Creating an Optimal Setting for Reading

La Trobe reading room at State Library, Melbourne, Australia – 02/05 2017

Different kinds of reading require different settings.

Some kinds of reading happen quickly—no matter the setting. You use your phone to look up information on the band you hear on the radio. You skim the headlines in the newspaper while you’re eating breakfast. You read the Tweet your best friend posted as you wait for class to start.

How do these acts of reading differ from moments when you have to read something that requires you to do something? Think about how you might read differently if you receive a letter from your school about your financial aid, or if you read the safety protocols in your employee manual.

Other times, we read because we want to be immersed in the world of the author, so we curl up with a new novel in our favorite chair and tell everyone to leave us alone.

We also read because we want to fully understand something, like how DNA and RNA work for the biology test on Friday or how climate change is likely to affect our town as we prepare to talk to our representative in Congress. The concentration required for these reading tasks may, in turn, require a different setting.

Activity: Reflect on Your Reading

Take a few minutes to reflect on your reading experiences and ideals.

  • What do you read on the fly?
    • Where and when do you do that reading?
    • How much of that reading do you remember?
    • Why do you think you remember so much or so little?
  • What was the last thing you remember reading because you needed to use the information (e.g., a set of instructions or a guide, an official letter requiring your action)?
    • Where and when did you read it?
    • How much of that reading do you remember?
    • Why do you think you remember so much or so little?
  • Think about the last time you really needed to focus on a reading (e.g., for a test or presentation).
    • Where and when did you read that text?
    • How much of that reading do you remember?
    • Why do you think you remember so much or so little?

I’m using these scenarios and questions to suggest that different types of reading demand different settings. Casual reading, such as social media, doesn’t demand much; we can read pretty much wherever and whenever we wish, even amid distractions. Reading for practical benefit, such as instructions, requires more concentration, but we’re usually trying to read that material where and when we need it.

Reading for intellectual work is more demanding, which means you want to actively control the time, place, and circumstances of your reading as much as you possibly can.

Activity: Imaging Your Reading Ideal

What does it look like when you are able to do your best reading, when you are best able to concentrate and engage with the texts you are reading?

Instead of writing this out, try drawing a picture of that setting.

Choosing When to Read

Think about time. What time of day are you best able to focus on what you are reading so that you get the most out of it?

Many college students study late into the night, whether out of necessity or habit, but here’s a simple truth: not everyone reads most effectively at 2:00 a.m.—or at 2:00 p.m., for that matter.

Diurnal Cycles and Circadian Rhythms

You may already know that the human body works via a series of diurnal cycles—cycles that move through peaks and valleys over each twenty-four-hour period. During these cycles, levels of circulating hormones and chemicals rise and fall, creating circadian rhythms. Typically, this starts with a big chemical “push awake” in the morning, a peak of energy in the afternoon, and then a gradual lowering through the evening.

However, these are not consistent for every person. We all know “morning people” or “night owls” who seem to function when the rest of us can’t. We also know that these cycles differ with characteristics like gender and age. How easy was it for you to get out of bed at 6:30 a.m. when you were five years old? How easy is it now?

Understanding your own diurnal cycles and circadian rhythms can be helpful in finding effective times to read and study. This is important because as a college student, if you can find the best times for these activities for you, you can cut your reading and studying time down significantly while also finding it more enjoyable.

Activity: Experiment with Time

Divide up a reading assignment for one of your classes into three or four different blocks of about the same length. Read each of those blocks at a different time of the day and night but in the same location (without disrupting your sleep!). Choose times that reasonably might work for you. If you are not a morning person, for example, don’t choose 6:00 a.m. unless you really want to see the difference.

Make notes on the following:

  • How well did you understand the material?
  • How long did it take you to gain that level of understanding?
  • How did you feel about doing the reading? In particular, were you relieved to stop, or did you want to keep reading?

Look over your notes. Which times seem to work best for you?

Choosing Where to Read

Location matters. Consider your ideal spot for reading. Is it a favorite chair in your living room? Your bed? A coffee shop? Sitting outside in the shade of a big tree? Different kinds of reading might call for different locations. Your favorite place to read a novel or the sports scores may not be the best place for focusing on material in a textbook.

Part of location is sound. Some people work best in an absolutely silent setting, while others prefer the background noise of people. Others prefer music.

Music and Reading?

Students tell me all the time that they prefer to work with music, and I allow them to bring earbuds for the times when everyone is working individually. But is this really good for them?

Research published in 2018 by Vasilev et al. shows that noise of all kinds can have a detrimental effect on reading comprehension. Background noise, such as indistinct speech or traffic, can have some negative effects, mostly on the speed of reading. Background speech is more disruptive, affecting reading comprehension and proofreading because the brain appears to be trying to make sense of the language, even as the reader is trying to ignore it.

Vasilev et al. found that the effects of music are inconsistent. Music that is very familiar to the reader and that doesn’t have words may not distract readers much at all. However, the combination of music and lyrics—which invites the brain to process the words just like with background speech—seems particularly disruptive to reading comprehension.

Activity: Experiment with Music

Step 1: Find three articles or short stories to read, all of about the same length.

Step 2: Find a familiar song with lyrics and an unfamiliar song without lyrics.

Step 3: Get a timer.

Step 4: TIME YOURSELF as you read each article or short story, as follows:

  • One with the familiar song with lyrics
  • One with the unfamiliar song without lyrics
  • One with no music at all

Step 5: Check your results and decide what works best for you!

Reading in relative silence or with only the background noise of people or music without lyrics may be uncomfortable at first, but  if you are reading more efficiently, you’ll be able to get back to the music or the conversation more quickly.

Activity: Experiment with Location

Again, divide up a reading assignment into three or four different blocks of about the same length. Read each of those blocks in a different location (but keep the time of day about the same). Use what you learned from the last activity about music to choose what you should be listening to.

Make notes on the following:

  • How well do you feel you understood the material?
  • How long did it take you to gain that level of understanding?
  • How did you feel about doing the reading? In particular, were you relieved to stop, or did you want to keep reading?

Look over your notes. What locations and noise types seem to work best for you?

Choosing Your Format

There’s one more thing to consider: What format do you prefer: paper copies, electronic texts, or audio books?

Sometimes you don’t have a choice, such as when the edition of a textbook only comes in a print version. Other times, such as with this textbook, you could print out a hard copy or use an electronic version on your computer, phone, or tablet. Which format works best for you?

Your preferred method for annotating the text will play a role here. You will often need to take notes on what you read, so you need a format that supports your preferred note-taking method.

Sometimes we get into ruts, doing things the same old way because that has always worked for us. College can be a good time to try different approaches, so experiment with format when you have a chance. If you think that hearing a text read to you will help you use it more effectively, try that. If you have always read paper texts, try an e-book.

Beware of using audio books alone, however. While many students prefer to get their information through their ears, the structure of the text can be hard to follow in that format. It’s also hard to take notes when you don’t have a good way to locate a specific place in a text. If you prefer audio books, have a print or electronic version available at the same time for note-taking purposes.

Hearing the Text
If you are one of those people who takes in information better through your ears, you may be able to set up your computer to read out loud to you. There are text-to-speech features in Adobe Acrobat and Microsoft Word, and most computer and phone systems have the ability to read text out loud. Use your favorite search engine to find instructions!
Activity: Reflect on Format

Think about your preferred format for reading texts. Why do you think you prefer that format? List the reasons.

Then, try a different format, just for experimentation. In what ways is the alternative format useful or otherwise positive? In what ways is it not useful or otherwise negative?

What does this experimentation tell you about the ways in which format makes a difference for your reading? What might you do if you are required to use a format that doesn’t work as well for you?

Limiting Distractions

As the research on background noise shows, any distraction can interfere with reading, slowing down the process and interrupting comprehension, creating what researchers call “fragmented reading.” In short, you will understand less the more you let your reading be interrupted.

What to do about your phone? Many students find it difficult, even distracting, not to pay attention to their phones, so someone telling you to shut them off is a non-starter. You aren’t going to do it.

However, if you want to improve your reading and if you are regularly distracted by your phone, you need to change something. Try the following activity.

Activity: Plan Interruptions

Plan your interruptions rather than letting your phone decide when you are going to stop reading. When you next read, do the following:

  • Set your phone to DND (Do Not Disturb).
  • When you come to the end of a section in your reading, take a moment to check your phone for messages that you need to address.
  • Leave the others alone until you are done with your reading.

Each time you read, try to stretch out the time between phone checks.

Ideally, you’ll be able to check your messages only after you are done with your reading, but if that’s not often enough for you, at least you’ll end up with more continuous reading time. Continuous reading is both faster and more effective, and the faster and more effectively you get your reading done, the sooner you’ll be able to pay attention to those notifications.

DND and Ring Tones

If you have children or others who depend on you, silencing your phone just may not be an option. However, the use of ring tones can quiet the non-essential notifications while leaving you connected to those who need you.

Most phones can be set to allow calls and texts from specific numbers to ring through on DND. This feature allows you to keep getting calls from your kids, but not your best friend who just wants to chat.

Distractions happen where we live, too, so you may need to remove yourself from your usual daily setting in order to get your reading done. I know many people who can’t work at home because their dog, child, or roommate is constantly interrupting them. Even when these interruptions are unintentional, they more or less destroy your focus. Don’t hesitate to escape to a local coffee shop, a campus library (fact: most college libraries are open to the public), or another quiet spot to get your reading done. If you’re in an optimal setting, you’ll finish faster, and then you can get back to whatever else is on your list.

Using Your Optimal Setting

In this section, you should be hearing a theme: efficiency and effectiveness. While many of us have reading that we want to savor, most academic reading does not fall into that category. Students are busy, and classes can be demanding. The more efficient you can make your reading process, the more time you’ll have for the non-reading tasks on your list.

But speed is not the only standard you’re aiming for. You want your reading to be effective. That is, you want to comprehend what you are reading and have the kinds of notes that will make the text useful. If you aren’t reading effectively, there’s nothing efficient about it.

Once you’ve found the best setting for your reading, use it. Develop a routine of reading and studying at about the same time and in the same place as much as you can. Doing this will help the activity become a habit, and once that happens, reading will be even easier and more effective.

Key Points: Creating an Optimal Setting for Reading

  • Find a time, place, and format for reading that helps you focus on the text.
  • To read effectively, limit your distractions, including your phone.

Text Attributions

This chapter contains material taken from the chapter “Creating an Optimal Setting for Reading” from The Word on College Reading and Writing by Carol Burnell, Jaime Wood, Monique Babin, Susan Pesznecker, and Nicole Rosevear and is used under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license.

Material in this section was revised with the help of Wilmani Castillo, Paul Goggin, Max Jeremic, Tia Lidonde and Eddileidy Tejeda, students in my class during Fall 2022.

Media Attributions

“La Trobe Reading Room at State Library, Melbourne, Australia – 02/05/2017” is used under a CC0 1.0 Public Domain license.


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Reading and Writing Successfully in College: A Guide for Students Copyright © 2023 by Patricia Lynne is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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