Active Reading Passive Reading
Adjust how you read depending on the type of text and context within which you're reading. Read each text the same way.
Examine the purpose of the assignment before reading. Read without examining the purpose of the assignment.
Alter your reading speed as you read based on the significance and difficulty of each passage. Read everything at the same speed.
Preview a text before reading by skimming headings, topic sentences, and key words. Don't preview; just jump right into reading.
Read with questions in mind. Read without questions in mind.
Stop to monitor your understanding of the text as you read. Don't stop to think about whether you are understanding what you are reading.
Annotate while you read: read with a pencil or highlighter in hand to mark important passages and jot down notes. Don't annotate. Don't have anything in hand. Just read.
Make time to reflect upon and evaluate what you have read. Don't make time to reflect upon and evaluate what you have read.

Allen's Quick Three-Step Process

Step zero: before you start

If it's a textbook, read the headnote and anything else that might help you understand this piece. If it has subheads, boxed quotations, or pictures, look at them to get an idea where this is going.

If this is an online piece for a classroom assignment, print it out so you can mark on it.

Find a reasonably quiet place to read, with good light and a comfortable chair.

Step one: quick read

Blast through the whole thing as quickly as you can. You are trying to get an overview of the whole argument.

Don't stop to puzzle over tiny pieces. Some of them are very secondary, and others get explained later.

No dictionary work or Google unless it's really necessary to get the main point. (You don't need to know who Jerry Falwell was to understand "The Free Speech Follies.")

Step two: reading and doing some writing

Back in ancient history (like when I was a student), most of our reading came in books or paper handouts, and we were always advised to write marginal comments, underline important things, and so forth. The idea was to get the student to move from passive to active and to start seeing the structure of the piece. (As a bonus, handwriting uses different brain cells so you remember more of what you read, and it's difficult to fall asleep while you are writing notes.)

It would be a very good idea to do some writing as you make this second pass. Get out a spiral notebook and find your pen. (And if you have a printed copy—except for a library book—do make marginal notes and comments.) You might want to do this in more than one pass:

  1. Go to the dictionary and Google for words and ideas that really matter. You might not need to look up Jerry Falwell, but if you have not read the First Amendment, you can't understand the Stanley Fish article. If the article seems to be saying something wrong, backward, or stupid, see if you have misunderstood a key word.
  2. Things to write about in your notes:

Step almost-three: reflection

Pause and consider what you have been reading. More writing: What are your reactions and responses? If you are supposed to be writing a paper about this article, what do you think you will say? All of this is very personal and preliminary, so don't panic. You are just trying to find some order to your thoughts.

Step three: the third reading and yet more writing

As you read, have a conversation with the author. Things you might say could include:

The idea here is to get your brain engaged with the reading and to bring it into the larger academic conversation. If you must write about the piece or discuss it in class, this is where your ideas will come from.

1. This chart came from the Excelsior Online Reading Lab. If you go to that page and follow the links on the left, you will find several more links to help you with your reading.

The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by Ashland University.

Revised 1/8/22 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: