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How to Remember What You Read (& Not Forget)

Read Time: 11 min
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Read Time: 11 min

Whether you’re an employee or a student, you spend a lot of time reading. There are reports, articles, blog posts, and entire books to read.

And let’s not forget about emails. A Carleton University study found that office workers surveyed spent one-third of their time at work reading and answering emails. So, it’s in your best interest to learn how to remember what you read.

In this post, you’ll learn the key principles to reading retention. And then you’ll pick up proven strategies and tactics that apply these key principles.

5 Key Principles of Better Reading Retention

A lot of research has gone into understanding how we can optimize our memory. These studies also tell us how to retain what you read. We can consider the following to be key principles to better reading retention.

1. Attention

We remember better when we’re paying attention or concentrating. If you’re only half-reading because you've got Netflix playing at the same time, then you’re less likely to retain what you’re reading.

To remember what you’re reading, create an environment that helps you concentrate. Find a quiet and isolated spot, turn off all distractions, and be fully present as you read.

2. Purpose

Memory researchers have also found that we remember better when we read with purpose or do active reading.

For example, if you know you’re going to be tested on a book, then you’ll probably remember more of what you read. This means before you begin to read, have a clear idea of what you want to achieve by reading the material. 

3. Visualization

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Visualize what you want to remember from what you read. (Image source: Envato Elements)

Much of our memory is visual. That is, we remember people, places, and things through images.

If someone tells you to think of your granny, for instance, the first thing that'll pop into your mind is probably an image of her. This is why visualization or creating a mental picture of what you’re reading helps you remember it.

4. Repetition

You may not have enjoyed it, but rote memorization is how a lot of us committed things to memory in school. This means repeating something over and over again until it’s ingrained in your memory. It’s probably how you learned the multiplication table.

Repetition enhances reading retention as well. If you read the same text five times—with attention—then you’ll remember more from it.

5. Reflection

Another strategy for memory is integrating or associating a new piece of information with something you already know. Also known as “meaningful learning,” this is in direct contrast to rote learning.

To do this, you need to reflect:

  • How is this related to something you already know?
  • How will you apply it?
  • How will it affect you?

In the same way, reflecting on what you read helps you retain more of it.

Now that you know a few key principles of optimizing your memory, you apply them specifically to reading. 

Reading Strategies: How to Remember What You Read

Below are a few reading strategies and tactics that are designed to help you remember what you read. As you'll see, they're built on one or more memory principles:

1. Highlighting or Underlining Text

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Simply highlighting text can help retain information from reading. (Image source: Envato Elements)

It’s a common practice to highlight or underline text while reading. Why does it work?

  1. It increases your attention. You've got to pay more attention because you want to pick only the most important parts of the text. This also gives you purpose while reading, if only to figure out what’s worth highlighting!
  2. It also encourages reflection. As you sift through what you’re reading and decide what to highlight or underline, you’re probably linking it to what you already know and what’s relevant to you.

That’s why if you’re wondering how to retain information from reading, highlighting or underlining text is a great way to begin.

But there are so many more tactics you can use for even better retention.

2. SQ3R Method

SQ3R stands for:

  • Survey. Instead of diving straight into the text, go over the written piece first. Get an overview of its structure. Notice what visuals are included and which phrases or sentences are emphasized by bold print and other callouts. If there’s a summary, read it.
  • Question. Based on your survey, make a list of questions you think will be answered by the piece. A good tip is to turn headings or section titles into questions.
  • Read. Now read the piece. As you do so, look for the answers you made in the previous step. Feel free to add new questions as you go along.
  • Recite. Every so often (especially in a long chapter or article), stop and try to answer the questions from memory. Go back to the text if you have to. 
  • Review. When you’ve completed the chapter, review your questions and answers. Refresh your memory before moving on.

The SQ3R method activates several key principles of optimizing memory: attention; purpose; repetition; and reflection. It’s a powerful tool for how to not forget what you read.

3. Mind Mapping

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Mind mapping is a common strategy for retaining what you read. (Image source: Envato Elements)

Mind mapping is a popular method, not just for remembering what you read, but also for learning, brainstorming, planning, and more. It involves creating a map of the key ideas from the text. You only need paper and colored pencils or pens.

Here are the basic steps to mind mapping:

  1. Take a piece of paper and place it horizontally (landscape) in front of you.
  2. In the middle of the paper, write down the main topic.
  3. From the main topic, draw curved lines, one for each sub-topic or idea. Use only one word for each one.
  4. Take each sub-topic and draw more lines from it for related ideas. Again, use only one word for each one.
  5. Draw a picture for each—or most—of the items you have on your mind map. 
  6. Feel free to draw lines connecting one idea to another.

You can learn more about mind mapping in our tutorial here:

As you can see, mind mapping uses all the key principles of memory. It’s the only reading strategy on this list that uses visualization. (Although you can always add visualization to any of the other reading strategies as well.)

“All Mind Minds have some things in common. They all use colour. They all have a natural structure that radiates from the centre. And they all use curved lines, symbols, words, and images according to a set of simple, basic, natural, and brain-friendly rules. With a Mind Map, a long list of boring information can be turned into a colourful, highly organized, memorable diagram that works in line with your brain’s natural way of doing things.” - Tony Buzan, in The Ultimate Book of Mind Maps

4. Cornell Note-Taking System

The Cornell Note-Taking System is a way to get the most from your notes, not just while reading, but also while listening to lectures or taking online classes. At the heart of this system is a structured page for writing down your notes.

Divide the page into four sections.

  1. The top is for the titleIn the middle of the page, create two sections so that the left section is narrower than the right.
  2. The left section is for Cue Questions.
  3. The right section is for your Main Notes and Key Thoughts.
  4. Finally, the bottom section is for the Summary.

Your page should look something like this:

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The Cornell Note-taking System can help you remember everything from text to lectures. (Notebook image source: Envato Elements)

The Main Notes area is for writing down facts or information from what you’re reading. The left section is for writing down questions, and the Summary section is where you summarize what you’ve learned.

The Cornell Note-Taking System works because it uses the principles of attention, purpose, and reflection. And when you re-read and review your notes, then you’re using the principle of repetition to remember what you’ve read.

5. Narration

Another lesser-known technique for reading retention is narration. It was developed by Charlotte Mason, the author of The Original Home Education Series, originally published in 1886. Don’t let its antiquity put you off. Narration is still popular among homeschoolers because it works and is relatively painless.

The idea is quite simple. Read a passage or chapter just once, and then “narrate” or tell back what you read, either orally or in writing. It works because it uses the principles of attention, purpose, and repetition:

“Education which demands a conscious mental effort, from the scholar, the mental effort of telling again that which has been read or heard. That is how we all learn, we tell again, to ourselves if need be, the matter we wish to retain, the sermon, the lecture, the conversation. The method is as old as the mind of man, the distressful fact is that it has been made so little use of in general education.” - Charlotte Mason

6. Peer Teaching and The Feynman Technique

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Teaching others is an excellent technique to remember what you read. (Image source: Envato Elements)

Finally, another technique that's been known to increase reading comprehension and retention is peer teaching. Quite simply, it means teaching others what you’ve learned. After all:

“To teach is to learn twice.” - Joseph Joubert

Peer teaching works because it gives your reading purpose (to teach), which in turn compels you to pay attention to what you read. It also requires you to reflect on what you’ve read as you process, distill, and package what you’ve learned into a “lesson” that someone else can understand. And as you prepare your lesson, then you must repeat the key ideas to yourself. Finally, you may decide to teach using photos, diagrams, or videos—all different ways of visualization. All this makes peer teaching a powerful and effective way to remember what you read.

Similar to Peer Teaching is The Feynman Technique. Richard Feynman was a physicist who received the Nobel prize for his work in quantum mechanics. His method for learning anything is to explain the new concept to a 12-year-old. Review, repeat, and refine until you’ve explained the concept as simply as possible.

The Feynman Technique harnesses attention, purpose, repetition, and reflection to enhance your memory. You may also choose to use visualization to make it easier for you to teach the concept to a child. Recall the famous quote:

“If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.” - Albert Einstein

Share What You Learn With Amazing Presentations

Whether for your own use or for peer teaching, document what you learned by creating an amazing presentation about it. Envato Elements helps you create eye-popping presentations with professionally designed PowerPoint templates as well as templates for Google Slides and Photoshop. You also get unlimited downloads of creative assets for one small monthly subscription, such as:

  • fonts
  • photos
  • icons
  • illustrations
  • and more

Explore Envato Elements

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Use these presentation templates to teach others what you learn from reading.

You may also decide to create a video lesson about what you’ve just read. Creating a video usually takes a lot of work, especially if you've got to shoot all the video yourself. Here’s where Envato Elements makes the task much easier for you. With an Elements subscription, you've got resources at your fingertips--thousands of stock video, background music, and special effects. Your presentation will stand out in terms of both form and substance!

How to Retain What You Read

If you want to remember more of what you read, keep in mind the key principles of learning and retention: Pay attention to what you’re reading. Read with purpose. Visualize what you want to remember. Repeat so you don’t forget. Reflect on what you’re reading and relate it with what you already know and remember.

Apply these principles by using one or several of the reading strategies on this post. It can be as simple as doing a narration of what you’ve just read. If you learn better with structure, then try the SQ3R Method or the Cornell Note-Taking Technique.

One fool-proof way to remember what you read is to teach someone else what you’ve learned. Imagine you’re teaching a child, and you’re forced to be clear and simple. You can't simplify something unless you truly understand it. Use Envato presentation templates to teach others. Whether you want to use slide presentations, videos, or other formats, the creative assets in Elements make teaching much easier and more effective.

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