Reading Comprehension and the College Student with ADHD

Understanding and remembering what you read is not only a personal rush, it saves you a lot of valuable time! Rereading the same material over and over is a sink hole that will drag you down and keep you from having enough time to get all of your assignments done. So what’s a better way?

Active Reading Strategies

Active reading simply means “getting involved” when you read something. Instead of just letting the words roll past your eyes while your mind goes somewhere else, active reading engages your brain in the material you’re reading.

In order to get your brain fully engaged, you will need to give up the idea that reading is a spectator sport! Reading is as full engagement as it gets – if you really are reading. Just staring at a page, thinking about a million other things and watching the clock isn’t reading, it’s wasting your time.

Step 1 – Mindset and Purpose

Ok, so how do you turn reading into a participant sport! The first step is to get super clear on why reading this material has personal meaning for you! The reason or reasons can be different for each assignment.

Dig beneath the obvious (and totally useless) reasons such as “The prof assigned it.” and “I have to.” Your ADHD brain won’t care about what you have to do until the absolute last minute – and that will be too late!

You’ll need a real reason to read the assignment. Reasons come in two flavors: carrots and sticks! “Carrots” are rewards and “sticks” are negative consequences. Here are a few real reasons that might be true for you:


  • I want to be ready for the class discussion so I’ll have something meaningful to say
  • I can become the class expert on this small part of the course material
  • If I get a good grade in this class, my reward will be (really cool thing you want!)
  • This class is the gateway to the advanced classes I’m really interested in – I’m not going to miss out on those advanced classes.


  • I don’t have time to read this again and again – I’ll miss out on (something you want to do)
  • I’ve got to pass this class or else I can’t (important thing you want!)
  • If I get another bad grade I’ll be embarrassed (or I’ll have to explain it to my parents)

Step 2 – Pre-reading Strategies

In just the same way that you’d warm up before working out, you’ll get a lot better traction in comprehending what you read if you do a few basic “warm ups” before you start.

  • Quickly flip through the assignment and evaluate the length and difficulty; estimate how long you’ll need to read the material; make a plan for how to structure your time.
  • Read the introduction, objectives, vocabulary terms, questions and summary. This will give you the general idea of what you’re going to read about and prime your brain.
  • Activate your prior knowledge by recalling what you know about the topic.
  • Make predictions about the content. This will help you get engaged by turning reading into a challenge to determine whether your predictions are right!
  • “Hack” into an interesting motif to keep things exciting – if you’re competitive, image you’re playing Jeopardy; if you like to dance, think about how to choreograph the reading; use funny accents as you read out loud – go “off the wall” and have some fun with it – it will keep you interested!

Step 3 – Active Reading Engagement

Ok, it’s time for the main event! You’ll be actively putting it all together and fulfilling your reading purpose!

  • Turn headings and subheadings into written questions and answers! This will help you actively engage with the material and a nice byproduct will be the study guide you create as you go along.
  • Turn on the visuals! Create mental images of everything – this engages the visual/spatial areas of your brain and wakes you up!
  • Get involved! – agree, argue, be suspicious, make comments, identify confusing points.
  • After you finish reading each paragraph, summarize in your own words without referring to the text. If you can’t do that, reconnect to your purpose, reread and try again! DON’T just mindlessly keep going. You can write down your summary.
  • At the end of every section, answer the question you posed from the heading before you began reading; write down the answer.
  • Add essential terms and their definitions to your notes.
  • Feel free to use mind mapping to supplement your written notes – activating your visual/spatial and geometric thinking turns on more brain circuits and keeps you more alert and interested.
  • At the end of the reading, summarize the 3-5 most important points. If you can’t do it, read your notes and try again.
  • Reading comprehension is a memory activity. Check out this memory article for more tips that will help you remember what you read.

Step 4 – Reinforcement (aka “Studying”)

  • The next time you read an assignment for this class, devote the first 5 minutes to recalling from memory what you read in the previous assignment.
  • Next, read the notes you took. This process solidifies the information in your mind.
  • If you use active reading strategies and the memory strategies in this article, studying for tests and finals will go much easier and smoother!

Active reading and memory strategies make all the difference in whether you are learning the material and effectively preparing for tests and finals or just wasting your time! Your time in college is precious. You still have to work hard, of course, but your efforts will be successful. If you use the right strategies you’ll learn more, get higher grades, and have more time for other things!


Dr. Kari Miller, PhD, BCET is a board certified educational therapist and ADHD coach who has been educating and coaching adults and young people who have ADHD, autism, learning disabilities, emotional challenges, and other complex needs for more than twenty-five years.  She holds a PhD in educational psychology and mathematical statistics, an MEd in Learning Disabilities, Gifted Education and Educational Diagnosis, and a BS in Early Childhood Education and Behavior Disorders. Dr. Miller provides support across the lifespan – to school-aged students with learning and attention challenges, to young adults in transition to college or the workplace, and to women with ADHD who have passionate dreams, but are frustrated by procrastination, lack of focus and difficulty following through.

    • Mars
    • January 29, 2020

    the ironic thing is that I couldn’t keep my focus long enough to read a full paragraph on how to make myself actually read…

      • Darren
      • April 2, 2020

      I feel this – idk how its been for you but for me it takes forever to want to even get started. Let alone, actually read. I found the above method actually super helpful. Step 1 (purpose/rewards) is probably the best thing for my education career ever.

      When it said reward, I knew what to do. I love collecting things, and I also love a game I play that is a bit like a mobile game. Everytime I read 30 pages or complete a task that is part of a larger series of a goal or paper, I reward myself with $1 in that game to purchase in-game items.

      This isn’t more than $5 dollars/day so if you can afford it I’d try it out 🙂 When I couldn’t, I rewarded myself with time playing. That was before I was on my stimulant so now I’m a bit more careful with time (or try to be)

      I hope this might be helpful!

      • Vio
      • March 25, 2020


      • Mess
      • February 25, 2020


    • miglesias
    • October 25, 2017

    Excellent article!
    Dr. Miller is an indispensable expert opinion in my self-advocacy for implementation of my approved accommodations while pursuing my graduate degree at Harvard.

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