Five Tips to Help You Remember What You've Read

If you're a reader, you'll know that memory is fragile. You may read a book and, after a few months, have completely forgotten its content. In this article, we're going to share some strategies to help you remember what you read.
Five Tips to Help You Remember What You've Read
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 28 March, 2023

Do you need to remember what you’ve read or improve your retention capacity for an upcoming exam? Would you like to train your brain to be able to store in your memory more of what you’ve read? It’s a good competence to improve. Even more so now, when the digital world, so much faster, more fluid, and dominated by images, is reducing many of our abilities.

As an example, the neuroscientist, Maryanne Wolf, author of books such as Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World  (2020), warns that electronic devices are reducing our ability to concentrate. This can be especially serious for children who are still developing their literacy skills.

However, those of us who’ve been reading for decades can also be affected. In fact, Dr. Wolf says that, in her clinical practice, she’s seeing how many people are retaining increasingly less information when they read.

It seems that we’ve become so used to immediate information, the one that changes from one second to another, that our brains have serious problems storing what it reads in our memory.

In fact, in a digital world that’s dominated by screens and information that flows at the speed of light, it’s essential that we recover our basic reading habits. Our memory and psychological well-being will certainly benefit.

Girl trying to remember what you read
Only when we concentrate deeply, are we able to improve our memory of what we read.

Keys to remembering what you’ve read

About 5,000 years ago, the human brain made a breakthrough. We became capable of interpreting symbols, giving them meanings, and articulating sounds. In other words, reading was born. The Sumerians left evidence of cuneiform writing on their tablets. The Egyptians bequeathed us The Book of the Dead and The Story of Sinué, as examples of the earliest examples of this art.

Today, we read books on electronic devices as there’s no longer any need to have them on paper. Despite these changes, when our brains read, they continue to do more than decipher symbols. Indeed, we learn, empathize with other people, and feel freer, wiser, and even happier.

Nothing is as enriching as awakening to other perspectives, updating the information we have, and acquiring a more critical sense of reality. Although, of course, all these processes will be possible only if we remember what we read. If we don’t consolidate the information we read, there’s no learning and we don’t challenge any of our preconceived ideas.

If you want to remember what you read, you need the right conditions. Let’s see what they are.

To remember what you read, avoid distractions like cell phone notifications.

1. Better on paper than digital

You may have become accustomed to reading on the tablet or on devices created for this purpose. However, if you really want to optimize the memory of what you read, it’s better to opt for the classic: paper.

This is demonstrated by a study conducted by Professor Ziming Liu, of San Jose State University, in California. It claims that with the physical format, the brain processes information better. Furthermore, it’s more useful if you want to underline and make annotations in the margins.

2. The environment is important: get rid of distractions

You can read on the subway, on the beach, and even when you’re waiting for a medical appointment. However, if you’re not a trained reader capable of concentrating wherever you may be, you must optimize your attention and memory processes. Therefore, you should carefully select the environment where you’re going to read.

It should be a space with good lighting, where you can sit comfortably, and where there are as few distractions as possible. It’s also better that you’re on your own, in an orderly and not too ornate environment.

Keep your cell phone well away or silence notifications.

3. Don’t rush, read leisurely

You’ve probably become accustomed to reading quickly and superficially. You do it because, as we mentioned earlier, the digital world and social media have made you unaccustomed to reading properly.

If you receive a piece of news, you’re almost always given just the headline. Your messages are never excessively long. What’s more important, you read them quickly so you can respond in the same way.

Immediacy dominates your life and has made your brain process information at the speed of light. Hence, you make errors and your memory fails. Therefore, you should practice slow, deep, and unhurried reading. If you find this difficult, here’s some advice:

  • Before you start reading, practice deep breathing for five minutes. You just need to breathe in deeply through your diaphragm, retain it, and then exhale. Repeat it several times.
  • Then, clear your mind. Visualize a room in which you remove all the furniture until it’s empty. Empty of worries and intrusive thoughts.
  • Once your body and mind are relaxed,  find a comfortable position and start reading.

4. The importance of annotations to remember what you read

Maybe you underline, write in the margin, or even draw. Whatever you’re reading, you may want to take notes. However, this doesn’t mean literally transcribing what’s already in the book.

What you must do, once you’ve understood an idea, a paragraph, or a chapter, is try to handwrite a summary of what you’ve read in your own way. You must do it in your own words. This is a good way of consolidating what you’ve read. You can relate it to what you already know, to what you think, and to your experience or previous learning.

The ultimate goal of reading should never be exact memorization. You’re not a machine. What you read should invite you to reflect, inspire, or develop a critical view of it.

woman trying to remember what you read
Reading in a paper book, instead of a digital version, makes it easier to remember the content.

5. Reflect on what you’ve read and discuss it with someone else

If what you’ve read hasn’t invited you to develop an opinion, an emotion, or a reflection, then it’s been a useless exercise. Deep memory is only activated by giving a reading meaning. For this, you must reflect, look at what you’ve read in perspective, value it, and even comment on it.

All these processes require time. However, time is what’s lacking today. Nevertheless, you must bear in mind that an accelerated brain ceases, sooner or later, to be effective. Reading requires patience, enjoyment, concentration, contact with the paper, and also social connection.

Few things are as enriching as talking to someone else about an article or a book that you liked. In addition, if you have an exam coming up, studying with others can be helpful. Commenting, giving opinions, asking yourself questions, and reflecting all fuel your mind. Try and put them into practice.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Wolf, Mararyane (2020) Lector, vuelve a casa: Cómo afecta a nuestro cerebro la lectura en pantallas. Planeta.
  • Ziming Liu. “Digital reading” Chinese Journal of Library and Information Science (English edition) (2012): 85-94.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.