I used to love to read. I would start a few books at the same time, and stay up all night or skip classes to finish one. I remember how difficult it was to quit reading cold turkey around exam time in order to study. I could also speed read faster than anyone else I knew. But after my brain injury, I had to re-learn how to read. Then I focused on building up my endurance for reading. Now I’ve added the goal of trying to enjoy reading again. Here’s what worked for me.

Strategies for Reading

Reduce strain and symptoms using the following methods:

  • Make it easier for your eyes to follow the words by using pieces of paper to cover up all text other than the sentence you are reading. Now I only need to cover the text under the sentence I’m on.
  • Set a schedule for reading. Aim for three to five times a week, every week, at roughly the same time. Make sure that you don’t do cognitively tiring tasks right before your reading time. Practicing reading regularly is important to build improvement and lasting change.
  • Stop reading as soon as you start to feel symptoms and take note of how many minutes you can read comfortably. (For me, it was less than five minutes in the beginning.) Then set a timer accordingly, every time, so that you stop reading before the symptoms start. Gradually increase the time by no more than 10 per cent a week. At a maximum, you should read in two-hour intervals with a ten to 15 minutes break in between.
  • Read paper materials to start – don’t read on devices.
  • It’s important to stop reading once your timer goes off, even if you really want to continue in the moment. If you overexert yourself, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to stick to your schedule and then your progress will be affected. If you really really want to read more, then take a break before re-setting the timer and be sure to stop if you develop symptoms.

Reduce discouragement and frustration using the following methods:

Don’t focus on how many words you were able to read during your timed sessions. Instead, focus on finding the right difficulty level (challenging but doable without triggering symptoms), enjoying the process, and understanding/retaining what you read.

Start small with short, easy, and fun things to read. You will feel a much-needed sense of accomplishment when you finish reading something. Try reading:

  • flyers/mail
  • kids books
  • quote books
  • cookbooks
  • comic books or graphic novels
  • magazines
  • menus

Then try reading:

  • short stories
  • poetry
  • children’s reference books
  • instructions/manuals
  • newspaper articles
  • teen fiction or short fiction books
  • romance novels
  • novels or text books
  • ingredients list

TIP:  You could also try re-reading light books that you’ve read before

Improve your focus, comprehension and retention with the following strategies:

People don’t realize that reading is actually a three-step process for our brains. Before brain injury, our processing speed is so fast that we don’t notice the separate steps. When reading after a brain injury, we need to slow down and intentionally go through each step before moving on to the next word.

  • The first step is to figure out how to read the word (i.e. what it sounds like).
  • The second step is to determine what the word means.
  • Then our brains need to understand the meaning of the words within the context of the entire sentence.

There’s actually a fourth step, where we relate each sentence to previous sentences in order to interpret the bigger picture of the story.

That’s why it is very important to read slowly. This is especially difficult for people that are used to speed reading, like me. I suggest choosing reading materials or genres that you aren’t familiar with. Because when I read about topics that I know a lot about, I jump back into my old habits and my eyes will track through multiple paragraphs before I realize that I haven’t absorbed a single word. Having to re-read the same sentence or paragraph multiple times is both exhausting and frustrating.

Read out loud or at least mouth the words. Hearing the words will help you focus and remember them.

Visualize what you’re reading in your head. This will also help with your focus and memory.

Summarize what you’ve read after each session. The best way to do this is to write out the summary and/or orally explain it to someone else. Then see if you still remember it 30 to 60 minutes later. If not, re-read your summary or ask the other person to remind you.

My greatest barrier to getting back into reading after a brain injury was the anxiety that I developed surrounding reading. At first, I was discouraged by how difficult it was to read. Then I pushed myself too hard while trying to read, so I avoided reading because of the symptoms. Then I tried to jump back into the books that I started prior to my injury, but the content was too advanced, so I dreaded reading because of frustration and a loss of confidence. I also made the mistake of increasing my reading time too quickly once I saw slight improvements. This resulted in a loss of momentum, discouragement, and more anxiety. Through trial and error and practicing patience, I was able to pace myself better which resulted in slow but steady progress. I’ve even started to look forward to reading. I hope that these strategies will be helpful to you, too.

‘Mind Yourself with Alison’ is a collection of self-help tips, research, and personal experiences dedicated to helping people thrive after brain injury (or other trauma). Check out Alison’s other BIST Blog articles Women and Brain Injury: What you need to know and How to be a Good Friend to a Survivor.
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