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Learning to Read Again {5 Steps to Break the Habit of Skimming}

When we’re four and five and six-years-old we’re taught to read. Our teachers point to each letter, moving along the page slowly and deliberately. Sound by sound we absorb the content without missing a single word.

And then we grow up and go to college and reading word by word is too thorough, too deliberate. We’re taught to miss words. To skip over them. To disregard anything that doesn’t hold maximum importance. It’s called skimming. And you can hardly hope to get through school with a degree if this skill isn’t in your tool box.IMG_2294IMG_2001IMG_1734IMG_2316

Even when we’re past the stage of late nights at the campus library with seven-hundred pages left to “read”, we continue to learn this skimming skill everyday online. Hundreds of articles, statuses, news stories, and tweets flood our newsfeed on an hourly basis. Obviously we are unable to read all this material. It would be unrealistic to think we could absorb this quantity of information – even if we were to devote our entire day to click on and meaningfully read the content of each link that comes our way.

And yet we, or I at least, try. I scroll through anything that grabs my interest – moving quickly through the bullet points and moving on without giving much thought to the words I just glanced at. Skimming is the only possible way to cover even 10% of the material we have access to, we simply don’t have time for more. And this isn’t even mentioning the amount of actual books we have access to. How else will we get through them, save by flipping through each page at an unrealistic speed?

As I take a step back I realize this is a ridiculous habit that’s been formed. I don’t have deadlines any longer, I don’t have to rush myself to race through every essay or story I read. No one is telling me how or what to read. It is a waste of time to look at so much and read almost nothing. So I’m setting a new goal for my reading. I’ve hung an imaginary banner over my computer, my iPhone, and each book I pick up. It reads this: Savor slowly. 

Because if something is worth reading, it is worth reading with an active mind, critically examining every thought and pondering each idea. And if it’s not worth that effort, why even spend the three minutes it would take to skim through it? Maybe by learning to read again we will learn what it means to listen and thoughtfully respond. Maybe by learning to read again we will enjoy the beauty of words and excellent writing. Maybe by learning to read again we will once more be swept away by compelling stories and magnificent ideas.

Like anything that has been lived out for numerous years, breaking the habit of skimming won’t be easy. Perhaps these ideas will help:

1. Have a reason to read what you’re reading.

Don’t pick up a book or follow a blog or friend someone on social media whose material you aren’t really interested in, or doesn’t add richness to your current place in life. It is easy to skim something that doesn’t matter to you.

2. Read with others.

Having someone to discuss what you’re reading with keeps you accountable to actually knowing the content. I always read more thoroughly in college when I knew we were having a class discussion on the material being read. Share your favorite finds with others, discuss them, join a book club.

3. Save it for when you have time.

If you’re trying to read through an article in the middle of cleaning up breakfast and getting small children dressed and ready for the day, you’re probably not going to have any time to absorb the content. Bookmark the page, come back when you can give it your full attention.

4. Read with a pencil.

Underline what seems significant, write in the margins, circle the words that jump out, involve yourself directly in the text and you will not skim through it.

5. Express your thoughts on the content you read. 

“I kept always two books in my pocket, one to read, one to write in.” -Robert Louis Stevenson

Response is always key in actually learning what we read. The content will go with you further if you take time to talk through the content, or for those like me, write about it. I keep a journal handy when reading books I care about. I write down quotations from what I read in my phone. I write blogposts based on what I’ve read. Find someway to respond to the text and you will eliminate skimming.

So why does any of this matter? Who cares if you skim or if you read thoroughly? It’s free time, after all, can’t we just do what we want?

Well, sure. But before doing so, consider carefully the gift of time. We only have a little of it total, and only a tiny portion of that to devote to reading. How will we use it? In skimming through yet never absorbing? Or in gaining wisdom by carefully listening to the words of others?

Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity,because the days are evil. -Ephesians 5:15-16

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